Small Wars Journal

Want to Reform Special Operations? First, Seek to Understand the Mindset

Wed, 12/02/2020 - 9:41am

Want to Reform Special Operations? First, Seek to Understand the Mindset


By Aaron Bazin and Karla Mastracchio


From the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound to operations surrounding the death of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani earlier this year, special operations often grab the headlines.  In recent years, some of these headlines have been salacious:  Murder Trials. War Crimes. Drug Crimes.Marine Raiders and Navy Corpsman charged with Manslaughter, and Inquiry Finds Soldiers Unprepared in Niger. This has brought attention to the activities of members of this community and begged some difficult-to-answer questions in many minds. Some analysts argue that American policymakers default to the use of special forces too often and without adequate consideration for the second- and third-order effects.

Here, American policymakers must weigh many risks in the development, oversight, and use special operations to protect and advance the nation’s interests.  If they hope to do so from an informed position, they must understand what makes special operators tick — their mindset. In this article, we present original research into the creeds the special operations community uses during selection and training as an indicator of their inherent mindset.  The purpose of doing so is to provide new insight into how special operations approach some of today’s most wicked military problems.

Creeds of the Special Operations Community: The DNA of Mindset

            The military has no shortage of creeds and oaths. Once a person enters U.S. military service, they take the oath of office promising to support and defend the constitution.  Then, usually in their initial training, they learn one or more creeds or oaths that vary based on their chosen service branch.  From there, if the service member decides to join the Special Operations community, there are more oaths and creeds they learn to shape their behavior.  In some circumstances, trainers ask the aspiring special operator to repeat the creeds multiple times or memorize them word-for-word. However, these creeds do much more than help communicate what to do.  They convey important messages about the mindset the organization expects them to display throughout their career as members of a tight-knit and elite community.     

Overall, special operations selection processes seek to identify those who display the critical traits operators need, such as the ability to operate as team members, individuals, and leaders, all without close supervision.  For some sub-communities within special operations, this includes an appraisal of the individual’s aptitude and motivation to work by, with, and through indigenous forces and populations.  Following selection, specialized training provides these service members additional knowledge, skills, and abilities they require to perform their missions.  Finally, once a qualified member of the community enters the force, their unit plays a tremendous role in the formation of their mindset and subsequent behavior as a special operator.

The rhetorician, Kenneth Burke asserted that all humans are “symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animals.”  To put it simply, it means that language and our ability to understand and use (or misinterpret) language, signs and symbols are what set humans apart and what best defines what it means to be human. What happens when we understand the SOF creeds as symbolic texts?  It is through symbolic texts like the SOF creeds that SOF culture is grounded.

While creeds and oaths give us insight into the normative behaviors and expectations of SOF, it also gives us an insight into one of the ways the SOF culture and SOF identity are created. To understand mindset means also to first understand the language that helps create the SOF identity and significantly influence how operators see the world and the choices they may make.

Communication and cultural studies have produced research for decades unpacking the power of language, narrative and rituals as being essential to creating culture. Researchers have long argued that the narratives that exist in a society shape reality for that population and influence how they understand the world. Naming is important. That is, what something is called and the importance it is given dictates how people act and rules and policies they make toward them.  Those that study language call this “the politics of naming.” Because words matter, there are real world consequences and brick-and-mortar effects resulting from linguistic choices. How we talk about someone dictates how we treat them. Because the words we use have consequences, there are real world and tangible effects resulting from rhetorical choices, something that rhetoric and communication scholars call the “the materiality of language.”

SOF selection, training, and eventually assimilation into a unit, quite literally transforms a person into a special operator who is part of a larger narrative and history that predates herself or himself. Through the completion of this process, the SOF operator takes an additional identity that has unintentional consequences, both positive and negative

To understand the power of an effective narrative, is to understand rhetoric, and subsequently, culture. Rhetoric is more than just language. It is language in use. Aristotle defined rhetoric as the use of the available means of persuasion. In other words, it is language that ‘does,’ something, whether it inspires new actions or changes behavior, changes in the way a population understands their national or collective identity, or that when used, creates something tangible.

Examining the rhetoric of SOF creeds through qualitative and discourse analysis is crucial to understand how the SOF identity is constructed. In short, understanding foundational texts of the SOF community, like the creeds, helps understand culture and, ultimately, the reality in which operators’ live. To understand culture, we need to understand how identity is constructed and how rhetoric works.

Creeds function as rhetorical building blocks for the values, ethics, morals and overall culture of the SOF community. For many researchers that study language, the rhetorical toolkit can provide the analyst with a set of tools to help solve problems and offer insight to better understanding cultural phenomena.

SOF creeds, it can be argued, are part of a larger SOF discourse or narrative. According to Aristotle, there are three main purposes for discourse: to delight, instruct, and to move or encourage action. The SOF creeds, as demonstrated above, aim to do all three. Understanding what the creeds mean, therefore, is only partially useful. Understanding creeds as they are used is crucial for understanding how SOF culture is produced.

Culture is not something that is produced and instantly absorbed. It is learned. it is also situational and dynamic. Rhetorical texts and the way those texts are interpreted shape how the SOF operator sees the world, what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is unacceptable. By understanding the creeds as a set of values rather than a static text, we are able to see the important cultural work that creeds do. In other words, we can see their strategic function by looking at how they are used along with what they say.

The SOF creeds can be understood as a key rhetorical tool that constructs identity at the individual and collective levels. They are a set of texts that are collectively recited and communicate a shared belief system, which serves as a vehicle for social engineering, ordering experience and telling the audience what they should value.

The Special Operations Mindset: What Did the Research Show?

            We conducted research into each creed special operations forces use during the various selection and training processes.  The assumption is that they describe, as an aggregate, what mindset the community wishes to instill in young men and women aspiring to join its ranks.  We analyzed the creeds of the following entry routes into the special operations community: (a) Army Rangers, (b) Army Special Forces (Green Berets), (c) Navy (Sea, Air, and Land) SEALs, (d) Aviation Task Force-160 (TF 160), Naval Surface Warfare Combat Crewman (NSWCC), (e) U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Raiders, and (f) Air Force Para Rescue (PJs)

            First, we found that the reading grade level varied from the post-graduate to the seventh grade, but, in general, the community has written its creeds at the high school level, or the level of a typical newspaper.  Looking at each creed in detail using a grounded theory research methodology to create a model, we identified 186 different messages that fell into 26 separate categories. 

            Next, we looked for themes in the data.  We found that the most common messages spoke to the need to have a “warrior mindset” and to be honorable.  The next major theme that emerged highlighted the need for the new member of the community to be a team player, often putting the team before self. The final two themes discussed the need to be exceptional in all things and the need to lead others.  Then, we took these six themes and organized them into a conceptual model. (See figure below). 

Figure – U.S. Special Operations Mindset Model (Source: Authors)


Next, the analysis then expanded upon this by developing an operational definition using the thematic areas this research identified as its components as follows (in the first person): I am an honorable and exceptional warrior--one who is a consummate team player, an effective leader, and a patriot.  As a further description, the following definitions emerged as descriptions of each thematic area in the first person as self-affirming statements:

•     Warrior – I successfully engage in hostile armed conflict.

•     Honorable – I maintain a superior professional reputation.

•     Team Player – I work well with others and put my team before myself.

•     Exceptional – I display excellence, both physically and mentally.

•     Patriot – I am committed to serving the nation.

•     Leader – I create the conditions necessary for others to follow.

Overall, we cannot say that the many different individuals and communities that constitute the U.S. special operations community share one unified mindset.  However, we can say that the creeds that aspiring members often memorize and repeat daily during selection and training indicate certain unique aspects of mindset. They may have a deeper meaning when one digs beneath the surface.

Key Findings: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

            Overall, our research indicates that the creeds that U.S. special operations community uses during selection and training create a mindset that emphasizes honor, exceptional performance, and being a team player, leader, and a patriot.  All of these traits are vital to success on the battlefield.  It makes sense, that this is the reason why selection and assessment programs reinforce these traits.

Mindset matters. Fundamentally, if senior leaders can better understand the way U.S. special operators approach the world, if they are to apply these forces appropriately.  By selecting special people, giving them special training, and providing them with special technology, special operations forces can accomplish incredible things, even under extraordinarily dangerous and challenging circumstances.  Nevertheless, when the best of the best fall short, it is for the special operations community to stop and reflect. As a precursor to action, understanding what influences and shapes U.S. special operations plays a central role in the exercising due diligence in application.  

Arguably, most American policymakers hold the special operations community in high regard.   Right or wrong, today’s policymakers have come to rely heavily on the unique capabilities the special operations community provides.  However, as much of what these forces do happens in the shadows, the community must continually learn, hold itself accountable, and get better.  Understanding the special operations mindset is vital for policymakers if they are to apply this powerful tool prudently. However, in doing so, senior leaders and the special operations community must also never lose sight that with this great power comes an even greater responsibility to do what is right.   


DOD Disclaimer: In accordance with 5 CFR 2635.807, the disclaimer certifies the views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD, USSOCOM, or its components.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Aaron A. Bazin is currently the Managing Director of the Donovan Strategy and Innovation Group, U.S. Special Operations Command.   

Dr. Karla Mastracchio is senior faculty and director of strategic communication at Joint Special Operations University. 



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:37am

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