Correction to This Article
A March 12 Book World review of Derek Leebaert's "To Dare and to Conquer" incorrectly identified Eben Emael as a Dutch fortress. It was a Belgian fortress defended by Belgian troops.
The Commando Option
Small groups of audacious soldiers have repeatedly shown the military value of the unexpected.

Reviewed by Wesley K. Clark
Sunday, March 12, 2006


Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations, from Achilles to Al Qaeda

By Derek Leebaert

Little, Brown. 673 pp. $29.95

Derek Leebaert's To Dare and to Conquer offers a dramatic thesis: that "special operations" -- not the massive thrusts of conventional armies but daring, small, commando missions -- have repeatedly changed the course of human events. To prove this, Leebaert takes the reader on a fascinating tour of Western military history, from the siege of Troy through the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Leebaert is well-equipped for the task: He's a professor of government at Georgetown University, a frequent consultant to U.S. government agencies, a familiar participant in Washington's national security chatter and the author of a highly regarded book on the Cold War, The Fifty-Year Wound . His ambitious new book not only chronicles military history but also provides readers with a political, diplomatic, technical and cultural tide of events; taken together, this rush of facts, states, empires and timelines constitutes nothing less than an overview of Western civilization. The reader is introduced to Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, of course, but also meets the Carolingians, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Huguenots, Joan of Arc, Cortez, Pizarro and the pirates of the Caribbean. After more than 250 pages, we arrive at the American Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Civil War and, by around page 450, World War II. This shows admirable sweep; Leebaert spends almost as much time putting the conflicts in context as he does describing the special operations themselves.

Within those contexts, he offers nuggets of incredibly bold, decisive special actions -- from taking down castles to robbing Spanish gold -- that attest not only to soldiers' ingenuity and daring but also to the value of the unexpected in military operations. Here is Alexander, the conqueror of Egypt, Persia and most of the known world, encamped with his army in scorched-earth countryside on the border between present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan and being defied by a local chieftain named Oxyartes, who was secure in a three-mile-high, apparently impenetrable mountain fastness known as the Sogdian Rock, with 30,000 warriors, two years worth of food and enough deep snow to provide unlimited water. Alexander had been dealt a losing hand, but he turned it into victory by creating a 300-man special forces detachment, equipped with iron tent pegs in place of pitons (which had not yet been invented), that scaled the sheerest part of the cliffs in a snowstorm and darkness. Thirty of Alexander's men fell. And then, "270 rock-bodied, frozen, dagger-armed madmen rose along the crest, and the great gates creaked open in subjugation."

It isn't just astonishing physical courage or battlefield skills that distinguish most of these special operations. Rather, it is an unorthodox approach, "out-of-the-box" thinking and a willingness to take extraordinary risks with a small force if they can achieve spectacular results. Consider one British Royal Navy captain, Sidney Smith, who was ordered "to remove the French from Egypt" after Napoleon Bonaparte conquered it in 1798. Smith recruited a thousand Balkan mercenaries and led them to the Levant to reinforce the fortress at Acre (a coastal town near today's Haifa); en route, he captured vital French siege guns and, with a daring defense, halted Napoleon's advance. "With Acre captured, I could have reached Constantinople and India," Bonaparte later said bitterly. "I could have changed the fate of the world." For Britain, no more cost-effective protection of India could have been imagined.

In example after example, Leebaert cites special operations that turned a battle, wrecked a port, took down a dynasty and changed history. The reader is left wondering -- which was surely the author's intent -- how any really difficult military mission could ever have succeeded without special operations. And familiar historical events such as Cortez's conquest of Mexico and Pizarro's takeover of Peru seem more clearly understood when explained as examples of special operations.

Leebaert's mastery of his material is particularly evident in his final chapters, when he discusses special operations in World War II and after. Here, he's not just recounting some amazing exploits -- the Nazis' 1940 airborne attack on the Dutch fortress Eben Emael, the feats of Britain's Long Range Desert Group, America's shootdown of the plane carrying Pearl Harbor's architect, Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. Leebaert also considers organizational questions and comes face-to-face with the issues that have repeatedly plagued U.S. special operations efforts: the problem of obtaining sufficient intelligence to act and enough counterintelligence to protect the operations; the turf wars over command and control of such efforts; the political tensions between what looks like a glamorous, low-cost approach and the slow, painstaking effort that it actually takes to build a competent commando force.

Leebaert scores some solid hits here. What actually was achieved by U.S. special ops in Eastern Europe, Korea and Vietnam? Very little, he argues. For years during the Cold War, the United States dispatched teams (including not just fighters but also ammunition and communication tools) behind the Iron Curtain to assist East European freedom fighters; without exception, the teams seem to have been compromised, whereupon they were captured and eliminated. Washington got no better results against North Vietnam, either.

What happens when government agencies fight over the policy direction and control of commando forces? Inevitable failure, according to Leebaert. He also encourages readers not to see more commandos as a panacea, which is an obvious temptation; after all, since Leebaert convincingly argues that daring, adaptable special forces are essential to modern warfare and defense, why not pump in resources and build them up quickly? Because it takes special people, patient years of preparation and a particular culture. And even then, Leebaert notes, the effort to build a sizable force of special operators is likely to weed out the very qualities -- like recklessness and a certain disdain for conventional thinking -- that most successful special operations have in common.

A few warnings to the reader are probably in order. To Dare and to Conquer has a truly broad scope, and it often involves a lot more "telling" than "showing." It's largely Western-oriented, so there's no Sun Tzu, Genghis Khan or Tamerlane here. There's also little on the Soviet Union's spetsnaz ("special purpose") forces, beyond Leebaert's assertion that they were among the best in the world. The reader is left wondering whether the Soviets were really any good -- especially since the seven spetsnaz units of around 250 men each deployed to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the anti-Soviet mujaheddin "found themselves bayoneting smoke."

That raises a painful question: Even now, with the most modern technology, are U.S. special forces any better? Has the dismal record of U.S. efforts in Korea and Vietnam really been replaced by brilliant commando successes in the war on terrorism? In fact, despite Leebaert's obvious -- indeed, almost fawning -- admiration for the cunning, skill and daring of special operators throughout history, his is a cautionary tale for the United States: Don't look for cheap, easy solutions; don't think that cowboy tactics like torturing opponents will work; don't assume that you can build up the right capabilities overnight; and above all, don't believe that a few daring men (or women) at the cutting edge can resolve the contradictions and dilemmas associated with faulty policies and poor decision-making at the top.

So -- aside from the amazing stories of long-forgotten or dimly understood battles -- this is a book well worth reading for its take on questions that linger, especially as the United States approaches its fourth year in the war in Iraq and its fifth year in the war on terror. Leebaert never quite comes to grip with one issue that arises again and again from his book's pages: whether special ops are compatible with the democratic values we've professed as a nation and whether, by increasingly emphasizing special operations -- with their emphasis on stealth, deniability and "hard men" -- we may be creating the kind of force that will degrade much of what has made us special as a nation. But he certainly suggests that the United States still has some important lessons to learn from the past. One hopes that it's not too late to do so. ยท

Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general, was supreme allied commander in Europe during the war in Kosovo and a candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. He is the author of "Waging Modern War."

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