Once again the name of this Army base, with its special resonance as home of the Special Forces, has risen to the surface of the nation's consciousness. As the hijackers took TWA's aircraft to Beirut, elite elements of Fort Bragg's forces took off for the eastern Mediterranean. Because of these Special Forces and other elite units, this base is a reminder of the constant war against America that Americans only intermittently acknowledge.
The Special Forces suffered disproportionately and undeservedly from the Vietnam bitterness. John Kennedy expressed his admiration for elitism and his interest in unconventional warfare by making the green beret a symbol of excellence. But the intllectuals who followed in Kennedy's slipstream shed their convictions -- if they had such -- when they lost their patron. They had applauded, and even written, the rhetoric that underlay Kennedy's revitalization of the Special Forces: "We shall go any place, bear any burden, pay any price . . . ." In a twinkling they became disparagers of the rhetoric and, in two twinklings, of him. At Fort Bragg, they keep the flame that his sycophants abandoned.
Some Americans, mesmerized by the "lessons" of Vietnam, as they choose to misunderstand them, regard the Special Forces as a fuse that leads to an explosive involvement of U.S. conventional forces. The theory is that Kennedy's misplaced confidence in counterinsurgency put America on the slippery slope into the Indochina quagmire. These same Americans continue to regard the Special Forces as the thin end of the large wedge of U.S. involvement.
The men in the ranks of the Special Forces have a dra different and almost prosaic conception of their profession. They are, indeed, trained and equipped for, among other things, short-duration, high-violence missions. However, their primary duty, which keeps them busy around the world, is long-term and nonviolent. It is teaching internal defense to Third World nations under attack.
Founded in 1942, the first Special Forces unit was trained for sabotage operations in Norway. But it fought its fiercest battle near Naples. The problem has always been to match the Special Forces' competence to a mission. Today the focus is on MTTs -- Military Training Teams -- that are conducting training around the world, serving as "force multipliers" for the West. If Special Forces are successful in one-tenth of their training efforts (and they do much better than that), it is a bargain at the price, which is one-tenth of 1 percent of the defense budget.
Army officers know that joining the Special Forces takes them off the Army's traditional career path. Perhaps they are too acquainted with bullets and not sufficiently schooled in the arts of bureaucracy for today's military. As a Defense Department supporter of Special Forces says, the Army has a long record of preferring people such as McClellan, Pope and Burnside before stumbling upon the Grants and Shermans who win the wars.
Nevertheless, the Special Forces have high morale, for two reasons. First, many are volunteers four times over. They have volunteered for the Army, for airborne training, for the Special Forces and for some special skill, such as underwater operations or free-fall parachuting. Second, they know they may be used, as in Grenada. That operation is still paying incalculable dividends in morale. As one Green Beret puts it, a tank driver at Ford Hood, Texas, knows that he is part of general deterrence but that he will not see action unless there is a major war. Some of Ft. Bragg's units know they may be winging off to Cyprus at the first word of a hijacking.
However, there are three aspects of anti- terrorism: prevention, rescue, retaliation. When prevention has failed, decisions must be taken quickly, and generally by other governments, to make rescue even remotely possible. If the tires of TWA's jet had been shot flat when it first landed in Algiers, before the two terrorists acquired armed helpers and flew on to a safe haven in Beirut, there might have been a moment in which the Delta force from Fort Bragg could have been used.
As for retaliation, we have the necessary military assets. We have the requisite information regarding appropriate targets -- Syrian -- belonging to a nation that is culpable, in this sense: it could stop much of the Lebanon-based terrorism if it wanted to. We lack -- at least we have lacked -- only the political will to act. It is not the military's fault that when terrorists throw down gauntlets to the United States, U.S. policy has been to hope that they run out of gauntlets.