The Buzz

The 5 Biggest U.S. Special Operations Disasters

Since World War II, the U.S. military has experimented with special-operations forces, small groups of warriors with the equipment and training to undertake extremely difficult missions. In effect, special forces exist to leverage human capital in unusual tactical situations. Soldiers selected for high physical and mental capabilities, then intensively trained, can theoretically achieve objectives that normal soldiers cannot.

The successes of special operators are well known; they include, most notably, the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. But special operations have always faced criticism from more conventionally oriented parts of the military. The basic tradeoff involves the loss of human capital that regular line units suffer when their best soldiers and officers join special-forces formations. Training resources dedicated to special operators may also, in some cases, shortchange conventional forces.

There are also organizational problems; while some commanders have proven overly conservative regarding the use of special operators (keeping them out of the fight in anticipation of some unknown job on the horizon), others have expended special forces in conventional operations, where the high human capital of the units has limited effect. And politicians, with a limited sense of military utility, tend to find special operations attractive without fully evaluating their costs.

In his new book Oppose Any Foe, Mark Moyar turns a critical eye on the history of U.S. special forces, taking seriously the costs that developing such units imposes on the rest of the military, and taking account the strategic limitations of special operations. Moyar argues, among other things, that the glamor and undeniable heroism of special operators has helped deflect scrutiny of some of their more egregious failures, and of the special-operations enterprise as a whole.

Here are five of the most disastrous raids in the history of U.S. special-operations forces:

The Makin Atoll Raid

In August 1942, the recently formed Marine Second Raider Battalion launched its first raid, against Japanese-held Makin Atoll in the South Pacific. Submarines delivered 222 specially selected and trained Marines within distance of the island; their mission was to attack and destroy Japanese installations, thus sowing a sense of strategic vulnerability in the Japanese high command.

The Raiders quickly lost the element of surprise, but nevertheless managed to inflict some casualties on the defending Japanese. The commander, Evans Carlson, decided that the remaining Japanese resistance was too stiff to accomplish the main objectives, which included the destruction of radio sets. However, the unit’s efforts to leave the island were stymied by high seas; only a small contingent were capable of swimming back to the waiting submarines.

When day broke, the Americans discovered that most of the Japanese were, in fact, dead. The Marines destroyed the remaining Japanese facilities, and a submarine returned to pick up the survivors. Unfortunately, at least one boat could not survive the surf. Altogether, thirty of the Marines committed to the operation died, with many more injured. The middling success of the raid gave U.S. commanders a sour taste regarding further such operations in the Pacific.

North Korea: Hill 205

On November 25, 1950, as part of the broader U.S. offensive into North Korea, the Eighth Ranger Battalion, a unit established in August, was assigned the job of capturing and defending Hill 205, along the Chongchon River. Unbeknownst to the Americans, regular Chinese forces had infiltrated North Korea in great numbers, and were preparing to launch a major counteroffensive.

The use of special operators (even when hastily assembled) as the spearhead of a conventional offensive was neither new nor outside the traditional missions of such units; similar units had regularly undertaken such jobs in World War II. But the risks in such an approach soon became evident, as the Rangers took serious casualties attacking a hill with a stouter-than-expected defense. The situation grew worse when the counterattack came; Chinese infantry and artillery swamped the Rangers’ defenses during the night of November 25, in six separate assaults. Eighty-eight Rangers attacked Hill 205; forty-seven survived to defend it; only twenty-one left the hill alive.

The performance of the Eighth Ranger Battalion was undoubtedly heroic, but not so much better than a regular infantry battalion as to make the sacrifice worth it. The commitment and massacre of many of the Army’s best soldiers caused little more than a hiccup in the Chinese advance.

Operation Eagle Claw: Escape from Tehran

As the hostage crisis in Tehran drew on, the Carter administration began to consider military options for resolving the standoff. A conventional attack on the Iranians seemed to make little sense, and there was not much reason to believe that a coercive air campaign could force the Islamic Republic to give up the hostages.

The military responded with a plan to rescue the hostages by air, using primarily Rangers and Delta Force operatives. The complex raid involved landing helicopters near the embassy grounds, incapacitating or killing the Iranian guards, then loading the hostages into the aircraft before regular Iranian forces could react. It was carefully orchestrated, and needed to be; one wrong step could either result in the deaths of dozens of hostages, or the addition of a few special operations to the hostage list.