March 30, 2012

Man of War

Since the death of Osama bin Laden, journalists have with varying success attempted to piece together the details of the raid on his compound in Abbottabad. But the tale of the Navy SEALs' success actually begins on a cold desert runway in Iran some 30 years earlier, when a planned military rescue of the U.S. hostages held in Tehran ended in flames and ignominy. In the wake of the disaster, the U.S. military set about creating the task force—the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)—that infiltrated into Pakistan last May, killed the world's most wanted criminal, and returned with his body and no U.S. casualties.

JSOC, like most of our special-operations forces, is shrouded in secrecy. Episodes such as the Abbottabad raid or the events documented in "Black Hawk Down" get plenty of the attention, but there is very little public knowledge of how special-operations forces carry out their work or of the half-century effort to develop a joint doctrine of special-operations tactics and techniques. It is an important story, and few men loom as large in it as Maj. Richard J. Meadows.

Meadows (1931-95) enlisted in the Army at 15 with the help of a forged birth certificate. He fought in Korea as a preposterously young master sergeant and in 1953 volunteered for a new unit being raised for long-range penetration operations, the Special Forces. He would go on to be involved in some of the most audacious acts of the Vietnam War, including the revered 1972 Son Tay raid where 56 Special Forces soldiers sought to rescue prisoners of war held in Hanoi—it failed only because the POWs had been moved shortly before the mission kicked off. Like most such operations of the day, it was carried out not by a permanent command but by an ad hoc task force.

Yet for all the daring of events like the Son Tay raid, Meadows spent most of his career in the "schoolhouse." When he wasn't taking part in the months of preparation and rehearsals that precede the execution of a single special-operations raid (and the many that never went beyond the planning stage), he was training the next generation of "Green Berets" and Rangers.

Meadows retired in 1977 but was instrumental in the establishment of Delta Force—intended to be the world's pre-eminent counterterror force—serving for two years as its first training adviser. Then, in an incredible denouement, despite having no training in clandestine operations, he lived under cover as an Irish businessman in Tehran and coordinated the attempted rescue of the U.S. hostages in Iran. (The story of his escape after the operation went awry is a case study in coolness under a different kind of fire.) Meadows went on to help train Latin American militaries before dying of leukemia in 1995.

One could almost tell the entire story of the development of America's special-operations forces through Meadows's life. Alan Hoe, a former British commando and close friend of Meadows, unfortunately misses this opportunity. He prefers relating stories of Meadows's exploits to examining his place in military history. He lets his sources fill page after page with unedited testimony. Describing the development of free-fall parachuting, for example, he simply reproduces a six-page first-person account written by a contemporary of Meadows.

Mr. Hoe also rarely provides the reader with the context for the stories he is narrating. He notes, for example, that John F. Kennedy's death was deeply mourned within the special-operations community. How many readers will know that Kennedy, prescient about the future character of warfare in the post-colonial era, was instrumental in founding the Navy SEAL teams and gave the Special Forces their iconic green berets?

"The Quiet Professional" includes a lot of detail on specific missions but few insights into how special-operations forces are employed strategically. The book shows how remarkable a man Meadows was—and how he popped up, Zelig-like, at every critical junction in the development of special-operations forces—but not what purpose such men serve in modern warfare. Peter Schoomaker, who rose from special-forces officer to Chief of Staff of the Army, called Meadows "the bravest man I have ever known." But bravery is not the reason Dick Meadows deserves a biography. There is a larger story to be written.