Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

An Army chief of staff labels Special Forces soldiers ‘fugitives from responsibility,’ too odd for the regulars

I had no idea that an Army chief of staff would feel so anti-Special Forces, and would say so. When I was up at Carlisle I read the oral history that Gen. Harold K. Johnson, who preceded William Westmoreland as Army chief, gave in 1973, and this jumped out at me: The Special Forces…were what ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I had no idea that an Army chief of staff would feel so anti-Special Forces, and would say so. When I was up at Carlisle I read the oral history that Gen. Harold K. Johnson, who preceded William Westmoreland as Army chief, gave in 1973, and this jumped out at me:

The Special Forces...were what I would describe as consisting primarily of fugitives from responsibility. These were people that somehow or other tended to be nonconformists, couldn't get along in a straight military system, and found a haven where their actions were not scrutinized too carefully, and where they came under only sporadic or intermittent observation from the regular chain of command.

Of course, Johnson was speaking a few years after the biggest scandal in Special Forces history, when Col. Robert B. Rheault, the commander of SF in Vietnam, was charged by the Army with murder, only to get the charges dropped because the CIA said it would not allow its people to testify against him. (Rheault supposedly was one of the inspirations for the Marlon Brando character in 'Apocalypse Now.')

I had no idea that an Army chief of staff would feel so anti-Special Forces, and would say so. When I was up at Carlisle I read the oral history that Gen. Harold K. Johnson, who preceded William Westmoreland as Army chief, gave in 1973, and this jumped out at me:

The Special Forces…were what I would describe as consisting primarily of fugitives from responsibility. These were people that somehow or other tended to be nonconformists, couldn’t get along in a straight military system, and found a haven where their actions were not scrutinized too carefully, and where they came under only sporadic or intermittent observation from the regular chain of command.

Of course, Johnson was speaking a few years after the biggest scandal in Special Forces history, when Col. Robert B. Rheault, the commander of SF in Vietnam, was charged by the Army with murder, only to get the charges dropped because the CIA said it would not allow its people to testify against him. (Rheault supposedly was one of the inspirations for the Marlon Brando character in ‘Apocalypse Now.’)

But Johnson also was speaking a few years after My Lai, and you don’t see him condemn all infantrymen because of that.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.