Best Defense

Naylor’s book is very good, but I’ve got some issues with the people who blabbed

Sean Naylor’s Relentless Strike is a superb piece of writing that will be at the top of every bad guy’s reading list for months to come.

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By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense book reviewer

DISCLAIMER. I provided material and insights to Sean Naylor regarding the early days of Special Operations Forces (SOF) and was part of the community addressed.

Sean Naylor’s Relentless Strike is a superb piece of writing that will be at the top of every bad guy’s reading list for months to come. It is an exceptionally well written, lucid and comprehensive account as to the rise and supremacy of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) on today’s battlefields. It was obviously put together with painstaking detail by the author who received extraordinary “inside baseball” help from past and present real world operators. This is a conflictive quality.

Historically, the operational personnel associated with SOF elements have been self-termed, the Quiet Professionals. This book clearly indicates the obverse — that is, many operators gave a whole lot more than “no comment” to Mr. Naylor. That input, combined with Naylor’s lucid and detailed writing style has and will create innumerable problems for future operations while broadly but with great detail illuminating past achievements.

There are only so many ways to “take down” an objective, insert in a hostile land, rescue the good or punish the bad, and Naylor provides a treasure trove of detail that will generate significant angst on our side as well as more effective counter-measures by the bad guys.

Most disturbing though is the plethora of names-names of present operators and those recently passed. As in identity theft, these names are freely offered which has grave potential consequences for the identified and their families. It is not known if Mr. Naylor received permission to use these names or chose to independently do so — regardless, there is now a huge personal risk that did not before exist. In his defense, and as a personal comment, Mr. Naylor gave me options regarding usage of my name, from named, to unnamed, to terms in-between. I would hope, as a past member of this community, that those named did not voluntarily associate themselves with the input regarding contemporary operations.

Those points aside, this book is as close to the “real deal” as the Situation Room/Ops Center at Fort Bragg as any non-member will probably ever get. Not only does he outline in granularity, how specific, known ops went down, but somewhat more valuably, why they went down and the background detail prior to execution. From the POTUS to NSC to Gen. McChrystal to Adm. McCraven to Operator X, the reader is the fly on the wall. This, considering the nature and sensitivity of the operations is unique. The end result is that a reader doesn’t know whether to be in awe of the process or to cry for the extent of exposure. In itself, the book is extraordinary and is probably better and more detailed than that which would be produced by the several Command historians.

The book shows the good, bad and ugly of SOF planning, personalities, and execution. It superbly demonstrates and recounts the rise of this force, its internal issues, resolutions and Type A personality leadership and political dynamics with all the Ying and Yang that extraordinarily sensitive operations with National import bring to the game. And that is also its problem.

Naylor superbly recounts how JSOC grew from David to a planetary Goliath on the tactical level. But, it avoids much if any discussion as to why the tactical success has not resulted in a positive strategic outcome. It is this area that would have been a far more fruitful and valuable endeavor. Perhaps a Volume 2 with the same degree of detail and personality input but at the strategic level.

What we now know, is that JSOC is the arguably the most potent tactical force on the planet. It can perform incredible feats of skill and combat creativity as the President may wish. But — so what? In all the various wars with which JSOC has been publicly engaged, as a Nation, we now are arguably worse off than before. Why is this?

Naylor clearly makes a case for the exceptional tactical proficiency of JSOC but there is minimal discussion as to the strategic result. There is a huge and far more important “rest of the story” but it is largely untold.

We are titillated with classified operations, the conflictive discourse among the players, the highly creative tactical applications, the inter-personal dynamics, and organizational nitty-gritty as if we had on the night vision gear in deepest Afghanistan etc. and were holding the commander’s radio. Yet, we are missing the So What? Or the “How come the National leadership blew it?”

What Naylor shows is how hard and how dedicated our SOF forces are as well as their evolution to extraordinary quality as a National asset. Now that we have this, can we develop the quality of strategic decision-making to make their employment and personal risks worthwhile? That is the primary vacuum in this book and its weakness. Perhaps a Volume 2 will be done that identifies in equal detail the strategic machinations that failed the tactical successes.

Col (Ret) Keith Nightingale commanded four infantry companies, three battalions and two brigades. These units included two tours in Vietnam, the Grenada invasion and several classified counter-terrorist operations, including the Iran rescue attempt. He was a founding member of the 1-75th Rangers as well as one of the original members of what is now Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. Col (Ret) Nightingale has written numerous articles regarding the Infantry in both Vietnam and the Desert Wars. He is a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame.   

Photo via Amazon

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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