Armed Hostilities

Unconventional Warfare: U.S. Army Leaders’ Attitudes


There are many reasons why the United States of America stays a strong global leader, and the country’s military system is one of them. Today, the U.S. Armed Forces consist of six branches, namely the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard (U.S. Department of Defense n.d.). National Guard, comprised of Army and Air National Guard, introduces the versatile force that supports combats, replies to domestic emergencies, and deals with humanitarian issues. The U.S. military turns out to be a serious political instrument, and its special operation forces become a secret governmental weapon. Delta Forces and Army Rangers perform different tasks under specific conditions. The U.S. Army Special Forces hire quiet professionals to enhance foreign internal defense, counter-terrorism, and unconventional warfare (UW) (U.S. Army n.d.). UW is effective in solving important political or geopolitical questions. Still, some Army senior leaders stay reluctant to apply unconventional warfare in military conflicts. This literature review aims at discussing the role of Special Forces and the Joint Publication 3-05 on the implementation and understanding of unconventional warfare as a reaction to the September 11 attacks and other threats.

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Special Forces in the United States

The development of new international relationships and the process of globalization provoke a number of changes in the political, economic, and military spheres of the United States. Irandoust (2018) proves this type of relationship and explains the need for military expenditure and spending. According to the author, the military strength of any country determines foreign affairs, and defense possibilities play a crucial role in the establishment of internal and external policies (Irandoust 2018). Therefore, the American government is interested in strengthening its military capabilities, and much attention and finances are spent to improve Army Special Forces, also known as Green Berets. This group was firstly formed by the Army Psychological Warfare office in 1952 (Lewton 2018). Its urgency was explained by the necessity to resist fast-spreading communism and Soviet expansionism in Europe and Asia (Lewton 2018). The mission was divided into several logical directions, including UW, direct actions, counterinsurgency, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, and security force assistance (U.S. Army n.d.). It was necessary to prepare people for untraditional tactics to be used in occupied territories. Military skills, language proficiency, and cultural background should be properly developed within each group.

The success of Special Forces usually depends on multiple factors like the level of training, personal attitudes toward military missions, and available equipment and resources. “De Opresso Liber” is a famous motto of U.S. Army Special Forces, meaning freedoms of the oppressed (Rawley 2014). No information about the creation of this slogan is available; still, the main idea of people who join Green Berets believe is to fight for those who cannot protect themselves. Such an attitude toward people (either oppressed or well-protected) makes Special Forces invaluable to the country’s international image. Soldiers are aware of the unpredictable dangers of UW and other tasks and demonstrate their voluntary intention to join the group and protect national values.

Today, the Special Forces of the United States are responsible for a number of military tasks focus on defending the country and promoting fair relationships with other nations. In the majority of cases, soldiers are formed in small and operationally structured teams (U.S. Army n.d.). For example, they respond to various terrorist attacks and prevent incidents that may be detected and approved as a part of the force’s counterinsurgency mission. Direct actions include short-term strikes to capture, recover, or destroy the enemy within a specific area (U.S. Army n.d.). Threats to a country’s security, political sensitivity, and diplomacy are also under the control of Special Forces if conventional forces are not enough to solve problems. To legalize non-conventional training, the U.S. Congress signed Public Law 113-291 under which Special Operation Forces work (Obernier and Sanders 2016). However, there are certain sensitive activities like UW that require additional attention and evaluation because no common attitude has been formed toward this mission.

The Joint Publication 3-05

To make sure that Special Forces act for the public good, it is important to create a guide. In the United States, the Department of Defense (2014) developed the Joint Publication 3-05 and defined “Special Operations” for Green Berets. This official document undergoes certain changes and editions from time to time in accordance with the current economic, political, and social situation in the country. The idea of special operations is to identify and understand unique modes and apply them in hostile environments (U.S. Department of Defense 2014). The core activities of Special Forces are well defined by the President or Secretary of Defense. The Joint doctrine helps to solve policy-making problems and understand unconventional warfare (Maxwell 2014). Military operations may differ from each other, and it is not always possible to clarify what decision or activity should be chosen. Therefore, Army senior leaders and soldiers have to address the current publication and check if they act in accordance with the authorities’ orders or not.

Unconventional Warfare

Diplomatic interaction may have a variety of forms, and the use of military force is one of the options. The United States is known as a holder of one of the most powerful military forces and nuclear deterrents (Maxwell 2014). The country is always ready to participate in fights, solve conflicts, and win globally. Maxwell (2014) correctly admits that the threats the nation continues experiencing in the 21st century are not purely conventional or nuclear, and sometimes, untraditional resolution of affairs is expected. During the last several decades, American politicians apply unconventional warfare as a part of the national strategy to address some grey zone conflicts and reply to unexplainable assaults (Obernier and Sanders 2016). The Joint Publication 3-05 outlines this tactic as operations “to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power” (U.S. Department of Defense 2014, 8). However, such researchers and journalists as Maxwell (2014), Livermore (2017), and Rempfer (2019) question the importance of irregular warfare for the United States because of misunderstanding the main ideas of this type of operation. Therefore, this literature review sheds light upon UW’s history, essence, and ways of implementation.


Unconventional warfare was one of the missions of the U.S. Army Special Forces supported by the Army Psychological Warfare. Its origins could be traced back to 1952 when the American government had to deal with the outcomes of Marxist-Leninist ideology (Lewton 2018). Global leaders were not sure about the correctness and appropriateness of Soviet ideologies, and President John F. Kennedy had to be ready to react in case of an emergency in 1962 (Lewton 2018). In addition, U.S. national security was challenged by the impact of Germany, Japan, and China, whose leaders regularly strengthened their movements and crossed the lines of peaceful international relationships (Sciutto 2019). UW was not only a method to solve a problem or win against the enemy but the evidence that the United States had much power and abilities to resist the global arms race.

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Within a short period, the Soviet Union spread its influence over Eastern Europe and Asia. It was known as the Cold War that lasted from 1945 until 1991 when Soviet leaders established strong coalitions with the Chinese (Lewton 2018). European aggression was unpredictable, and Green Berets were sent to some countries, including Germany and Japan, to build resistance from the inside. UW was successfully applied to a number of operations in El Salvador, Cuba, and Nicaragua (Lewton 2018). However, there were cases when the U.S. government could not identify the power of the enemy, and Green Berets lost. One such example happened on the Bay of Pigs in 1961 when the attempt to invade Cuba and depose the Cuban government was made (Encyclopedia Britannica 2020). If many Special Forces’ operations remained unknown or poorly investigated, that invasion was a failure to discuss at a global level. Livermore (2017) specifies that UW was beneficial for the United States during the Cold War, but its understanding was disordered with time because of the existing political ambitions. The history and military development of the country-influenced the implementation of UW.


There are many reasons for approving UW’s progress in the United States. Since the formation of Special Forces, the U.S. Department of Defense (2014) defined it as “operations and activities that are conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency” (xi). To achieve the required goals, the application of “an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area” is approved (U.S. Department of Defense 2014, xi). Green Berets had to be involved in many combat operations during World War II or the Korean War. The essence was to enhance security and control enemy lines that could change adversarial regimes (U.S. Department of Defense 2014). Sometimes, it is enough to use UW to support local groups that resist the government. In some cases, Special Forces believe that UW should overthrow the local authority and protect the locals. Unfortunately, even the most experienced soldiers cannot control all the events and consequences in battles, and risks to human life or international crises are hard to avoid.

In addition to war affairs, Special Forces are necessary to manage terrorism and insurgency. Therefore, the U.S. Department of Defense (2014) purports UW as a means of synchronization of Special Operation Forces, conventional forces, and unified action. Green Berets are good at blowing up bridges and organizing conventional sabotages, not allowing Chinese or Russian impact to spread around the globe (Rempfer 2019). The United States was not the only country that likes to play against the rules. The official approval of UW in international military affairs turns out to be a good method to show other countries what Americans could do.


As well as any military strategy, UW needs to be properly planned and analyzed in terms of available resources and deadlines. To achieve successful results, the U.S. Department of Defense (2014) admits the necessity of extensive coordination and planning. As much as it is important to find and train people, UW is based on thorough assessments and re-integration processes. Green Berets cannot break into a foreign country and expect to achieve the goals in a short period. The implementation of UW or other military decisions consists of a number of steps to understand the changes in the political environment (Irandoust 2017). They include the analysis of opposition groups and their support systems, investigation of the enemy’s plans and possible steps, and identification of extremist elements in the hostile area (U.S. Department of Defense 2014). With the rise of globalization and other international trends, UW preparations have to be improved.

Although Special Forces operations are not the only elements of political warfare strategies, they show what relationships the country develops at the moment of implementation. For example, in the 1950s, the United States confronted the Soviet Union, and UW was directed to restrain communism and similar powerful ideologies in Europe and Asia (Livermore 2017). Pro-China messaging has been observed as soon as the country publicly demonstrated its national capabilities (Livermore 2017; Rempfer 2019). During the last several decades, the American government is involved in the discussion of Islamic opposition which has become a serious burden since the September 11 attacks.

Afghanistan and Iraq Experience

Military activities of Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq are the most frequently discussed themes in modern political research. The first American invasion of Islamic countries was observed in 1953 to remove Mohammad Mosaddeq from power in Iran (Encyclopedia Britannica 2020). During the Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988, America supported Iraq in its attempts to control post-revolutionary Iran and provided Iraqis not only with financial aid but also with weaponry and professionally trained human resources (Rawley 2014). The war ended with a stalemate, and Iran could resist the power of Saddam Hussein, while Iraq did not capture any Iranian territory. However, the United States proved itself as a fair and powerful military actor in international relationships. The attitudes toward the Islamic people were dramatically changed after the events of September 11, 2001.

The Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks shocked the American government, as well as millions of people around the globe. During the next month, Green Berets were involved in planning and assessing Islamic tactics and were ready to utilize UW and tread on Afghanistan on October 19, 2001 (Lewton 2018). Twelve men from Special Forces were sent to Afghanistan to support the Northern Alliance fights led by General Rashid Dostum (U.S. Department of Defense 2014). The lack of technologies and equipment made the troops ride horses reach the destination point (U.S. Department of Defense 2014). Despite the existing challenges and concerns, Special Forces were able to gain trustful relationships with the local resistance groups and prove the correctness of their UW operation. After several massive airstrikes and land fights, the Taliban troops were smashed, and Mazar-e Sharif was liberated. In about 50 days, the Taliban were toppled, and American soldiers proved the possibility to endure freedom on the enemy’s land.

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Since those terrible attacks and a number of innocent deaths, the U.S. government found it necessary to control Islamic organizations and focus on behaviors that could provoke doubts or concerns. In 2003, when Saddam Hussein was hanged, Abu Musab Zarqawi led the Iraqi government and received money and power as a regional group of al-Qaeda. Special Forces were sent to Iraq to observe the current social and cultural changes. In the beginning, people treated Zarqawi as a modern Robin Hood, but his image was dramatically worsened because of his slaughtering manners and brutal behavior (U.S. Department of Defense 2014). In this case, American UW played the role of mediator between what actually happened to the Arab population and what the world thought about the government. Since that operation and support offered by America to Iraq, both countries consider themselves strategic partners. Iranian-American relationships have never been formally determined and defined, and Al-Qaeda threats have to be under the control of Special Forces.

Attitudes Toward Unconventional Warfare

At this moment, UW is not commonly supported by politicians either in the United States or globally. The point is that many policymakers try to catch all possible warfare components, which distorts the original idea of Special Forces (Livermore 2017). Consequently, Maxwell’s (2014) question about understanding UW and the presence of insufficient intellectual foundation gain much attention. It is wrong to consider UW either as an excuse for “abject failure” or as “a war winner” but both (Maxwell 2014). Today’s military conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Vietnam are defined as an irregular, and instead of applying to UW, political leaders choose conventional approaches and traditional warfare (Rempfer 2019). Such tactics make the Department of Defense unprepared and even weak in face of other strong leaders such as Russia and China.

For a long period, WC has been considered a beneficial type of operation. According to the U.S. Department of Defense (2014), fewer resources are necessary for UW compared to conventional operations, and clear goals to support and influence should be identified. Still, Army senior leaders demonstrate their indisposed attitude toward UW because Special Forces do not find it necessary to improve the mission and consider alternatives. Soldiers and their leaders realize that audiences obtain inappropriate UW images as “testosterone-fueled scenes of commando derring,” “kinetic, often hurriedly planned and executed in an ad hoc fashion” (Livermore 2017). In fact, any military operation requires much time for planning and analyzing the enemy. There is a narrow focus of how indigenous resistance elements are defined, and risks or losses are hardly unavoidable (Livermore 2017; Maxwell 2014). Political leaders do not like to use UW as a tool to solve conventional conflicts, which questions the actual need for this mission in Special Forces.

However, an understanding of the initial purposes of UW cannot be neglected. Some legislators look at this mission the same way they define convert action, provoking negative perception and lengthy delays in usage (Obernier and Sanders 2016). However, if both missions are related to clandestine activities, it is possible to define UW as a traditional military strategy, which is not. Maxwell (2014) proposes three main elements to be considered as UW – underground, auxiliary, guerrilla, and public components. For example, in Syria, Special Forces trained and equipped the locals to strengthen their motivation and opposition methods, which is a part of the underground and auxiliary tactics (Maxwell 2014). Guerrilla forces are used to learn the population, their resources, and even beliefs (as a public component) to hit the weakest areas and achieve victory in the shortest possible period. Army seniors stay hesitant about relying on UW principles today because instead of protecting innocent people and proclaiming justice and freedoms, corruption and egoism guide many political leaders today.

Future Expectations from Unconventional Warfare

Despite the existing controversies and ambiguous opinions about UW, this mission remains a significant aspect of Special Forces, under which the actions of an incumbent government may be analyzed. Rawley (2014) calls it the flip side of counter-insurgency with the help of which regime changes are possible. With time, people observe new social and cultural trends, contribute to technological shifts, and develop political or economic relationships (Irandoust 2018). UW should also be consistently improved in the United States because the military is used to persuade other nations and leaders to accept a specific position about a person or an event. If Special Forces neglect changes and improvements in some areas, they do not understand what could affect their targets. Rempfer (2019) believes that the current joint forces possess enough skills to succeed in irregular warfare, and future generations are ready to implement UW in different political and geopolitical scenarios. The government has already defined specific operational and strategic environments under which Special Forces train and work (Maxwell 2014; Rempfer, 2019). UW is never a simple or poorly determined mission, and its worth is integral for American growth and influence.


In modern literature, much attention is paid to UW, its origins, and elements to prove its critical mission in the United States Army Special Forces. Starting from a well-defined motto and ending with every new successful operation, Green Berets prove the need for UW to be implemented for specific political and military conflicts. However, the literature review shows that some Army leaders and soldiers are reluctant to adopt UW in all their activities. Among a variety of opinions, the question about UW’s effectiveness is still open, and more research is required. Relying on history and the already made achievements, it is necessary to understand the nature of these doubts and clarify why UW provokes uncertainties in Americans.


Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020. Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Irandoust, Manuchehr. 2018. “Militarism and Globalization: Is There an Empirical Link?” Quality & Quantity 52: 1349-1369.

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Lewton, David. 2018. “De Opresso Liber – To Free the Opressed – What’s in a Motto?” Small Wars Journal.

Livermore, Dough. 2017. “It’s Time for Special Operations to Dump ‘Unconventional Warfare”. War on the Rocks.

Maxwell, David S., 2014. “Do We Really Understand Unconventional Warfare?” Small Wars Journal.

Obernier, Jennifer A., and Frank N. Sanders. 2016. “Enabling Unconventional Warfare to Address Grey Zone Conflict.” Small Wars Journal.

Rawley, Christopher. 2014. Unconventional Warfare 2.0: A Better Path to Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century. 3rd ed. Scotts Valley: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Rempfer, Kyle. 2019. “DoD Officials: Irregular Warfare Will no Longer Suffer a ‘Boom-Bust’ Cycle in Eras of Great Power Competition.” Military Time.

Sciutto, Jim. 2019. The Shadow War: Inside Russia’s and China’s Secret Operations to Defeat America. New York: Harper Collins.

U.S. Army. n.d. Special Forces.

U.S. Department of Defense. 2014. “Special Operations.” Joint Publication 3- 05.

U.S. Department of Defense. n.d. Our Forces.

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