Sorry it’s been a while again, but I’ve just finished writing and finalising my second contribution to ワールド・インテリジェンス. My article this time focused on British Special Forces post-9/11. As you might imagine, for anyone who knows anything about UKSF, it was pretty hard to find good materials. The British government maintains a ‘no comment’ policy regarding any mention of its special forces, which unfortunately creates a lot more drivel than you’d ever think possible.
I started with the most reliable account of the SAS in Afghanistan that I could find: Ultimate Risk by Mark Nicol. Now, I remember back in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the British media was full of stories of SAS action in the country. There were some incredibly detailed accounts, and most of them played up the SAS as a hi-tech, well-funded force beloved by US CENTCOM (who was cognisant of the SAS’ status as ‘the best’). Nicol’s account blows those stories out of the water.
Nicol wrote the book as a journalist and son of a former SAS soldier who thus had links within the pubs of Hereford. His account of the SAS in Afghanistan is a complete contrast to the wider media accounts. The SAS struggled to get in the action after CENTCOM’s thirst for special operations was quenched by a disastrous Delta Force mission on October 19th 2001. The SAS were also struggling to get a part because ENDURING FREEDOM was ‘America’s party’. As the US retreated back to its air supremacy and war-by-proxy through the Northern Alliance, the SAS finally got a piece of the action, although it was disappointingly only a reconnaissance and battle damage assessment mission. By the time the SAS managed their only battle of that year (and for a number of years after one can assume – as the SBS took control of operations in the country), they had to fend off not only al-Qaeda forces, but also rotting vehicles (due to the rigours of desert environments) and US pilots’ blue-on-blue (friendly fire) attacks.
Somehow, as the media spotted the name of the Regimental Sergeant Major who was wounded in that battle (some might say unnecessarily or recklessly so), they twisted a tale of absolute tripe:
SAS soldier wins VC for heroism in Afghanistan
AN SAS soldier is to be awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. The unnamed soldier will be the first living recipient of the VC for 33 years.
A regimental sergeant major, whose name will never be disclosed, continued fighting al-Qaeda terrorists despite being shot in the so-called Battle of the Caves at the end of last year.
He was part of a 90-strong SAS force which, outnumbered two to one, won the battle in an al-Qaeda hide-out in the White Mountains. The vicious fighting involved hand to hand combat and all the enemy were either killed or captured.
Just 11 VCs have been awarded since 1945 and it is only the second time in its history that the SAS has won a VC – the first was for a raid on German positions in 1945.
But the regiment’s fiercely guarded anonymity means the RSM, a family man in his 40s, cannot be identified or publicly feted.
Senior members of the government, including Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, had wanted his name made public along with a citation to make the electorate “feel good” about Britain’s military involvement.
Because of security fears it has been agreed that his name and details of his conspicuous gallantry will not appear in the London Gazette, where the honour is officially announced, and he will have a private ceremony with the Queen.
One senior MoD insider said: “To give these awards to men who have survived conflict is extremely rare. But Afghanistan reflected what makes the SAS so great, and to fight on after being wounded is quite remarkable.”
In the Battle of the Caves in November the SAS stormed the Tora Bora network in an attempt to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
His fighters were no match for British troops, who reportedly “took them apart” in four hours of combat with knives.
The RSM, known to his men as Booty and well-known for his toughness, was shot in the leg but carried on fighting.
The only true parts of the story were that the SAS were on operations in Afghanistan, the RSM was injured, and there were two-to-one odds (although in favour of the SAS – conventional military logic dictates a 3:1 ratio for attacking forces). How could they get it so wrong?
That answer comes quite easily: the British government’s unwavering silence. The mission in Afghanistan (Operation TRENT) needn’t have been kept secret, but the government was loathe to cap speculation (even as the media began to protest that the government would not give Jones his VC). It’s propaganda. Without the government’s help, the British press was creating its own heroes and stories. If it didn’t, it would have been wholly disappointed about the actual extent of British support in the country (which was largely symbolic rather than material).
The SAS have helped forged this ‘mythmaking machine’ through the release of memoirs such as Andy McNab’s ‘Bravo Two Zero’, Chris Ryan’s ‘The One that Got Away’, or Ken Connor’s ‘Ghost Force’. The media then extrapolates these exploits to the present day, seemingly assuming that their technology is better (to some extent it’s true, but they still use Diemaco C7s, M16s made under a Canadian license, rather than futuristic Heckler and Koch G36s – as some reports mentioned) and their operations more extravagant (seemingly not).
Of course, while people like Michael Smith at the Times continues to write nonsense that glorifies the men at Hereford (and increasingly the SBS too), and the government keeps its lips sealed, it appears that writing good accounts of UKSF action in the War on Terror will be difficult to nigh on impossible. Hopefully my article has made the best of the resources available, but I cannot help wondering how much is wrong or missing…