How the Green Berets Work

By: Josh Clark  | 
green beret
Army Special Forces Green Beret, in Northern Afghanistan. Stocktrek Images / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • The Green Berets, officially known as the United States Army Special Forces, are a highly adaptable and specialized force in the U.S. military, known for their expertise in unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense and counterterrorism.
  • Their training includes cultural sensitivity, language proficiency, diplomacy and various combat tactics, enabling them to operate in diverse environments and fulfill roles ranging from warrior-diplomats to direct combatants.
  • Green Berets engage in a wide range of missions, including advising foreign governments, conducting direct action and reconnaissance, and performing humanitarian roles, all while operating under the motto "De Oppresso Liber," which means "To Free the Oppressed."

Whether riding donkeys through the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, assembling guerrilla armies in Vietnam, or training paramilitary police to fight drug cartels in Columbia, the Green Berets have come to represent the most adaptable and specialized organization available in the United States' military arsenal.

Like other­ United States special operations groups, the Army Special Forces are considered "Sine Pari," or "Without Equal" in Latin. But they have also adopted their own motto, specific to the Green Berets: "De Oppresso Liber," Latin for "To Free the Oppressed." This is a pretty heavy call to duty, and not one that just any military force can live up to. Perhaps this is why the Green Berets' exploits have been commemorated in song, recreated in movies and reported on in countless books.


The missions of the Green Berets, who are known officially as the United States Army Special Forces, are sometimes confused by the public with those of the Navy SEALS or the Army Rangers, but the Special Forces are a group in a league of their own. In addition to the combat tactics and reconnaissance those groups perform, Green Berets are trained in languages, culture, diplomacy, psychological warfare, disinformation -- generating and spreading false information -- and politics. ­

Operations can include advising an Afghani tribal chief on how to consolidate his power; carrying out a quick strike on a guerrilla outpost in a Central American jungle; and serving as bodyguards to an Eastern European leader. Their presence, when their mission is carried out successfully, is felt but never confirmed. They are, quite literally, America's first line of defense around the globe.

The Green Berets operate with little oversight, working with native peoples in predetermined Areas of Operation (AOs) and serve as unofficial "warrior-diplomats." And, although the organization's purpose is to support the interests of the United States, the Green Berets exist in the haze that floats between the country and other nations, groups and peoples -- they're the nimble fingertips of the United States military and the "quiet professionals" of the U.S. government.

In this article, we'll take a look at the Green Berets -- where they came from, what they do, and how they work to protect the United States' interests and allies.­


Green Berets Origins

A squad of Burmese tribesmen assembled and trained to fight the occupying Japanese by an OSS detachment in World War II.
Photo courtesy U.S. Center of Military History

The beginnings of the Army Special Forces can be traced all the way back to a small contingent of Confederate Civil War soldiers led by Col. John Mosby. The soldiers staged raids in a manner that more resembles the modern Army Rangers. But it was a another military tactic -- winning the support of the local populations -- that has become a hallmark of the Green Berets.

The Special Forces were further defined by the Office of Special Services (OSS), the secretive agency that was created in World War II. During World War II, the OSS was charged with penetrating enemy lines held by the Axis armies. Once inside, the OSS officers helped train and support local resistance movements. In Burma, for example, three OSS officers organized a coalition of native tribesmen into an 11,000-strong guerrilla army -- soldiers who band together to engage in irregular warfare tactics -- that killed 10,000 occupying Japanese troops, but lost only 206 of its own fighters [source:SOC].


After World War II, the OSS was disbanded. But the need for the information and organization that the group provided continued. In 1952, three Army officers, led by Brigadier General Robert McClure, were granted permission to create a group of Army soldiers that could carry out sensitive missions on behalf of the United States government. A total of 2,300 openings were created to found the group, although it officially began with just 10 soldiers, including the leadership [source:].

The official Special Forces' base of operations was established at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and soon the ranks grew. Eventually, detachments -- or units -- of as little as 12 men were formed, and bases of operations were set up in the United Sates and throughout the world. In 1953, the first deployment of Green Berets took place. Half of the force was sent to Bad Tolz, West Germany, which served as that group's base of operations.

Since that first deployment, the Green Berets have carried out thousands of missions, most in secrecy. Which means that the success of the Green Berets can hardly be measured; after all, how can you quantify something that doesn't happen, like a thwarted war?

So who are these highly specialized soldiers? In the next section, we'll learn about what makes a person a Green Beret.­


Green Berets Selection and Training

The process of becoming a Green Beret is, unsurprisingly, a long and arduous one. It begins with a monthlong preparation course, to help already-trained soldiers become better prepared for the markedly more difficult physical and mental duress they'll undergo. Following preparation is the selection process, a 24-daylong affair that aims to root out the less-qualified soldiers from those who have a chance to complete the Special Forces training program.

Because their job demands that they be able to perform well in and adapt to changing environments, Green Berets are often college-educated, some to a post-graduate level. Many enter training already bilingual. This will serve them well during instruction, as they're not only exposed to grueling physical tests, but are also trained in the culture, language, customs, geography and traditions of the area that will ultimately serve as their Areas of Operation (AO).


Green Berets will be assigned to one of five AOs, which coincide with the five divisions of U.S. military involvement throughout the world:

  • U.S. European Command - Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, North Asia
  • U.S. Northern Command - All of North America up to the Arctic Circle and Northern Central America
  • U.S. Pacific Command - South Asia, Australia, Greenland, Indochina, all Pacific Islands nt
  • U.S. Southern Command - Central and South America and the Caribbean
  • U.S. Central Command - Northeast Africa, the Middle East and part of Eurasia

During training, Green Berets are also exposed to the kind of conditions and treatment they might endure if caught by the enemy. In mock-POW camps, they are hooded, blindfolded, mistreated and pushed to the breaking point. Green Berets receive SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training to help them remain one step ahead of the enemy or to escape when caught. They're trained in weapons, navigation, scuba diving and parachuting. But instruction can't predict everything that may come up in the field. So a Green Beret receives perhaps his most important training -- how to adapt and think on his feet.

During training, each recruit's natural talents will be honed, and they will be trained in a specialty (more on that on the next page). But they're also cross-trained in one another's skills so that, in a pinch, Green Berets can fill in for each other. This illustrates how vital each skill set is that, when combined, makes up a highly specialized Green Beret detachment, or unit.

Once Green Beret recruits are fully trained, they're assigned a detachment most likely composed of the same people with whom they have undergone training. Six detachments and a Company Headquarters, which directly manages operations, make up a company. Special Forces companies, along with a commander and a group support battalion -- which offers supplies, logistics and analysis to the detachments -- make up a Special Forces Group, SFG. As of 2007, there are five Green Beret Groups throughout the world:

  • 1st SFG - stationed at Ft. Lewis, Wash., with an AO of East Asia and the Pacific
  • 3rd SFG - stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C., with a AO of West Africa and Caribbean
  • 5th SFG - stationed at Ft. Campbell, Ky., with an AO of Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa
  • 7th SFG - stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C, with an AO of Central and South America
  • 10th SFG - stationed at Ft. Carson, Co., with an AO of Europe and Western Asia

In the next section, we'll learn about the basic structure of Green Beret detachments and the position each soldier occupies within a unit. ­


Green Berets Detachment Structure

Green Berets in training at Ft. Bragg, N.C.
Photo courtesy USASOC

Green Berets are trained to fill a specific role within the smallest detachment structure, the Alpha Team (A-Team). Within this 12-man detachment, there are two leadership positions: the Commanding Officer and the second-in-command, the Warrant Officer.

The other 10 positions are made up of pairs of five specialist positions, including Intelligence and Operations Sergeant, Communications Sergeant, Medical Officer, Weapons Sergeant and Engineer Sergeant.


Each position has a redundancy so that an A-Team can split into two sustainable groups if necessary.

Positions in an A-Team
  • The Commanding Officer and the Warrant Officer determine the best course of action to take throughout the mission, and must be able to adapt and change plans as necessary. In addition to serving as the commanding officers of guerrilla and insurgent armies assembled by the A-team they may also advise foregin leaders and officials.
  • Intelligence and Operations Sergeants gather and analyze intelligence on conditions in foreign territories the A-Team occupies and on the enemy. They are also charged with outfitting the detachment with the supplies and equipment they need.
  • Communications Sergeants are in charge of the sophisticated communications equipment the team carries. They are also the soldiers who relay any information gathered by the Intelligence Sergeants back to Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The Communications Sergeant may also be responsible for carrying out any Psychological Operations (PSYOP) related to broadcasting.
  • Medical Officers are equipped to perform field surgery, set up hospitals, offer healthcare to local peoples, and care for the health needs of the detachment. In addition to the regular training each receives as a Green Beret, the Medical Officers receive an additional 10 months of medical training.
  • Weapons Sergeants are trained not only in weapons used by the American military, but are also experts in the weapons in use in their AO. They have the ability to train others, including armies assembled by the team, in weapon use.
  • Engineer Sergeants plan the logistics of the mission. They serve as navigators and design needed structures in the field such as impromptu bridges. They are also trained in demolitions and sabotage.

Within the six A-Teams that form a single Special Forces company, one team receives special training in airborne insertion, and another team is trained in underwater insertion. Both of these tactics, along with ground infiltration, are used to get Green Berets quickly and quietly behind enemy lines.

All special forces groups, including the Green Berets, fall under the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). In 1986, the Department of Defense Reorganization Act gave the Special Forces more room to operate. This Act created the civilian position of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, a position that oversees special operations. By creating a position directly responsible for government oversight and approval of special operations, the United States government not only gave the Special Forces more agility at carrying out its missions, but also created more accountability as well.

The operations these highly skilled soldiers undertake can be lumped into three general groups: wartime operations, post-hostility/peacetime operations and humanitarian missions. The goals and parameters of an operation depend largely on the context in which the mission takes place. Operations may overlap and be similar: Direct action in wartime may have the goal of ending the war, while direct action in peacetime may aim to prevent a war from starting. In the next sections, we'll examine each type of Green Beret operation.


Green Berets Wartime Duties

Green Berets, like this solider shown in downtown Baghdad in 2003, are trained to serve as “warrior-diplomats.”
Photo courtesy Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock/Air Force

Some of the most important operations of the Green Berets take place during wartime. There are two kinds of wartime tactics: conventional and unconventional, and a war may often see both kinds. Conventional warfare includes military operations on a massive scale. It uses tanks, planes, ships and large troop forces. Think of conventional warfare as a sledgehammer -- it can have a profound effect when it hits, but is heavy and unwieldy.

Unconventional warfare is more like an exacting scalpel. It includes guerrilla warfare -- battles that aren't staged and are usually a surprise -- insurgencies or uprisings, precise fast-strikes and other small-scale tactics that can have a big effect. The Green Berets' operations fall well within the category of unconventional warfare.


Imagine that a country at war is a large cell. The front -- the dividing line between opposing militaries -- is the cell wall. While battles and skirmishes may weaken and change the cell wall, it's generally fortified. Conventional tactics can only go so far at diminishing its strength. The best way to break a cell wall is from both without and within.

The role of the Green Berets during wartime is to penetrate this cell and create insurgencies from within enemy territory.This is highly dangerous work: Green Berets are often asked to operate on their own, for long periods of time. They live as the locals do, interacting with them to gain information and their trust. Green Berets live by their wits, making their own decisions with little, if any, interference or help from their superiors.

To be successful, a Green Beret must often work out of uniform, leaving him vulnerable and outside the jurisdiction of the Geneva Convention. Under the Geneva Convention -- a global treaty defining the roles of a combatant during war and outlining the rights given to him -- any soldier caught out of uniform is not subject to protection by the Convention. This means he may be tortured or killed on sight if found by enemy combatants, which makes his job even more dangerous.

Once inside enemy territory, Green Berets identify disaffected groups, those people who are not happy with the current power structure or living conditions. These may be native tribes or communities who have been mistreated by the current power, minority populations or the former power structure itself. Green Berets consolidate these people -- often from widely diverse backgrounds -- into a fighting force of guerrilla armies. This is called multiplying forces (expanding the number of troops fighting along with the United States against another military by recruiting native peoples), and the Green Berets are good at it. During the Vietnam War, for example, a handful of Green Berets managed to aggregate a variety of indigenous tribes into a 60,000-member guerrilla army, the Civil Irregular Defense Force.

The guerrilla armies that the Green Berets amass behind enemy lines are trained, equipped and led by the Special Forces. Green Berets are also valuable at collecting intelligence on the enemy, as well as spreading disinformation, and even directly affecting the information capabilities of the opposing military through strikes on communications infrastructure.

Due to their stealth and ability to vanish suddenly, Green Berets serve as valuable assets for locating targets for the conventional military. In Afghanistan, for example, Green Berets selected and acquired the targets that would have the most impact for United States missiles.

But the Green Berets can also be diplomats. In the next section, we'll learn about the roles they play in the local and national politics of foreign nations.


Green Berets Post-war Duties

Green Berets help train local military groups in post-hostility environments like Afghanistan.
Photo courtesy USASOC

During war, the Green Berets operate alone in enemy territory. After the war, they serve to establish an environment where official agencies can organize and function. Once the United States is successful in defeating a foreign military, the toppled government leaves a power vacuum -- put simply, there is no one in charge.

The United States has a stated policy against nation-building.This means that the nation does not invade countries in order to change their structure to better suit the nation's interests. Although this is the official policy, once a government has been toppled, it's almost inevitable that the conquering power must take some action to restore order and influence government.


During their time spent amassing guerrilla armies, interacting with locals and gathering intelligence during wartime, the Green Berets are in a unique and useful position to identify the friendliest group that is likeliest to fill the power vacuum. This is part of the post-hostility (the period immediately following war) role that Green Berets play. By advising group leaders and offering the support of the United States, Green Berets act as underground diplomats and help foreign groups come to power after a government has been toppled.

One of the best ways for the United States to keep itself out of entering a war is to train other nations to defend themselves -- foreign internal defense. Detachments travel to foreign nations friendly to the United States and teach their military organizations in counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and other methods to maintain power and deal with threats from within and outside the country. Green Berets also serve as liaisons between the governments of those nations and the United States. This type of training and advising also extends to nations dealing with major drug trade organizations -- Green Berets' counterdrug operations.

Others Green Beret operations have evolved out of the changing face of the modern socio-political climate. Counterproliferation activities, for example, are a fairly recent duty charged to Special Forces groups. In this, Green Berets identify, find, and remove or render useless weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), also referred to as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (NBCs).

Counterterrorist activities have also emerged as an important role the Green Berets play. In addition to carrying out counterterrorism operations around the world, the Green Berets have worked within the United States. Faced with a lack of Arabic-speaking agents and evidence of a real terrorist threat, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) enlisted the help of Green Berets who translated chatter and documents between suspected terrorists. The Green Berets were able to give the FBI the leads they needed, thwarting a terrorist attack planned for Dec. 31, 1999, at the Los Angeles International Airport [source: Truman National Security Project].

In the next section, we'll learn about the Green Berets' psychological operations.


Green Berets Psychological Operations

A soldier posts flyers over graffiti on a wall in Iraq as part of a Psychological Operations mission.
Photo Courtesy USASOC

Winning a war requires more than an ample armory, supplies and troops. It also helps tremendously to have the support (or at least compliance) of the local population. When Brigadier General Robert McClure helped found the Green Berets in 1952, he was aware that conventional tactics required psychological help. Propaganda had been used extensively in World War II, and in varying degrees in every war in which America fought before that. But McClure helped bring the psychology of winning the "hearts and minds" of an invaded people into the realm of military science.

Since their inception, the Green Berets have always received training in Psychological Operations (PSYOPs) at the Psychological Warfare Center at Ft. Bragg, N.C. This training is interconnected and supported by the Green Berets' training in language, cultural sensitivity and intense study of the group's Areas of Operation (AOs). By understanding the values held by the people of an area, Green Berets can help tailor the messages contained in psychological operations for maximum effect. Large-scale psychological operations are created by the psychological operations command, the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (USACAPOC). But actual missions on the ground are often carried out by the Green Berets.


Convincing an invaded people that occupation of their country by the U.S. is ultimately beneficial to them can be a monumental task. Even assuring an occupied population that the military means them no harm can have far-reaching effects on the outcome of a war. PSYOPs also figure largely into a Green Beret's duties following war -- advising a leader how to gain the support of a disaffected group within the larger population, for example.

Psychological Ops Techniques

PSYOPs can take many forms, but are often composed of a wide array of propaganda techniques. Some are extremely obvious, like encouraging locals to turn in militants through pamphlets and leaflets dropped from airplanes. Other techniques include broadcasting messages via local television and radio.

Personal contact is also important, such as patrols aimed at greeting the local population and including acts of benevolence and humanitarian aid (more on that later). The sight of a soldier giving a little girl a teddy bear or a platoon handing out water can have a positive effect on the way the United States military is perceived. It's the role of the Green Berets to determine the most effective ways for PSYOPs to be carried out, and Green Berets may also take a direct role in their execution as well.

This may not always take place in the context of a war. Sometimes PSYOPs can be used to prevent war. In Haiti in early 1994, the United States was poised to invade the Caribbean Island to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power and topple the military regime governing the country. In the operation designated Uphold Democracy Green Berets carried out PSYOPs, featuring leaflet drops and radio broadcasts from Aristide, and were able to convince Haitian citizens that "democratization" would be beneficial for their nation. These propaganda operations were considered extremely successful, and conventional United States forces entering Haiti met little armed resistance -- saving casualties on both sides.

In the next section, we'll learn about the humanitarian role that Green Berets play.


Green Berets Humanitarian Roles

Green Berets take part in a meeting with local leaders as part of a Civil Affairs operation in Afghanistan.
Photo courtesy U.S. Army

The same training and cultural understanding that makes Green Berets valuable assets to the United States military also makes them valuable to people in need as well. Wartime humanitarian operations that aim to win the "hearts and minds" of local populations can translate well when peacetime crises arise.

In Rwanda in the 1990s, the Green Berets carried out operations to aide refugees caught in the crossfire of the civil war that was raging in the African nation. Green Berets helped thousands make it to refugee camps and helped support the operation of those camps as well.


During the Nicaraguan civil war in the 1980s, the Green Berets guarded the borders the Central American nation shared with Honduras and El Salvador. They were successful in keeping the violence from the war from crossing the border and sparking battles in the neighboring nations.

The Green Berets also serve as leaders of Civil Affairs (CA) operations, which are usually composed of local political groups and non-government organizations -- NGOs -- like the Red Cross. These CA operations may entail getting food relief to starving people in villages after a war or making sure that medical supplies make it to disputed areas.

In addition to disrupting regular supply lines, war can leave many marks on an area, like landmines and unexploded ordnance and forgotten booby traps. Following the Vietnam War, the fields and jungles of Cambodia were so fraught with unexploded mines that the country had the highest per-capita population of amputees, with one in every 236 Cambodians having lost at least one limb [source: Clear Path International]. Another humanitarian role Green Berets play is countermine operations, where detachments travel to foreign nations to remove and dispose of unexploded ordnance.

For a period in the 1970s, the effects of Green Beret humanitarian missions were felt in the United States as well. After the Vietnam War, the Green Berets began SPARTAN (Special Proficiency At Rugged Terrain And Nation-Building). Through this operation, Green Berets traveled to impoverished rural areas of Florida and North Carolina, where they helped locals with medical care and community-building projects that included schools and hospitals.

But what lies in store for the Green Berets? In the next section, we'll learn about the future of the Army Special Forces. ­­­


Future of the Green Berets

The U.S. Army and Sandia have created a simulation to help train Green Berets in the art of adaptive reasoning.
Photo courtesy Sandia

With the United States fighting insurgencies, militias and terrorist groups, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the future of warfare lies largely in unconventional tactics. Because of this, the need for special operations forces like the Green Berets is also increased.

The difficulty that has always faced the Green Berets is that they are so specialized; their ranks are not easily enlarged. While the military continues to refine and expand the arsenal available to it, the Green Beret's tenet that "humans are more important than hardware" remains constant. To help increase the number of special operations forces without diluting the pool of talent in the Green Berets, the United States Marine Corps has created its own special forces branch in 2007, the Marine Special Operations School.


Having a variety of different types of unconventional operations groups should mean that the chances the United States will have a tool for every job is increased. To some, however, the proliferation of other branches of special operations forces will only reduce the amount of funding available to established groups like the Green Berets.

One sign that shows the commitment of the United States to the Special Forces ideal is the new avenues being conducted for their special training. In one instance, the Army has joined forces with government software producer, Sandia, to create a new simulation that helps the Green Berets focus their ability to remain mentally agile as well as culturally sensitive. Called Adaptive Thinking and Leadership (ATL), this simulation advances and reinforces the training that Army Special Forces troops receive at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

Department of Defense reports suggest that all special forces will become more integrated, at least operationally, as Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) -- the military organization represented by commanders of all branches, which create and carry out special operations missions with members of different branches working together -- continues to integrate the special forces from the different branches.

It's difficult to imagine, however, the Green Berets will ever become deactivated. This is especially true given the public image of the Green Berets. Ever since the group's exploits in the Vietnam War were publicized in the United States, the American public's imagination has been captured by the Green Berets. Then there's the level of secrecy surrounding the Green Berets' operations. While some regard the secrecy as necessary, others question whether it encourages unethical actions on the part of the U.S. military.

The military appears to be aware of the Green Berets' intrigue. To this end, "America's Army: Special Forces," a recent video game created by the United States Department of Defense, has been released and is available free to the public. Moreover, National Geographic claims to have gained "unprecedented access" to the Green Berets in its film "Inside the Green Berets."

For lots more information on the Green Berets, including related articles, and a link to download "America's Army: Special Forces," check out the next page.


Frequently Asked Questions

How do Green Berets differ from Navy SEALs and Army Rangers?
Green Berets are specialized in unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense and counterterrorism with a focus on working with and training indigenous forces. In contrast, Navy SEALs specialize in direct action, special reconnaissance and counterterrorism, while Army Rangers are focused on direct action raids and airfield seizures.
What is the significance of the Green Beret's motto "De Oppresso Liber"?
"De Oppresso Liber," translating to "To Free the Oppressed," embodies the Green Beret's mission to assist those living under oppression by providing military training, support and humanitarian aid, emphasizing their role beyond combat to include diplomatic and peacekeeping efforts.

Lots More Information

More Great Links


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