Secretive world of special ops
Iam a sucker for boot-camp training stories in all their heartbreak, bastardry and triumph. The first half of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Full Metal Jacket is almost perfect, only improved by the knowledge that R. Lee Ermey as the senior drill instructor was a real US Marine Corps drill sergeant. The answer to the oft-asked question, were Marine Corps drill instructors really like that? Hell yeah!
That feeling of reality is also what makes these insider stories of men with guns fascinating. The Operator and The Killing School describe US Navy SEAL (sea, air and land) and other Special Operations (Spec Ops) training and operations carried out as part of the ‘‘global war on terror’’ or the ‘‘long war’’ as the Pentagon calls it. Sons of God depicts the history of the Victoria Police Special Operations Group (known as Sons of God or SOG), Australia’s first SWAT team.
All three books deliver the training-of-eliteforces narrative in full — and much more. They detail why the training is so tough and show that no matter how stressful, no training can truly prepare soldiers for combat or police for shootouts with neo-Nazis.
Having said that, all three books raise questions around aspects of training that cross the line into abuse and wastage of recruits.
The Operator is the most straightforward story. Written in clear, unpretentious prose, the book covers Robert O’Neill’s Montana childhood, SEAL training and his 400-mission career. High-profile operations include the rescue of captain Richard Phillips, abducted from his ship by Somali pirates, and the insertion of the team that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
In his detailed account, O’Neill describes shooting bin Laden himself, leading to a personal celebrity that did not sit well with fellow SEALs. Their disapproval is perhaps to be expected as all three authors emphasise a code of honour in the special forces that shuns individual heroics.
But O’Neill is not alone in being accused of cashing in on his experience. Since 2001 it is estimated 100plus books have been published by former SEALs. One of them, Brandon Webb, has published several books based on his career. His latest, The Killing School, follows the stories of four elite Spec Ops snipers and links the techniques they use to the course Webb developed for the SEAL sniper training school.
The Killing School goes into gripping detail about the training needed to create a master sniper, particularly the complexities involved in stalking a target and the intricate maths and physics needed to land a killing shot from a long distance. Webb writes that ‘‘being a Spec Ops sniper is rocket science’’.
Bullets in fact are miniature rockets and the conditions affecting their trajectories include the obvious, such as gravity, angle, wind direction and velocity, as well as the target’s own movement, but also the effects of altitude, the benefit of warming ammo in the sun before use and (for a very long shot, say more than 3km) the rotation of the earth.
The book leaves you in no doubt as to why snipers are so feared and effective: one well-hidden sniper can pin down or eliminate many enemy fighters over long periods of time. moment anyone in the SOG steps over that line, all is lost.’’
This is a welcome reflection. O’Neill and Webb also emphasise the need for precision, particularly to avoid civilian casualties. Webb claims that snipers are driven by the desire to save rather than take lives.
These accounts of police and soldiers are persuasive on the professional pride of these units and their split-second decision-making in highly charged, unpredictable situations.
This can lead to a defensive tone, however. It is only halfway through O’Loughlin’s book that we learn that SOG has attracted adverse judicial findings and media criticism for excessive use of force in a few operations. At one stage SOG responded by taking media personalities, judges and other coroners to their training base to put them through a series of role-playing exercises, which profoundly altered at least some participants’ perception of risk and decisionmaking while under attack. In a sense these books aim to give the reader a similar insight.
All three books express resentment of the intense scrutiny special forces are subjected to following operations involving lethal force. While these investigations may feel unfair to those involved, such oversight is crucial. We are reminded of this by recent revelations of the ongoing internal investigations into the culture and conduct of Australian SAS forces in Afghanistan.
The strength of these books is their privileged access to their subjects. Sons of God benefits from the direct testimony of the SOG men: we hear their experiences told in their own voices. But this closeness is also a limitation. These authors have axes to grind.
O’Loughlin, for example, writes unapologetically out of hero worship of his father and deferThe qualities of great snipers often involve NSW police riot squad would be armed with ence to the courageous men of the SOG. And aptitudes developed before they join the milimilitary-style machineguns. the two SEAL memoirs have been cleared for tary, hunting and spearfishing being among the And now the federal government has anpublication by the US Department of Defence; most important. The ability to hide, to stalk, to nounced its intention to centralise security they obviously contain no critique of US miliread every aspect of the environment, to be papowers in a new super-ministry taryt tactics or strategy. tient while hungry and thirsty in scorching or and proposed to introduce legisBoth SEAL memoirs do disfreezing conditions, to think like prey, to react lation to allow the Australian play an occasional awareness instantly, these are the skills that create a sniper. military to deploy forces during that US military strategy in the
The opening chapter of Sons domestic crises and possibly long war has so far failed, but ofo God illustrates how ‘‘SOG embed officers within state law offer no opinion as to why. The men’’ level of analysis never rises m and problem-solvingdisplay similar toughnessingenuity enforcementIt seems hard agencies.to believe now
above the need to kill more o on the run. A SOG team pinned but back in 1986, SOG faced ‘‘bad guys’’. And yet, as histodown in open country by three being disbanded to save money. rianr Yuval Noah Harari points f fugitives is saved only by an opThe Russell Street bombing outouto in his 2015 book Homo e erative reloading his weapon side police Deus, terrorists have almost no t u tactic he had never rehearsed. and Queen street headquartersmass DDciut shootingsin underwater in a freezing river, a March, followed by the Hoddle capacity to threaten a function
ing state. The danger comes Subsequent chapters trace in 1987, put paid to that idea. mostlym from our overreactions. t the history of the SOG from its SOG quickly became accepted ‘‘Whereas in 2010 obesity origins as a tactical police counby fellow police officers as an esand related illnesses killed t terterrorist unit set up in 1977 sential tool in the arsenal to hanabout three million people,’’ under Harari writes, ‘‘terrorists killed a total of 7697 u ence of the military command veterans. and influseriesdle ue extremeof operations, situations raids and and the stake-outs.book details a
people across the globe, most of them in develThe rise of counter-terrorism The toughest chapter to read covers a siege oping countries.’’ He notes that for the average p police units in Australia and in a kindergarten in which four children are person in the affluent West, soft drinks pose a worldwide since the 1970s has only intensified soaked in petrol and held hostage in a toilet for far deadlier threat than terrorists. during the long war. seven hours. Author Heath O’Loughlin’s father, In its final pages, Sons of God quotes Victoria
Along with increasing domestic surveillance, Doug O’Loughlin, chief inspector of SOG from Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton on the pursuit of domestic counter1 1981 to 1998, described that operthe Lindt cafe siege and whether the army terrorism may be leading to the a ation as the biggest challenge of should have been called in. Legally the military militarisation of police forces. h his career. could have been called in, Ashton says, but this Perhaps we should be conA riveting account of the Port could have led to delays — and he believes ‘‘the
outcome would have been the same’’. long cerned war that are beingthe tactics deployed AAlof the on like Arthur the massacrenatural and climax siege of feels this
Ashton says SOG already trains closely with our streets. the SAS: ‘‘The military might be training this This process is bbrmore adratherbook. It than should trailinghave endedoff into there,a
stuff every day, whereas our SOG is actually vanced in the US, where police g grab-bag of less consequential doing it every day.’’ It is not clear, then, what forces are buying up ex-military operations that add nothing new difference Malcolm Turnbull’s recent anequipment and attending semit to our understanding. nouncement about an expanded role for the nars on ‘‘warrior policing’’. The Martin Bryant siege illusAustralian Defence Force in tackling domestic
In April 2017, The New Ret trates perfectly the very different terrorism will actually make. public linked this philosophy to operating environment and rules It may be that further merging of the police an increasing number of fatal of engagement facing police as and military risks giving rise to ‘‘warrior cops’’ shootings of citizens by police. opposed to military special forwho, in the words of The New Republic, ‘‘regard That same month, the first bill ces. The chief difference is that the communities they serve as territory occuseeking permission to weaponcontrary to some popular mispied by potential insurgents’’. ise police drones was presented to the Connecticonceptions, police are not trying to kill gunIn the seemingly endless quest by our politicut legislature. men but attempting to bring them to justice. cians for better security, is this really a future
Australia appears to be heading in a similar SIERRA, the Victorian sniper who helped we want? direction: recent developments in the wake of capture Bryant, twice made the call not to take the coroner’s report on the 2014 Lindt cafe siege the ‘‘headshot’’. ‘‘If I had taken his life,’’ SIERinclude last month’s announcement that the RA said, ‘‘it wouldn’t have been justified. The ma is a writer and critic. Her new novel is Watch Over Me.
A woman runs into the arms of police during the 2014 Lindt cafe siege