Special Operations Forces from Around the World
Edited by Ruslan Pukhov and Christopher Marsh
East View Press, Minneapolis, 2017, 263 pages
Book Review published on: February 23, 2018
Proclaiming itself as an “ideal reference guide,” the book Elite Warriors: Special Operations Forces from Around the World succeeds in convincing its readers of the global proliferation of special operations forces (SOF) and the reasons for this phenomenon. In his introduction, Christopher Marsh, editor of the Special Operations Journal and a former professor at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, describes the “phenomenon of emulation” and the tendency of states to copy the practices of the international system’s most successful members. Russia, for example, attributes the standup of its special operations command to following the example of the “leading powers of the world,” while France modeled its SOF command using “the American template.”1 Marsh also makes a persuasive argument that although there has been a corresponding explosion of popular works and memoirs regarding SOF, there is a relative dearth of empirical research on the subject. It is this gap that Elite Warriors boldly steps forward to fill.
Marsh’s coeditor, Ruslan Pukhov, is founder and director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST). These collected essays, authored by Pukhov and other experts drawn primarily (but not exclusively) from CAST, aim to provide an encyclopedic resource on the special operations experience of fourteen selected states. It covers the “specifically organized, trained, and equipped” units of Russia (which gets the first two chapters), followed by one chapter each on Ukraine, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, China, Singapore, Colombia, and Algeria.
One weakness in the book is that it is not apparent why the editors selected these particular examples and why other states with significant SOF such as the United Kingdom and South Korea are omitted. Marsh acknowledges upfront the “inherent dangers” in the book’s approach and explains that while not all states share the same idea of what constitutes SOF, the units selected for inclusion in this study are “among the world’s most elite forces.”2 The message is clear; Elite Warriors is meant to be a groundbreaking work for a new area of study and does not claim to be the final word on the subject.
The various essays strive for a similar format by covering the respective state’s SOF history, unit organization, and data on training and equipment. That there are varying levels of detail in the essays probably reflects not only the style of the different authors but also the different quality and experiences of what passes for elite units in the various states chosen for analysis. Some elite units are just more elite than others.
Arguably, there is also a bit of bias detectable in some places. As noted, Russian SOF alone receives two chapters, although that is admittedly a valuable set of complementary essays. Ukraine’s chapter dwells briefly on the checkered record of some of its National Guard SOF, highlighting allegations of human rights abuses by units described as “semi-anarchic.”3 There is no similar scrutiny, for example, of Turkish SOF operations against the Kurds, although Turkey does get a paragraph discussing the legal and ethical concerns raised by using ex-SOF personnel in private military companies.4 While a little bias is probably inevitable, it is nevertheless instructive to view these state’s respective SOF-related issues through other than a purely Western lens.
The chapter on Turkey stands out in several ways as an exemplary piece, covering such current topics as Turkish SOF’s operations in Syria and Iraq. There is also a review of SOF’s role on both sides of the 2016 coup attempt, with some analysis of the effects this participation has had on the Turkish SOF community. While many of the other essays in the book are heavy on facts and short on analysis, this chapter is one of the few that includes some thought–provoking discussion of what all the data being presented means.
Each chapter can be read on its own and in no particular order. Marsh cautions that “a complete read of the book, however, is the only way to see the bigger picture of the proliferation of special operations forces over the past twenty to thirty years, and to see this recent phenomenon in many of its current manifestations.”5 Elite Warriors indeed is worth a complete read. It achieves its stated goals by being at once a history of the global spread of SOF, a collection of representative stand-alone case studies, and a useful resource guide for further research.
Book Review written by: Kevin Rousseau, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
- Ruslan Pukhov and Christopher Marsh, eds., Elite Warriors: Special Operations Forces from Around the World (Minneapolis: East View Press, 2017), viii, 56.
- Ibid., x.
- Ibid., 47.
- Ibid., 199.
- Ibid., ix.