To say that Edward Fitzgerald is a retired lawyer who has written a memoir of his military experiences in the 1950’s may not make his book sound at first like the most exciting literary project of the year.  Bank’s Bandits is, however, a highly readable work: a well-observed, literate, and often very funny account of recruitment and training in the original U.S. Special Forces formed during the Korean War, the 10th Special Forces Airborne Group.  The book is also a helpful and evocative introduction to the Special Forces idea itself, which has done so much to revolutionize concepts of modern warfare.

At the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, President Bush’s advisors were debating furiously whether U.S. intervention would demand “boots on the ground,” an amazing notion that is used without much sense of its implications.  Briefly described, the phrase suggests that wars can be won without any significant participation by ground troops, an idea that would have seemed astonishing to most generations of soldiers and planners.  How can anyone win a war without thousands of boots in place?  The new approach results, of course, from the force of modern airpower as well as from planners’ fascination with small elite units who can operate behind enemy lines, often in cooperation with local rebels and militias.

The elite-force idea has its roots in the world of Lawrence of Arabia, though other important modern progenitors certainly include Waffen SS officer Otto Skorz-eny, who formed and led German special forces for Hitler.  (His greatest feat was the 1943 rescue of Mussolini.)  Also influential were piratical British units such as the Special Air Service and the Long Range Desert Group.  The U.S. tradition was represented by Col. Aaron Bank, whose unit reputedly was entrusted with a special mission to seize Hitler at Berchtesgaden.  (Bank himself reported his own experiences in his 1986 book, From OSS To Green Berets: The Birth Of Special Forces.)

After 1945, special-forces units attracted great attention in a world in which fast-moving formations were likely to overrun fixed defenses, placing a premium on stay-behind guerrilla activities and clandestine operations.  His allegiances transferred to the Anglo-American West, Skorzeny himself became a principal planner of anticommunist resistance in the event of the long-expected Soviet invasion of democratic Europe.  (His 1957 memoir, Skorzeny’s Special Missions, still repays careful reading.)  By the early 1950’s, elite guerrilla units were a lively force in military thinking, Western and Eastern.  (The Soviets developed their own Spetznaz.)

Such lofty strategic debates had little impact on the world of Edward Fitzgerald, an early recruit to the new Airborne Group.  Bank’s Bandits can certainly be read as a romp, with its tales of Special Forces exercises in Georgia directed against the overwhelming might of the Aggressor formations—that is, the 82nd Airborne.  Among the heroic victories described by Fitzgerald are the great chicken raid, which involved purloining large portions of the 82nd’s dinner, and an assault in which four of his colleagues defeated and destroyed an entire camp of the regular airborne units.  We also hear of special units serving as “force multipliers,” organizing the activities of local militia units.  In this case, though, the ragged allies are not Afghan or Kurdish tribesmen but Dixie bootleggers and moonshiners, who have signed on to the cause, together with an octogenarian veteran whose glory days were in the time of Pershing and Pancho Villa.

These chapters make for particularly lively reading, but they also show how deep-rooted are some of the issues that would bedevil the later history of Special Forces.  One, of course, is the rivalry with mainstream Army units and with conventionally minded officers not prepared to tolerate the distinctive standards and behavior demanded in unconventional warfare.  Issues of washing, shaving, and saluting can all incite conflict.  While the officers of Bank’s Bandits were praising and rewarding their men for trampling standard operating practices underfoot in order to achieve their goals, mainstream officers were threatening Special Forces with court martial for doing exactly the same thing.

We can also see the roots of the Special Forces mythology: the image of the supermen who can speak any language, deploy any weapon, and accomplish virtually anything—it seems—up to and including psychokinesis and teleportation.  The origins of this myth are not hard to find.  If four men arrive in the night and ruin a much larger formation, they will develop an heroic reputation; it is comforting, moreover, for ordinary civilians to believe that such supermen are, in fact, out there somewhere fighting our wars for us.

To speak of a Special Forces myth does not for a second denigrate the real achievements of such units; it does, nevertheless, encourage a critical reading of memoirs that place sole emphasis on this kind of derring-do.  For some writers, mythologizing Special Forces helps defuse the horrors of combat, by de-emphasizing war as assembly-line butchery and stressing an individual heroism that recalls the knights and cavaliers of old—the “army of one” incarnate.  For an understanding of the American mental attitude at the outset of the Vietnam War,  the classic Western The Magnificent Seven, in which a handful of highly professional Americans organize a hitherto passive mass of Mexican peasants to rise up and fight off gangs of vicious bandits (who clearly symbolize the Vietcong), is invaluable.  Whether in Mexico, Southeast Asia, or the Middle East, it seemed, a handful of Special Forces could work miracles: John Kennedy loved his Green Berets.  (It is salutary to read, as a counterweight, the British mythologies of this kind discussed in John Newsinger’s debunking text Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture .)

One of the pleasures of Fitzgerald’s book is his treatment of the motivations of soldiers joining up with this or any comparable unit, their ordinariness, and the implausibility of the superman myth.  We are left with an impression of intelligent, gutsy soldiers—but definitely men of this earth.  Anyone wishing to understand modern warfare needs to pay full account to the Special Forces tradition.  This shrewd and readable book is a valuable addition to that tradition in its literary aspect.


[Bank’s Bandits: The Untold Story of the Original Green Berets, by Edward F. Fitzgerald (Haverford, PA: Infinity Publishing) 453 pp., $20.95]