Transcript follows...

Q: General Boykin, if I've just come off the planet Mars and I have no comprehension whatsoever, where are we here and what do you do?

A: You're at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.  Our primary task here is to select and train the Army's Special Forces and the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations troops.  We also do advanced training like the halo and the scuba and other specialty skills, and we are the doctrinal proponents for Army Special Operations. We have a very complex school here that does many things for not only the Army Special Operations but the joint community as well including all of the other services.

Q: What type of thing goes on here?

A: We bring young men, and in the case of ... Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations young women as well.  And to the Special Forces-Army Special Operations community.  We select them.  We train them.  We develop them into young leaders, and then we provide them out to the force.  Those are the fine young men and women that are performing in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Philippines and many other places around the world that are not so well known.

Q: As you look back why did you become a Special Forces soldier in the first place?  What was it that attracted you and drove you toward this?

A: I think in 1978 I was given the opportunity to come into the Special Operations community, and I think that I saw it as an opportunity to serve in probably a more comprehensive way.  I saw it as a challenge.  I saw it as an opportunity to do things that I came in the Army to do.  Special Operations has the reputation of being very active, being very involved.  I came in essentially because I wanted to be part of that. I think the young men that we are seeing today that come into Special Forces are coming for fundamentally the same reasons.

Q: What is it about Special Forces specifically that has given you satisfaction?

A: Special Forces is a place that a soldier can use his creativity, can use his initiative, can do things that he probably would not have been able to do in units outside of Special Operations.  We operate as a very small element.  So there's a lot of independent operations.  There's a lot of opportunities for leaders to lead at all levels.  But I think probably the thing that attracts people the most and gives them the greatest satisfaction is the opportunity to be innovative.

Q: How so?

A: We are developing people to operate in very ambiguous environments and ambiguous situations against a ambiguous and asymmetric enemy.  So if you take for example Afghanistan there was no enemy there that was templatable.  Their was no enemy that was very predictable.  There was plenty of opportunities for our special forces people to develop concepts, tactics, techniques, procedures that really were a result of their understanding of the environment, their problem solving abilities. So as we look at warfare in the 21st century we see an asymmetric enemy that will require more problem solving than reliance on doctrine.  So I think that most of our people just enjoy the opportunity to be creative, innovative, adaptable and to get out and do things that allows them to use their creative energies.

Q: The idea of any country taking force on force against the United States (today) is pretty hard to imagine. Talk me through that a little bit and what the new enemy is and the role of Special Forces.

A: Well, first of all we are always going to have a conventional threat that we need to be concerned about.  There are-there are fairly large armies in a number of different places and fairly well equipped and modern.  However, the enemy that is probably most prolific and the enemy that we have to be most concerned about is an asymmetric enemy, an enemy who has no norms.  He is rather unpredictable.  In fact what is predictable is that he will do what we don't expect. An enemy that is well-connected, well-resourced, has access to technology, and an enemy that is bound to destroy us but his greatest asset in fact may be time because this enemy has not set a time limit.  So what we have got to do to combat that is we've gotta have people that rely more on their ability to think and problem solve than on their understanding of enemy tactics because the enemy tactics change very rapidly.  That's why on 9-11 we literally saw an enemy that used our airplanes to be his own air force.  Now we've gotta be able to think like that enemy in order to defeat him.  So we assess and select people based more on their ability to think and problem solve and adapt than on their ability to memorize and learn from a rote perspective.

Q: What is the quintessential special forces soldier?

A: I think the quintessential special forces soldier is an individual that is adaptable, that is creative, an individual that is committed, that is values-based.  We want people here.  We only accept people here that have strong values.  Part of which are the Army values.  But we go a little beyond that.  So we think that the quintessential individual here is someone who is very committed to their country, to their family, to the Army but is also a problem-solver.  That has creative abilities and energies. An individual that can think on a level that would not necessarily be what we would expect of your average soldier.

Q: What is the difference between a conventional and an unconventional soldier?

A: If we just look at personalities of people many people rely more on what they've learned. They fall back on what they've learned in their training and their education.  We certainly think that's important to the Special Forces soldier.  We also think that it's important that a Special Forces soldier be able to take any situation, one for which he has never trained.  One for which he has never really prepared and be able to understand his environment.  Be able to understand his task.  And then be able to problem-solve and be creative and figure out how to be successful with the task that he's been given. So what is the difference between the conventional soldier and a special operations soldier?  I think the difference is that the environment that the Special Operations soldier operates in gives him a greater opportunity to be innovative and adaptive.

Q: And to improvise?

A: And to improvise, absolutely.

Q: Just going back for a moment.  You joined the Army at a time that the United States was wrapping up in Vietnam. What did you learn from (Vietnam) and that time?

A: You know when I came in the Army I went to Vietnam for a short period for about three months when I first came in the Army.  I think that our Army was in a crisis.  We were in a crisis of leadership.  We were in really a crisis of identifying what we were as an institution.  It was not a good army to be in.  There were a lot of problems. Lot of leadership problems.  Lot of racial problems.  A lot of problems in a variety of different areas in the Army.  It was not a good place to be.  What I determined at that particular time was that if this in fact was the future, and if this is what I could expect that I probably would find something else to do.  I would serve my time and then move on. However as a young lieutenant I had an opportunity to go to a ranger battalion when it was first created.  It changed my entire perspective.  It was professional.  It was everything that I expected the Army to be.  That sort of changed my whole attitude.  It helped me to realize what an army really could be.  Of course, my world was very small at that time.  It was one battalion.  But it helped me to understand what the Army really could be. I think it set me on a course of determination to help this army to become the professional institution that the American public expected.

Q: Special Forces seems to have been on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.  Of being turned to and yet at other times pushed into a corner over the last several decades, I guess.  Do you agree with that?

A: Absolutely.  The history of Special Forces is-is full of change.  Those changes in many cases have been good changes and some have been bad changes.  But during the initial stages of the Cold War when Special Forces was created in 1952 there was a very clear requirement for Special Forces. That requirement became rather obscure until Vietnam.  Then Special Forces again was used extensively.  It became very credible.  But then after Vietnam, the requirement again was not fully recognized.  So Special Forces began to decline.  The numbers began to be reduced.  Then as we moved beyond the cold War and we've moved kind of into the post-Cold War period there became a new necessity for Special Forces as we began to start our military to military contacts and our joint training with other nations and other armies and other police forces. Then of course as we went into Desert Storm.  Special forces did such a good job in Desert Storm and places like Panama and even in Somalia.  I think that the Army leadership began to understand that there was a tremendous value in Special Forces.  Then of course in the last couple of years I think the contributions of Special Forces has been well recognized. So one of the biggest things that has occurred is that the Army leadership has come to understand and accept the value and the capacities of Special Forces and that's made a big difference.

Q: But there's always been a debate in the Army about the need for Special Forces and how much emphasis should be there or should not be there.

A: Absolutely.  There's always been a question in the minds of certainly the Army leadership as to what contribution Special Forces could make.  How much we really needed to invest in Special Forces.  I think the Congress took a leading role in 1986 when it created the Special Operations Command to be responsible for all special operations to include the other services. I think the debate probably ended there with the creation of the Special Operations Command.  But I think in the last few years the Army leadership has resourced and supported Special Forces very well.  I think that's the trend of the future.

Q: You're familiar with Desert One (the rescue attempt to free the American hostages in Iran that ended in a tragic crash of U.S. military aircraft and the death of eight men).  You were on that mission.  Tell me what happened there from your first-hand perspective.  What happened there?  What went wrong?

A: In 1980 when we went into Iran to rescue the fifty-three Americans we did two things that were wrong.  First of all we stretched men and machines to their limits and failed.  Secondly, we confused enthusiasm with capabilities.  It was a very tough job.  It was in that particular time a job that we were as a nation not prepared for.  We didn't have the resources.  We didn't have the habitual training relationships. Our capabilities were just not up to the task.  We had some very courageous people.  We had some extraordinary men at all levels that were willing to try.  But it was beyond our capabilities frankly.

Q: As you went into Desert One yourself, you must have gone in with enthusiasm like everybody there.  How far were you into it before you realized that (in) reality it was beyond capability?

A: Well I think we all expected-we went in with an expectation of success clearly.  But I think it was as soon as the helicopters landed at Desert One and notified us that there were only five flyable helicopters-we needed six.  So when they told us that they couldn't fly we knew the mission was over.  We still hoped that we would be able to come back and try it again.  Then of course we had the crash that occurred there that resulted in eight deaths.  Then we knew that there was no second chance. But up to that point we had-we really anticipated we'd be able to come back and try it again in twenty-four, forty-eight hours or something like that.

Q: What went through your heart and soul when you had the crash and you knew that it had failed and you had to come back?

A: Um, it was probably at that point in my life the most devastating moment of my life.  Now I've had some subsequent things that have probably been a bit more devastating, but that was probably the most devastating moment of my life.  When I saw that C-130 and that RH-53 explode into flames I realized that we hadn't failed but America had failed and that our country was going to pay a high price for our failure there at Desert One.

Q: But in the Phoenix type fashion the Special Forces did something that you guys are pretty proud of and that's learning from mistakes. What was learned from Desert One?

A: What was learned from Desert One was that our country was not up to the task.  It resulted in a review called the Holloway Commission chaired by former Admiral Holloway.  Out of Desert One and out of that review became-came a re-structuring of the Special Operations community, the joint community. Not just the Army.  We started to re-build our capabilities.  Today of course as you well know we have no peers in our Special Operations. But Desert One was a great tragedy that resulted in a wake up call for American leadership for the American public.  What has risen from that as you say like the Phoenix we have an extraordinary capability today that we probably wouldn't have had it not been for Desert One.

Q: So Desert One-I'm not saying it was worthwhile obviously-but good came from it.

A: Well, it's hard to sit here now and say that it was worth the lives and the embarrassment and the loss of prestige in the world.  But the reality is as we look back now had we not gone into Desert One and had we not failed to rescue our fifty-three Americans we would not be where we are today in our Special Operations capabilities.

Q: Because it was wake up call not only to you members of the Special Forces community but to-but to Congress as well and to the American nation?

A: Absolutely.  It was a wake-up call to the leadership in the military, to the Congress, to the President and to the American people.

Q: Tell me about that philosophy of-the SF philosophy of learning from mistakes.

A: We are probably one of the-certainly one of the leading communities in the military in terms of experiential learning.  We believe that in many cases what needs to occur is that soldiers need to be given a wide variety of experiences.  They need to encounter things that they're in fact not trained for.  Then we need to provide them extraordinary amounts of feedback on how they performed. That is not always based on a standard that we expect them to meet.  It's based on giving them an experience that they will reflect on, that they will fall back on when they encounter a similar situation.  In many cases they're going to make mistakes.  You can call it error-based learning.  You can call it whatever you want to.  But we expect them to make some mistakes. The key is that we provide them feedback on those mistakes and allow them to do self-development.  Allow them to learn from those mistakes.  We think that's an important part of their development.  Everything we do is not training.  A lot of it is development, developing leaders, adaptive leaders.

Q: How do you identify those guys?

A: Well, we put them through quite an extensive physical evaluation.  A lot of tough tasks that we require them to perform.  But we also rely very heavily on psychological and personality testing.  We understand these people fairly well.  But more importantly we help them to understand themselves.

Q: On the lessons learned and (through to) Afghanistan, how were those lessons implemented?

A: Yeah.  It's very rewarding to talk to these young men coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq and other places because they tell us that the training that they went through here, the development that they went through here, the preparation that they went through was exactly right.  They've given us some ideas for improvement.  Particularly in some of the skills. But for example during the final phase of Special Forces we run a big exercise called "Robin Sage" in which we create a guerrilla organization.  We hire role players to play the guerrilla chiefs, and we create dilemmas for our leaders.  These leaders are constantly dealing with a rapidly changing environment and they are required to deal with dilemmas that are not necessarily taught in military training.  For example a guerrilla chief that wants to kill a prisoner that he just captured which is against the law.  So we essentially establish the boundaries for our leaders are legal, ethical and moral.  Now if you stay within that you've got a lot of flexibility and latitude. When they come out of Afghanistan they tell us that they've been encountering a replay of the scenarios that we built into Robin Sage.  See all of those things that-all of those dilemmas that we encountered in Robin Sage we encountered for real in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the Philippines and other places.  Very rewarding to know that we're doing something right here.

Q: But you yourself had a vital role in the change and the development.  Talk me through your-the time from when you got involved in the training and the making of the SF soldier and what you found when you first came and how you-what changes you made and why.

A: As much as I’d like to personally take credit for all of the great changes that have occurred in Special Forces training I will be very candid with you.  What I had to do was sit down and listen to the non-commissioned officers that have been in this community for a long time.  They knew where we needed to go.  They knew what we needed to do. They reflected on their own experience.  They reflected on their understanding of the Special Forces today.  They gave me a roadmap.  My task was simply to take the ideas that these people gave me and develop a concept and a plan for how we would do those things.  So, for example, we added a lot more small unit tactics.  We added a lot more live fire.  We’ve added new courses that reflect the changes in the environment today. So yeah.  There’ve been a lot of changes, and I’d like to take credit for them.  But the reality is it came from the non-commissioned officers that are serving in the force today and those that have retired and stayed part of this community. They have a very clear vision of where we need to go.

Q: When it was down it was at a point where as I understand people couldn’t even communicate on the same radio frequencies.  Desert One was an example of that.  So nuts and bolts had to be repaired as well.

A: Well, absolutely.  I mean there are—you’ve got various things that go into building a credible capability here.  The technology is one piece of it and that’s technology that not only gives us an edge but technology that allows us to integrate our different elements.  In some cases our elements from different for—different elements of the force, the joint community in other words. But then there’s also the issue of how do we train?  How do we develop?  How do we structure?  There’s a lot of things that goes into building credible capabilities.

Q: Technology versus humanity is an old intelligence debate isn’t it in the intelligence world.  So it’s one that’s arisen in the Special Forces community. How do you seek to draw the line between technology versus people?

A; We take the view that the technology is only there to enhance the individual soldier.  We say right up front that our investment is in the soldier.  The human dimension is far more important to us than the materiel.  However, we know that we can enable that soldier with technology, and that’s what we attempt to do.  We go after high tech.  I mean we are constantly chasing every piece of equipment or technology that will give that soldier an edge. But at the end of the day our greatest investment is in the individual soldier because technology can’t think. Technology doesn’t adapt real well.  But the soldier will think. He will problem solve. He’ll be creative.  He’ll take that technology and adapt it to the environment and the situation that he’s in.

Q: How does a Green Beret say to me that, and I put it in layman’s terminology, that the difference between a conventional and SF method would be that SF is much more given the commander's intent and the parameters to go do it and work it out as he can?

A: Well, first of all we need to realize I don’t want to draw personally a great distinction between the conventional soldier and the Special Forces soldier simply because we draw the majority of our soldiers from a conventional force.  Now there’s different environments.  There’s different opportunities.  But we love the conventional military because… At the same time you’re right.  They rely on commander’s intent.  As long as they understand their task, they understand their legal, ethical and moral limits of the environment there, fundamentally we give them their task and they move out.

Q: How is it that Afghanistan became one not only from but for the textbooks in a sense a quintessential SF war?  Why?

A: First of all we need to not draw too many conclusions from Afghanistan.  We—our soldiers—did  did wonderfully.  But that was a unique environment.  It was an environment that really was ideal for the employment of Special Forces in an unconventional warfare role.  There was a illegitimate government that was ruling that country. There were resistance movements that had already been created.  All they needed was a little bit of support.  A little bit of assistance and direction.  We gave them that through very small teams of Special Forces.  Supported by the full might of the U.S. Department of Defense to include all of the attack air and the naval gunfire and all the things that could be brought to bear.  It was an ideal environment. I look around I’m not sure that I see a lot more Afghanistans.  But then I do see situations like Iraq where you’ve got a very conventional battle, but you’ve got an area like the northern area in Iraq where there were thousands of Kurdish warriors that we can employ our Special Forces in.  We can build armies.  We can take them to war and be really a supporting element of a much larger campaign.

Q: There came a point in Iraq where the infantry and the mechanized war reached a stop and  some would say that the SF war began in Iraq.  What is the role of the SF in Iraq?

A: Well, I think that the role has shifted somewhat.  I think if you look at Iraq you had a conventional battle coming up from the south with a clear target of Baghdad.  You had western Iraq that was essentially controlled by SOF.  You can call it an economy of force measure or whatever, but western Iraq was controlled by SOF.  Then you had a northern front that was Special Forces teams with the Kurdish warriors up there that created a northern front and took on probably between eleven and thirteen divisions up there and very successfully. So we had SOF at every level working with the conventional forces.  Working separate from the conventional forces, with conventional forces under the command and control of SOF.  I mean it was an extraordinary environment. Now where are we today as we’ve transitioned to possibly what we call support and stability operations?  I think SOF is doing a variety of things there and part of which is simply providing commanders there with ground truth doing reconnaissance and working with the people in Iraq in trying to meet their needs and identify their needs as well. So I think we’ve had a shift in the role there in SOF.  But it’s been a great opportunity to essentially perform just about every mission on the SOF books.

Q: You said earlier that Desert One was the most devastating experience you’d had until that point in your life.  What came later?

A: Well, I think Somalia would be probably the thing that I would reflect on and say that’s the most devastating moment for me personally.  But I think what we need to recognize is that Somalia was a situation in which a lot of very brave American soldiers—Rangers and Special Forces—paid a tremendous price to do what they had been tasked to do.  We are proud of that today.  We’re proud of what they did. But on the third of October we got into a tough fight.  And these men fought courageously, they fought bravely and 15 of them were killed.  In fact, a couple of days later a 16th man was killed.  It was a devastating situation.  The greatest devastation of the whole thing was the fact that we left there before we completed the job. I think that probably did more to hurt the morale of the soldiers than just the fact that we had lost our comrades.  It was—it was a tough fight.  It was a tough mission, but every man went into it confident that we would succeed.  And the mere fact that we lost 15 people did not cause any of those soldiers to want to go home. They wanted to stay and finish the task.  Unfortunately, they were not allowed to.  But this is another example of the hazards, the dangers.  It’s also a great example of the commitment, the courage, the teamwork.  But this is what Special Ops is about.  It’s what we do. And I’m very proud of the soldiers that fought there in Somalia.

Q: What was your role in the operation that some call “Black Hawk Down?”

A: Well, I was…  At that time I was commanding essentially the ground elements there, the operational elements I should probably say.  And John Bill Garrison was there as the overall Commander for the Task Force and I had the operational piece of it.  And we had a mission on the 3rd of October to go into the city and to capture some people. Not our primary target, which was Mohammed Ahdeed. But we had a task to capture some people there in the city.  We did that.  We brought them back. It cost us 15 lives that day and another 70 plus wounded.  But it was—it was a courageous fight.

Q: Was there a lesson to be learned from that experience?

A: Yeah, I think there were a number of tactical lessons learned, but there were probably some strategic lessons learned that are equally important.  And the strategic lessons were that we were given a hard task and not given the resources that we needed.  We needed some tanks. We needed some overhead air support, AC-130 gun ships.  And it wasn’t available.  So we got in a tough fight and didn’t have everything that we needed.  At the tactical level there were numerous lessons learned.  But there are also some lessons reinforced, and that is the importance of small unit leadership, it’s the importance of cohesiveness, camaraderie, teamwork, training.  Those lessons were reinforced.

Q: The future of Special Forces? Are they needed?

A: First of all, I think that the future of Special Forces is certainly very positive.  I think that as a nation, as we look at what we want to accomplish in the future, that we need to recognize that there are many opportunities for us to work with the militaries and the governments of other nations. Special Forces is unquestionably the force of choice to do that.  Take continents like Africa where we’ve got a relatively small U.S. military presence most of the time, that’s a Special Forces ODA working in a country with their military.  It’s a great way to build relations, it’s a great way to build—to shape the environments for future operations. Uzbekistan is a good example.  We had been working with the Uzbekistan army for some time and then that led to an opportunity to base forces in Uzbekistan when we went into Afghanistan.  So I think that as you look at the requirements across the world, there will be more requirements for military and the military contacts. Special Forces is the force of choice.  But, there are also many situations in which we can achieve U.S. objectives, national security objectives by simply supporting someone else’s forces.  It may be a resistance movement, it may be the legitimate forces of a government. But with just a little bit of support, which Special Forces can provide, we can support our friends and allies and others that have U.S. interests with a fairly small signature.  And I think that the future of Special Forces is that we will be the force of choice for those kinds of things.

Exclusive Interview

With General Boykin:

Until mid-2003, U.S. Army Lt. General William G. Boykin, was the Commanding General in charge of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Special Operations Command. He was then appointed Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. His mission: to reinvigorate the search for Osama bin Laden and other leaders of global terrorism. Some critics called for his dismissal for comments attributed to him during appearances at churches, a controversy that received wide media attention.

Shortly before moving to the Pentagon, General Boykin, who has rarely spoken with the media, talked at length about his career and the role of Special Forces in an exclusive interview with Richard Mackenzie for his

National Geographic documentary, "Inside Special Forces." Boykin discussed a wide range of topics including his personal experiences and the lessons learned from Desert One, the tragic failed mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, to his role in the operation that became known as "Black Hawk Down" and SF success in Afghanistan and operations in Iraq.

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