Marines train during a live-fire exercise at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in July 2016. Marine Corps photo

The Green Berets’ Guidebook Calls Marines ‘Elitists’

Army book on navigating interservice rivalries has choice words for the Air Force, Navy and Marines

War Is Boring
Aug 6, 2016 · 7 min read


Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines like to have good-natured fun at each others’ expense. But the distinct mentalities between the branches can create real problems. One U.S. Army manual offered candid notes for commandos on how to deal with their own brothers and sisters in arms.

Outwardly, the so-called “Special Forces Advisor’s Reference Book” focuses on the complexities of working with foreign troops, civilians and non-governmental organizations. But tucked away near the end of the main text, the authors included a detailed section on the “service culture” of other U.S. troops.

In short, the Army is great, according to the handbook. But the Marines are elitists who think they’re better than everyone else. The Air Force is dominated by pilots who believe they can win wars with technology alone. And the Navy is full of hidebound traditionalists who are resistant to change.

“Views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the United States Army Special Forces Command, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government,” a disclaimer noted.

War Is Boring obtained a copy of the handbook through the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2001, a company called Research Planning, Inc. delivered the first copies of the handbook to the Army’s top special operations command. The guide was supposed to be a handy reference for both war games and actual missions.

“This reference book is intended to provide a problem solving ready reference for [Special Forces] soldiers assigned as advisors or liaisons,” the manual stated. “The success SF has enjoyed as advisors and liaisons is directly attributable to the cross-cultural skills.”

Historically, one of the Green Berets’ main jobs is training friendly troops and guerrillas in hot spots around the world. In March, Gen. Joseph Votel, then head of the Pentagon’s main commando headquarters, said that “on any given day” almost 10,000 American special operators can be found in more than 80 countries.

When working with allies, “teams and advisors often occupy a very sensitive position,” the guidebook added. “In many situations, the commander and his team must be diplomats as well as military advisors.”

But the authors were well aware that commandos will have to negotiate relationships with other American troops with different histories and institutional cultures — which can often clash with how the Army prefers to conduct missions.

A U.S. Navy HH-60 Seahawk reels in Green Berets during a training exercise. Army photo

In drafting the manual, the South Carolina-based researchers dug into all the information they could quickly find about the different military branches. Research Planning, Inc. then did a cross-cultural analysis of each branch like they were distinct ethnic groups.

Not surprisingly, the overview of the company’s client, the Army, is relatively positive.

The first word the writers used to describe the ground combat branch was egalitarianism. “The Army tends to distrust and discourage elites,” the authors posited. “The Army, more so than the other services, deeply feels its attachment to the people of the country.”

Unlike the Air Force or Navy, the Army is focused more on people than weapons, vehicles or other gear, according to the manual. And the service’s soldiers best understand the need to work with their cousins across the Pentagon.

And “despite a brief flirtation with ‘battle calculus,’ the Army remains adverse to reliance on mathematical models and other purely quantitative tools to predict outcomes or evaluate combat capability,” the handbook declared. “This flows naturally from its human focus.”

In contrast, Research Planning described the Navy as rigid and inflexible, with long-standing traditions informing decisions. The sailing branch expects sailors and officers to understand their place.

“The Navy is scrupulously rank and specialty conscious, the guidebook explained. “Directly opposite the Army’s egalitarianism, the Navy maintains and fosters distinctions between specialties … Every attempt should be made to articulate ideas and concepts in a manner consistent with existing Naval thinking.”

When working with the Navy, Army commandos should try to avoid proposals that require “innovation or change.” Green Berets have a better chance of convincing the Navy to adopt a plan if they frame their role as supporting sea-going missions rather than taking over command.

The researchers reached similar conclusions about the Air Force, describing the service as being led by pilots and technocrats. As the youngest of America’s military services, the flying branch is always looking to prove the legitimacy of its independence from the Army.

Historians and other critics have regularly challenged the notion that the Air Force needs to exist as a separate branch. The Air Force is also technology-driven more than the other branches. “The AF tends to view warfare as dominated by technology,” the guidebook stated.

“Applications of technology are viewed as providing answers to most, if not all, problems associated with warfare (if not national security) … This reliance on high cost, low-density equipment has obvious implications for risk acceptance.”

Special Forces troops jump from a U.S. Air Force C-130. Army photo

Still, this means the Air Force is far and away the best at finding and destroying targets. Unfortunately, this skill has in turn created an institutional focus that is often blind to other considerations.

“It is almost a presumption … that destruction of adequate numbers of appropriately selected targets will achieve operational and strategic objectives,” the handbook stated. The human dimension of warfare, excepting pilots, are “generally subordinated to quantifiable target destruction.”

At the very end, the writers saved one of their most pointed criticisms for the Marine Corps. Though technically subordinate to the Department of the Navy, the leathernecks have a proud and functionally independent history that claims some of the oldest traditions among the services.

“Elitism,” was how Research Planning described the Marines. “The USMC considers itself to be superior, both individually and institutionally, to the other services and the Army in particular.”

The Marines have a long and complicated history with the Pentagon’s top special operations command. When the Army’s commandos received the manual in 2001, the Corps was still resisting the idea that it had to cede any elite troops to the command.

In 2006, the Marine Corps finally stood up the Marine Corps Special Operations Command.

But with its own internal air arm and close working relationship with the Navy, the leathernecks often see no need to work with the other services, according to the handbook. In particular, “Marine air assets are only ceded to the control of a Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) under duress,” the researchers noted.

The authors suggested Army commandos simply stress that they weren’t going anywhere whether the Marines liked it or not — rather than point out what they could offer.

According to the reference guide, Marines were unlikely to accept the idea that Army commandos could provide skills the Corps didn’t already possess.

“SF soldiers working with USMC elements should be aware that the Marines are likely to genuinely feel that the SF and SOF communities possess no capability not resident in the Corps.”

An appendix in the manual provides descriptions of other offices in the Pentagon, elements of the Department of State and other segments of the U.S. government. However, it doesn’t offer any descriptions of these groups’ internal culture or suggestions on how to interact with their employees.

Still, it’s easy to see why the Army and the Pentagon wanted to stress that the guide’s analysis was not an official viewpoint. But while Research Planning was blunt in its assessment, the guidebook did hit upon real issues within the halls of the Pentagon.

“The Army has doctrine, the Navy has tradition and the Air Force is new,” John Pike, director of, is fond of saying. And all of these factors inform different priorities and broad ideas of warfare that are unlikely to go away any time soon.

War Is Boring

From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

War Is Boring

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We go to war so you don’t have to

War Is Boring

From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

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