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What are the Army Special Forces?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Army Special Forces are more commonly known as the Green Berets and are an elite unit within the U.S. Armed Forces founded in 1952. This group is charged with six missions: counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, unconventional warfare, direct action and foreign internal defense. The Army Special Forces are frequently involved in search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping missions as well as counter-drug operations, manhunts and training foreign forces.

Active duty Green Berets uphold the Latin motto de oppresso liber, which means to liberate the oppressed. The symbol of the Army Special Forces is the green beret first authorized by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 for use by members of this elite unit. Although some Army Special Forces manuals and documentation have been made public, much information relating to the activities, techniques and missions of the Green Berets is classified.

Unconventional warfare was the first and remains the primary mission of the Army Special Forces since the unit was created in 1952 as part of the U.S. Army Psychological Warfare Division under Brigadier General Robert McClure. The direct opposite of conventional warfare, unconventional warfare involves the use of clandestine or covert methods to influence the outcome of battle. Units can spread propaganda and disinformation behind enemy lines meant to undermine enemy forces and governments, target non-military buildings and disrupt supply lines. Sabotage, subversion and guerrilla warfare tactics are all methods employed by those engaged in unconventional warfare.

The Green Berets are organized into Special Forces groups that are headquartered throughout the United States and that are responsible for different region. For example, the 20th Special Forces Group operates in Central and South America and is headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., while the 5th Special Forces Group headquartered at Fort Campbell, Ky., operates in the Middle East, Central Asia, Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf. Within each group are detachments or alpha teams of a dozen men with the commanding and warrant officers as leaders. The remaining ten men are experts in either intelligence, communications, medicine, weapons or engineering.

The selection process for the Army Special Forces is long, difficult and competitive. Candidates are typically college educated, speak a language other than English, have completed paratrooper and Army Ranger training, and have attained the rank of specialist or corporal. Potential Green Berets will be tested mentally and physically and will be subjected to a rigorous background check.

The selection process consists of a qualification course or “Q Course” that begins with a four-week introductory class followed by a month-long trial of physical endurance meant to filter out unqualified candidates. Training can last up to 95 weeks and emphasizes critical and independent thinking but may also subject a candidate to treatment typical of a prisoner of war camp or extreme elements in addition to weapon and scuba instruction.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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