Originally published in MilitaryWeek.com, 16 June 05
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
"Sharkman of the Delta"
An exclusive interview with retired Navy SEAL Commander Richard "Rogue Warrior" Marcinko
Commander Richard Marcinko (U.S. Navy – ret.) is a mythical figure in Naval and military circles. Ask any sailor in the American Navy - or any special operations commando from any branch of service - and they will readily admit that Marcinko is one of the most influential SpecOps officers to have ever worn the uniform. Affectionately referred to as "the Sharkman of the Delta" (a throwback moniker to his days as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam), Marcinko is the founder and first commanding officer of two of the Navy's premier special operations units: SEAL Team Six (arguably the world's best-trained counterterrorist force, which has been reconstituted as Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU) and RED CELL (a SEAL unit tasked with testing Navy and Marine Corps security forces throughout the world).
Marcinko, who retired after 30-years of service, is today a security consultant and CEO of SOS Temps, a private security firm that provides services to governments and corporations around the world. He has trained mercenaries, many of whom are currently contracted and serving around the globe. And when asked (during one of my previous interviews with him) if he himself had ever worked as a merc, he hesitated then laughingly replied, "I can't answer that."
As a pop culture figure, Marcinko is best known as the author of numerous fiction and non-fiction books, including The New York Times' bestseller, Rogue Warrior, and his latest work, Vengeance, said to be "a thriller ripped from tomorrow's headlines."
In an exclusive interview, Marcinko discusses his new book, the war in Iraq, current missions for special operations forces, weaknesses in Homeland Security, and the future of America's war on terror.
W. THOMAS SMITH JR: From a special operations standpoint, what are we doing right and what could we be doing better in Iraq?
RICHARD MARCINKO: Well, it's a new way of fighting for us. Basic training used to be focused on stopping or fighting a conventional war. This urban warfare we're now facing – where the enemy wears no uniform and flies no flag – is just nasty. Then, on top of being in combat, our soldiers have to be politically correct. That is just a complication that is not a normal thing in fighting a war. In a normal situation, there are good guys and bad guys, and you kick ass and survive. Now, we have to basically fight with one hand tied behind our backs, and that's a complication of urban warfare.
Look, we are taking 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds and telling them they can't go all out in a fight. Instead, they have to be as much a diplomat as [career diplomat, now Director of National Intelligence John D.] Negroponte was, and that they have to win the hearts and minds. That's a lot to put on a kid.
On the other hand, our special operations teams are comprised of older kids. Those are the ones who used to concern themselves with winning hearts and minds, because they had already found themselves.
So the youngsters today are finding themselves – until the first bullet goes by with their name on it – trying to identify who the hell the bad guys are, taking the risk everyday, and having to be mature enough to win the hearts and minds.
SMITH: So perhaps we should focus less on hearts and minds, and put more fight into it? What specifically, strategically, do we need to be doing better?
MARCINKO: We need to get out more on the borders. We need to keep a nucleus – much like we did with the A Teams, B Teams, and C Teams of the Vietnam era – in the cities in with the people, and stay there. Don't shift from city to city. But establish a rapport, and work on the hearts and minds in the inner city, and use the Iraqis to do the purging. They speak the language better, and they should clean up their own mess, because they are the ones who are going to have to live with it. That way, we'll truly end up as advisors, helping them and giving them the high-tech and the how-to, and providing the on-call fire support that they don't have.
SMITH: Aren't we essentially doing that now?
MARCINKO: Well, yeah, but we're doing it with line companies, not with the more senior, experienced guys. The problem is, Priority One is to stay alive. Winning hearts and minds is not. It is hard to send someone down the street and tell them to give gum and candy to kids and yet not be sure that they're not being lured out there by that kid for a sniper.
Insurgents are even now using suicide dogs, bombs strapped to dogs. They've been using [animal] carcasses to infiltrate tubes and rockets into cities. It's the old Trojan Horse thing.
Beyond that, you've got the fact that [Al Queda strongman Abu Musab al] Zarqawi can be wounded, receive treatment in town, then cross the border for more serious treatment.
All this means is that we need to get out there, seal up the borders, and simply raise havoc on the insurgent routes of egress and ingress. Nail them in the open. There you can be brutal. Take the Marines – like we've done on the western sector and along the Syrian border – and say, okay, have at it!
SMITH: You mention Zarqawi: With all of our technology and commandos like our SEALs and other SpecOps guys in the country, why haven't we been able to take out Zarqawi?
MARCINKO: Well, remember, we found Saddam in a hole. So, you need someone local who will trust you enough to tell you, hey, they're here. And that's hard, particularly when you are operating in an area where the locals' way of life has not really improved in all the time you've been there. So, we don't always, necessarily look like the winning ticket. And remember the last time we left the Shiites, Saddam took care of tens-of-thousands of them. They're not going to be very trusting of us, not to mention the fact that they know there is the potential of a civil war erupting among themselves.
SMITH: Americans have a perception of the training and missions of special operations forces that is formed mostly by what they see in pop culture kinds of things: Books, TV, movies. What about reality? Where else – besides Iraq and Afghanistan – are our special ops forces operating throughout the world, and what types of missions are they performing?
MARCINKO: Many of them are still heavy into training. They always are. Many are in the old satellite nations of the old Soviet Union, doing the old force-multiplier thing. They build a cadre. That cadre builds a cadre. They're in all the "stans" – Pakistan, Uzbekistan, you name it. They're in those mountain passes. They're establishing forces in those areas, because there is still a lot of illicit trade – drugs and weapons – in those areas that will fuel any insurgency.
The issue between Pakistan and India is very dangerous. Both now have nuclear capabilities, and there is a history of friction between the two. Consequently, there are problem areas along the border. Now, of course, Iran is upset with Pakistan over recent statements about Iran's nuclear development. So there is hate-hate there.
Then take someone like Osama bin Laden: He's always operated in a small transit group. They move constantly. The group protects him. I know, he's only symbolic, but we would like to get him, kill him, and let everyone know we can. We don't want him to be the ghost who thumbs his nose at us every time.
But these places are rugged and vast and difficult to operate in. Look at Afghanistan, for instance: There are only two kinds of fields there – minefields and poppy fields – and until you can develop roads and create access for the general population, that's all they have to live with. No major world power has ever won in Afghanistan. The tribal warlords have simply worn out the invaders. Our clock and their clock simply tick differently. They're willing to wait, wait, wait. Whereas, we always want instant results.
So, this is not simply a military thing. It is very complex, and that's why our special operations forces are in these regions.
SMITH: Overall, what does the future hold for us and our deployed military forces?
MARCINKO: Our troops are certainly seasoned. We have a very experienced armed force, today, at least in terms of finding themselves. Now, they've got to find the enemy and nail him. And in Iraq, if we don't get some restoration there soon, that country is going to end up in a civil war that no one can control.
I can see us there in 2010 – just for conversation's sake – with two major installations that would basically be USA fortresses with infirmaries and Mickey D's and those kinds of things. And those fortresses would be built on something like – in our language – a Mason-Dixon line, and we would not allow certain groups to cross that line. And I don't long how long American taxpayers would be comfortable with that.
Iraq is certainly going to be a drumbeat for the 2008 elections. So we really need to get off our ass, focus, and get a lot done in a short time.
SMITH: You often talk about soldiers and sailors "finding themselves."
MARCINKO: Yes, for instance, SEAL training is intensive training. So a SEAL will come out of that and say, 'Okay, now I know I can do anything.' But that's training. You really don't know how you are going to respond in combat until that first bullet zings past your head. I've seen people who in training were tigers, but were pussies in war. I've also seen people who I wasn't sure why I was taking them to war, but when we got there, it was hard for me to keep them under control. It's the human factor.
After my first tour in Vietnam, the Navy behavioral sciences laboratory asked me to come in and tell them what makes a good SEAL. What is the prototype? Is it a broken home? Does he have brown hair? Is he six feet tall? Five foot eight? Anything that would give them a template to make screening for SEALs a lot easier. But that's not how it works.
I like to say, SEALs are basically a bunch of social misfits who make music together. They challenge systems. They've got to be challenged, or they get in trouble.
SMITH: Can we win the war on terror?
MARCINKO: It's not about winning or losing. It's about whether or nor we can survive the war. It's not something that's going to go away.
There was a recent piece in The Washington Post about reassessment and where-are-we-going. My take? Quit studying the damned problem, and let's attack it! Al Queda is a franchise organization. Yes, Osama bin Laden is a figurehead. He can raise money. But the real problem is the fact that we have these little monsters popping their heads out of caves around the world, and we'll be hunting them down forever. Right after 9-11, we said that Al Queda trainees were in 60 countries, worldwide. Now we know they are in far more. They're all dirty warriors. They don't wear uniforms. They don't fly flags. They can blend in wherever they are. They can outwait us. So this war is not something we can write an exit strategy on, or predict that in 2009 the last pistol shot will be fired.
SMITH: Let's look at your latest book for a moment: Is Vengeance a reflection of just how many holes or flaws can be found in our homeland defense? And if so, what can the ordinary American do?
MARCINKO: The whole series is to make people aware of what terrorists could do, would do, and might do. So you read the book and you start looking around your neighborhood and say, could it happen here? It's educating you to extend the neighborhood watch programs so that at least you are aware. After 9-11, people are less hesitant to call the police and say, 'Hey, I saw something odd down the street.' This book reinforces that.
Vengeance is certainly a play on demonstrating the holes that are apparent in homeland security. Now, is it fiction or prediction? I've predicted things that have happened in the past, including an airplane-run way ahead of 9-11. How? Because I know the terrorist mind. I think like a bad guy.
This new book does look at vulnerabilities. It does embarrass the bureaucratic system, but not the people in the field who are either not trained or not equipped.
In real terms, we've just now accepted the profiling of Middle Eastern men as possible terrorists. In Vengeance we have Bosnians who are round-eyed and look like you and me, but they are still Muslim. That's the wrinkle of reality. They can hate us just as much. They read the same Koran. They can be just as much a terrorist as a Middle Easterner, so we've get to stop putting our head in the sand.
SMITH: So, you're not satisfied with our current homeland defense.
MARCINKO: No. I'm not at all happy with homeland defense. I've talked with academia about this, and the fact that we don't have a good anti-terrorism program, which means informing the people.
SMITH: How do we do that?
MARCINKO: I've proposed an idea to several major universities – near where I train other [institutions or companies] nearby. I'd like to see a two-hour block of instruction in every academically functional area where I will 'red cell' the learning curve. So, for instance, with engineering students, I could explain to them how, as a bad guy, I would break something. Then take them to the field and show them how I would do it. We would look at subways, and I would show them how I could turn that into something really nasty; and powergrids, where I would show them how I could shut those down. They would then go back and say, 'Okay, how might I design this system better?' More importantly, they would become aware of how easy it is to breakdown our infrastructure.
SMITH: Is [the department of] Homeland Security listening to you on this?
MARCINKO: I talk to the troops and the people I know who work in Homeland Security, but, officially, Homeland Security doesn't talk to me, so I don't know if they are listening.
Over a year ago, they hired some writers to think out of the box, to come up with funny scenarios so they could study them. Why hire them? They could have gotten the Rogue Warrior series of books out of the library and there would've been enough there to keep them busy for three years.
We're simply not focusing our efforts in the right direction. We're pouring money into things that are not effective. All they're doing is writing policy, then going to industry to implement it. Then it has to go to the board-of-directors and the stockholders, and, frankly, if there's no profit margin in it, there's no impetus to do it.
For instance, the aviation industry has been told to rig civilian airliners to defend against surface-to-air missiles, just like we do with our military. Well, they finally have one bird that is being so-configured, and they'll test it. But the industry is saying it will be 2007 before they can get anything up and ready, and it'll probably cost close to $1 million per plane. There's already no profit in the airline industry, so who's going to pick up that expense? And the bad guys are still going to come and get us, because 70 percent of our airports are still under construction, and not everyone working on those sites has a green card.
SMITH: Why aren't these problems taken more seriously?
MARCINKO: We have no staying power. 9-11 was a long time ago, and people are saying, 'They [the terrorists] are not coming.' So, all Homeland Security has been doing is color-coding alert systems, building command centers, and shifting assets. Now there are all these people working at Homeland Security, but the FBI's database is not up to speed. Immigration is not really working. I could go on and on.
What makes it worse, I don't even have to bring a weapons system into the United States. I can just break into someplace and steal something. It's simply the price we pay for being free.
SMITH: Thanks for your time, Dick.
MARCINKO: Thank you.
Commander Marcinko's website can be found at DickMarcinko.com.
— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 W. Thomas Smith Jr.