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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.4 (2002) 110-112

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Book Review

Green Berets in the Vanguard:
Inside Special Forces, 1953-1963

Chalmers Archer Jr., Green Berets in the Vanguard: Inside Special Forces, 1953-1963. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001, 139 pp. $29.95.

Following the decommissioning of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) at the end of World War II, U.S. leaders recognized the need for an elite military unit that would be capable of operating in distant regions of the world—a carefully selected group of tough, superbly trained soldiers who were prepared for deep infiltration missions in hostile territory, where they could engage in sabotage and guerrilla warfare. This thinking was motivated by the knowledge that Americans had always been adept at unconventional warfare. Accounts of legendary special operations units, ranging from Rogers' Rangers in the French and Indian Wars to Darby's Rangers, Merrill's Marauders, and the OSS in World War II, have been dramatized over the years by historians, fiction writers, and Hollywood directors whose fascination with America's "quiet professionals" seems to have no bounds.

On 19 June 1952 the 10th Special Forces Group (SFG) was formed under OSS veteran Col. Aaron Bank at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. For his headquarters Bank chose a remote part of Ft. Bragg called Smoke Bomb Hill—a name that still evokes vivid memories in any Special Forces veteran. The army had allocated 2,300 men to this new unit, but only ten were actually able to report for duty, after managing to evade personnel officers who had been trying to reroute them to conventional units. [End Page 110] The 10th SFG began with Col. Bank, a warrant officer, and eight enlisted men. One of these was a young air force medic named Chalmers Archer Jr.

Archer became a distinguished academic, with a Ph.D. in research and statistics from Auburn. His contributions to the higher planes of society have been widely acknowledged. He received the Tenth Annual Afro-Achievement Award for distinguished lifetime contribution to the field of education. His previous book, Growing Up Black in Rural Mississippi (New York: Walker, 1992), won an award and also appears to have inspired him to write what is in some ways a sequel, Green Berets in the Vanguard. Archer attributes much of his success as a Special Forces (SF) soldier in 1953-1963 to the strength of character and lessons he learned while growing up in Mississippi under the guidance of his father, "Mr. Chat," and his mother, "Miss Eva." In difficult military situations, he writes, he could always "hear their reassuring voices" (p. xi). The reader will see a number of common messages in both of Archer's books and would benefit from reading them in sequence.

Archer is now retired in historic Manassas, Virginia. From this setting, he presents the reader with what is one of the very few written insights into how the Green Berets began, told from the perspective of one of its original members. In doing so, he relies on old notes he discovered in a trunk in his mother's house and on what he calls his "storyteller's memory" (p. x). Archer does encounter the occasional "senior moment"—a term he used frequently in e-mail correspondence with this reviewer—with some specific dates and chronologies, but he can certainly lay legitimate claim to a storyteller's ability.

Although the chronology is somewhat nebulous and unit designations are not always clear, Archer describes how the first Special Forces organization evolved during its demanding screening and training period at Ft. Bragg and other locations in the United States, as well as during its assignments. Senior commanders determined that Special Forces A-teams might best be used as "force multipliers"—small teams of highly trained soldiers with very special skills that could be taught to indigenous units in friendly countries. In this way, the commitment of as few as twelve American SF soldiers could produce up to a battalion or even a regiment of well-trained allies...