Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Delta Force operators. You know them for night raids and assassinations and drone strikes. They’re the tip of the spear, the elite of the elite, shadow warriors fighting shadow wars from Somalia to Syria, Iraq to the Philippines.
U.S. Special Operations forces use special weapons and employ special tactics, of course. What you probably didn’t know is that they also employ a special version of the $25,000 Pyramid game show. And a special version of the game show Jeopardy. And before their actual secret missions, they may well have played a video game called “Secret Mission.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start at the start. U.S. Special Operations Command operates a school to teach courses that are germane to special operators. The self-professed mission of Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) at MacDill Air Force base in Florida is “to prepare Special Operations Forces (SOF) to shape the future strategic environment by providing specialized joint professional military education.”
To that end, JSOU offers courses like “Strategic Utility of Special Operations” and “Covert Action and SOF Sensitive Activities.” It also offers a course that is called “Introduction to Special Operations Forces.” Think of it as Special Ops 101. Its goal, Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw told me, “is to educate the student about the core activities, primary functions, organizations, capabilities, and doctrinal employment of U.S. Special Operations forces along with key concepts and terms.” An online course, it runs continuously and, says McGraw, is geared toward those “who have been identified to serve on a joint special operations staff, staff members at U.S. Special Operations Command, its subordinate commands and theater special operations commands.”
“Introduction to Special Operations Forces” offers five interactive lessons that guide the student through the basics of special ops. Not, that is, the artful application of camo face paint or how to use an M-32 grenade launcher, but what sets commandos apart from conventional forces, the difference between “low visibility” and “clandestine” missions, and a discussion of the increased strategic, physical, and political risk of special ops missions. The course then moves to a more advanced curriculum with lessons on everything from the composition of SOF to the concept of “Special Operations Forces Peculiar” (their unusual gear). This curriculum includes a recycled interview of former SOCOM commander Admiral William McRaven by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, as well as a mind-paralyzing explanation of the funding mechanism that pays for all the command’s rifles, night vision goggles, and floppy emerald headgear.
In many ways, however, the introductory course is more shadowy than the Special Operations forces themselves. We know a great deal about where these forces are deployed around the world (138 nations in 2016), and where they’ve been involved in firefights this year (Somalia, for example), and where they prop up allies (the Philippines, for one), and where they train and advise allies and proxies (like Syria). But it’s a mystery who dreamed up the idea of using game show knockoffs to instruct America’s elite warriors.
“We do not,” McGraw told me, “have the information about who created the course, when it was created, how much it cost, or how many have used it.”
The command might just want to forget the whole thing. The Intercept got its hands on a copy of Special Ops 101 through the Freedom of Information Act and its video games are lame — what you might expect from a low-bid government contract, except for the capstone tests. The video games are epic but not in a good way. Those of a certain age – the Reagan and Rubik’s Cube set — will remember PC games like this.
There’s a rudimentary quiz done up like the game show Jeopardy — “Humans are more important than hardware … What is one of the five SOF truths?” — right down to its earworm of a theme. There’s also, inexplicably, another Jeopardy clone with the (ironic?) title “Game Show Game.” Then there’s a special ops version of “$25,000 Pyramid” that looks like it cost 25 cents to program. Instead of Jamie Farr (of M*A*S*H fame) offering clues to get a contestant to say the words “things that are packed” (try “suitcase”), the Special Ops version just asks straightforward questions like: “What is the primary mission of the AC-130H Spectre and AC-130U Spooky airplanes?” In this version, you get a “Correct!” instead of $25,000 for the right answer.
Yes, this is some of the training for the most elite forces, from the most elite military school, run by the most elite command, in the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Sad but true, your grandmother probably wouldn’t deign to play these video games on her flip phone. Except maybe “Secret Mission” – a quiz game where you take on the role of a sapper (sort of) on a military base loaded with fighter jets, tanks, barracks and bombers (sort of). You’ll be asked: “What are actions taken directly against terrorist networks and indirectly to influence and render global and regional environments inhospitable to terrorist networks?”
If you answer B – counterterrorism – get ready for the fireworks (sort of).