Tony Schwalm: Ex-U.S. Army Special Forces – Inside the Green Berets

Tony Schwalm is the author of The Guerrilla Factory: The Making of Special Forces Officers – The Green Berets. Schwalm is uniquely qualified to tell the story of what it takes to forge unconventional warriors, as he helped redesign the very test of strength, stamina, and wits known as the Q Course, the Special Forces Qualifications program, which is the formal training program for entry into the United States Army Special Forces. Schwalm is a former lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Special Forces and his military career spans some 30 years. His journey has seen him transition from a tank commander in Operation Desert Storm (the first Iraq war) where he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor, to becoming a Green Beret and later a commander of Special Forces officer training at Ft. Bragg. His assignments around the globe include leadership positions in combat operations, humanitarian missions, and counter-drug operations. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Tony served with U.S. Special Operations Command creating state-of-the-art technology architectures to support Special Operations Forces. From there, as a civilian working with the Department of the Army, Tony led a team of social scientists in support of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan, supporting counterinsurgency operations.

While much is known about the direct action-focused elements of the USA’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) such as the Navy Seals and Army Rangers, little is known about America’s unconventional warriors the Green Berets. The disparity in the attention given to these elite soldiers is no surprise given that much of the films, novels, and publicity generated around the exploits of America’s special ops is focused on the hyper-muscular actions of the special operators that fight the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the elite warriors responsible for short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions, everything from eliminating high-value targets, raids and sabotage through to hostage rescue. And although the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) have direct action capabilities, and are certainly involved in such missions more than at any time in history since the war on terror began 20 years ago, their formation by President John F Kennedy to wage “unconventional war”,” as they did everywhere from Vietnam through to Panama, is where their deadliest and most effective skill set lies. Unconventional Warfare is rooted in the concept of insurgency, guerilla warfare, subversion, and the use of these strategies in support of a country’s resistance movement, a proxy army that allows the U.S. to topple a dictator, occupying power or a hostile government. And, there is no force better at fomenting a foreign insurgency than the Green Berets, their training and legacy are borne out of an uncanny, almost preternatural proficiency in the art killing the enemy from within.

“Broadly speaking, there are two types of SOF, Super Man and Daniel Boone, Superman is what most Americans believe the SOF soldier to be – most Americans believe to be – a barrel-chested freedom fighter capable of bench-pressing twice his body weight and wielding lethal gadgets with an easy expertise. He practices martial arts to the point of being lethal in a fistfight. Those guys exist, – but fewer than five thousand meet that description. The Superman of SOF is without equal in the world, probably in history. Collectively, these men, with their training and equipment, are a killing machine sine part To illustrate, when Superman arrives, he usually says, “I’m here to kill somebody. Where is he?” If you are that carbon-based life form and identifiable to Superman, Superman doesn’t just kill the enemy. Superman kills the enemy well with an alacrity and precision bordering on the preternatural. Most Army Special Forces soldiers, on the other hand, are more like Daniel Boone and they move very differently. We’re a group numbering around sixty-five hundred, and our primary mission is entirely different. That mission is unconventional warfare, or UW. We are sent to train and fight alongside what we affectionately refer to as the “indig” (short for “indigenous forces”). The idea behind SF is that other countries should fight their own wars unless U.S. national interests are directly at risk, in which case we need to send Superman and maybe a cast of thousands for a conventional ground fight. That requirement to dialog with foreign nationals compels SF soldiers to know languages and possess communication skills capable of transcending cultures. When I say “transcend cultures,” I mean more than not showing the bottom of your foot to a person from the Arabian Peninsula or refraining from patting a person from South Asia on top of his While SF may on occasion appear to act like an armed version of the Peace Corps, we are, at our core, soldiers, which means we are killers, and no less killers than Superman but where Superman brings traumatic amputation, SF brings cancer, we make the body, the host, kill itself.” – Tony Schwalm “The Guerilla Factory

Schwalm’s journey to remake himself into a Daniel Boone style special forces soldier came only after an epiphany during the most conventional of battles as he actively fulfilled the dream of fighting in the footsteps of the military legend he hoped to emulate, General George S. Patton, the iconic World War 2 general who lead the Seventh and Third Army to victory on the back of his ambitious and aggressive use of tank warfare. As part of the invasion to liberate Kuwait and defeat Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army’s incursion into their oil-rich neighbor, Schwalm realized he was part of what was most likely America’s last large scale war to involve armored tank battalions. After pondering his limited future in the military as a tank commander, he decided to strike out on a bold new path inspired by another iconic figure from his childhood, this one a fictional film hero of the 1970s, Billy Jack, the story of an ex-Green Beret and martial artist who upon returning from Vietnam, helps save the locals of a small-town as they fight a corrupt political boss. Schwalm not only achieved his goal of becoming a U.S. Army Special Forces qualified officer and Green Beret, he would also later go on to run training at the “guerilla factory,” the qualification program at Fort Bragg affectionately known by those in the SF community as “The Schoolhouse,” where Green Beret recruits take the infamous Q course in order to acquire the skills necessary to join a 12 man team capable of collapsing a hostile government from the inside out.

In order to build a fighting force of proficient guerrilla warfare leaders, the US Army Special Forces put recruits through a grueling training program that consists of an intense 6-week assessment and selection process to weed out those without the required commitment and discipline, the phases after this include training on languages, culture, infrastructure, economics, politics, the ultra-realistic SERE School, the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program where Green Berets are subjugated to an ultra-realistic capture and imprisonment scenario staged in a mock POW camp. If they are psychologically strong enough to make it through SERE, they then move onto Unconventional Warfare training. This module teaches student officers how to implement the developmental processes of an insurgency and identify the components of an insurgency. After about a year’s worth of training and learning how to ignite and lead a revolution, the remaining candidates take on the challenge of Robin Sage, the war game named after an OSS officer (the progenitor agency of the CIA) that taught the doctrine of unconventional warfare, that turns 50,000 square miles of North Carolina into “Pineland,” a fictional country with a nascent rebellion fighting a government that is hostile to U.S. interests who the Green Berets in training are tasked with liberating.

Schwalm would eventually move on to United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), where although he would sit out the “Superbowl,” of all SF missions and not be deployed to fight in America’s response to the 9/11 attacks and our push to remove AL-Qaeda from Afghanistan, he would play an integral role in what would become the first use of special forces doctrine as the strategy tasked with winning the first major battle in the war on terror, a mission dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom.” In sending in SF to wage unconventional war, we would use the full breadth of America’s special ops capabilities to defeat the Taliban, as opposed to an invasion of conventional forces and tens of thousands of boots on the ground. And Schwalm, now a SOCOM staff officer and his team, would oversee a $1.8 billion dollar budget (a staggering amount at that time for SpecWar activities), in order to get the job done.

Up until this time, there had always been a hesitancy to go all-in on unconventional war as the blueprint to win, as direct action, massive strikes and the violence of action inflicted by America’s overwhelming conventional might had always been the favored strategy of those who held the purse strings, and devised the plans, ultimately having to mollify the interests of politicians and their constituents who wanted to see the unadulterated might of the American war machine crush any evildoers who would do us harm. SOF are surgical, and although their efforts are just as devastating as the application of our conventional forces and their omnipotent military tech and might, their deadly business was done in the shadows, no headlines, and no victory parades. Such stealth was perfect for America’s secret wars, those skirmishes we preferred to be kept off the books and out of the public eye, but not in circumstances where the demand for America’s vengeance had hit a fevered pitch, necessitating a hellion’s scream for all to hear and fear. Nevertheless, the war in Afghanistan in 2002 would see America’s elite shadow warriors make those who had wounded the homeland, and humiliated us so publicly, pay by destroying them from within.

And, dismantle the regime we did, defeating the Taliban in only 110 days with no more than 200-300 men on the ground, special forces doctrine was a stunning success. This victory along with our overwhelming success in the early days of Operation Desert Storm in Western Iraq has forever convinced Schwalm and many others in the SOF community that unconventional warfare must become the model for America’s military engagement anywhere in the world.

“Kandahar had tallen. The expulsion of the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan in the opening months of Operation Enduring Freedom was the ultimate validation of the approach we taught at the schoolhouse. The selection process and training were close to the mark. The SF soldiers who grew beards and the leaders who let them demonstrated the importance of building rapport. You have more respect from Afghan men if you have a decent beard. Respect feeds legitimacy. Legitimacy breeds rapport. With fewer than two hundred SF soldiers on the ground (and many, many combat missions by jet fighters and bombers), the Green Berets had carried the day and became the nerve center of a lethal force that destroyed the most critical asset Al Qaeda had: a safe haven. The SF effort in the opening months of Afghanistan validated nearly fifty years of training. Here was a group of soldiers utterly wedded to the notion of acting legitimately in the eyes of the people they came to live among, to fight beside, and to die with. Cross-cultural communication was not something academic—it was the cornerstone for victory. With the demonstrated success of the SF communication skills came an understanding that no other approach would serve U.S. interests well in the region.” – Tony Schwalm “The Guerilla Factory

Useful Links:

The Guerrilla Factory: The Making of Special Forces Officers, the Green Berets –

United States Army Special Forces –


Arrowsmith Press – Tony Schwalm:


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