History

Top-tier special operators of the Cold War worry about modern 'soft skills'

As the shadow operators of the Cold War reveal more and more about their formerly classified service, they've highlighted the wide set of skills necessary for finding success as they stared into the eyes of one of the greatest adversaries the U.S. ever faced — and they're worried that today's military might not have the same, broad toolkit.


Soviet tanks disperse protesters in the Soviet Sector of Berlin in 1953. Blending into Cold War Berlin was a must as Soviet forces outnumbered those of the former Allied forces by a massive amount, necessitating that elite operators blend in to the local populace in order to gather intelligence and prepare for combat operations.

(U.S. Army)

For former Special Forces soldiers Master Sgt. Robert Charest and Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Stejskal, those skills were needed while they were assigned to West Berlin during the Cold War as part of a top-secret Army unit known as Detachment-A.

"We did everything," Charest told WATM in an interview, "direct action, guerrilla warfare, unconventional warfare, stay behind, anti-terrorist. These all changed with the situation, year by year, as it happened in Europe."

The members of Detachment-A, which Stejskal said included roughly 800 people over its 34-year lifespan, from 1956 to 1990, were tasked with monitoring Soviet activities in the city and surrounding areas and slowing or halting a Soviet invasion of the rest of Europe for as long as possible in the case of war.

To do this, the men tailed Soviet operatives; practiced crossing the city in secret, even after the Berlin Wall went up; and practiced digging up caches of secret radio equipment, weapons, and medical supplies that were placed there by the CIA in case war broke out.

While preparing for these missions required a lot of cool-guy, "hard skills," like SCUBA diving through Soviet canals and shooting enemy role-players in the face and chest, they also required that the men develop "soft skills," like diplomacy and psychological operations.

A lot of their skills, from using knives and forks the German way and speaking like a Berliner, were learned from Germans and other Europeans recruited into the military under the Lodge Act.

Everyone is interested in the "sexy" skills, like SCUBA diving, marksmanship, and demolitions, but special operators also have to rely on language and civil affairs skills.

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Connor Mendez)

"One of my favorite quotes," Stejskal told WATM, "is, the guy talking to the [Commanding Officer] and the guy, he's a reporter, and he asks the CO what languages he speaks and the CO comes back, 'Why would I want to learn a foreign language? I'm just going to kill the guy.' It, kind of, sums up how I feel about the hard-skill people these days."

"You can only kick doors for so long before you realize that it's not going to solve the issue," Stejskal said. "There's always going to be a door to kick down. So, I think, things like psychological operations are good. Emphasis on intelligence collection, finding out what the problems are, and figuring out how to solve them."

The intelligence-gathering issue is one that Robert Baer, a former top-CIA case officer in the Middle East, has addressed in his non-fiction books and writings.

Baer talked about the run-up to the September 11th attacks in his book, See No Evil, in 2002 and said:

"As for Islamic fundamentalists in particular, the official view had become that our allies in Europe and the Middle East could fill in the missing pieces. Running our own agents — our own foreign human sources — had become too messy. Agents sometimes misbehaved; they caused ugly diplomatic incidents. Worse, they didn't fit America's moral view of the way the world should run."

In the next paragraph, Baer writes:

In practical terms, the CIA had taken itself out of the business of spying. No wonder we didn't have a secure source in Hamburg's mosques to tell us Muhammad Atta, the presumed leader of the hijacking teams on September 11, was recruiting suicide bombers for the biggest attack ever on American soil.

A civil affairs soldier trains alongside African wildlife students. Civil affairs and psychological operations soldiers specialize in some of the soft skills that were crucial for operators during the Cold War.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Megan Coin)

This isn't meant to say that the military or the CIA has completely abandoned soft skills or that soft skills could've necessarily prevented the 9/11 attacks, but it is to say that men and women who carried the mantle against the Soviets in the Cold War and against Islamic extremists in the 80s and 90s have seen a lapse in the kind of skills they once used to assure victory.

Stejskal specifically mentioned future conflicts while lamenting the loss of soft skills, and he mentioned a new domain where we need experts besides the trigger pullers.

"I think that the next wars are going to be fought as a complete combination of military, civil, and in the cyber arena. I think those are areas that we need to look at."

So, what would an increase in soft skills look like? More language experts, like those in Special Forces and psyops units but spread further through the force. It would include, like Stejskal mentioned, additional cyber and civil assets. We need to be ready to defend our networks and to rebuild cities after we take them, hopefully addressing the concerns of scared citizens before they grow into an insurgency. But, certainly addressing the issues if an insurgency is already in place.

"If you go to the insurgency in the El Salvador in the 1980s, 1990s, you can see a good resolution for a problem and it wasn't just military," he said. "It was us working with the local government, with people and, eventually, with the insurgents to determine what the problems were and find a solution for them. Killing people is not going to solve the problem of why they're out there in the first place."