Background image: Greek army soldiers patrol Greece's border at Orestiada in Evros. Credit: Achilleas Chiras / Superimposed image: The ships of Standing NATO Maritime Group (SNMG) 1 transit in formation for a photo exercise. Credit: U.S. Navy.


The problem of east vs. west: new journal article references Greece to redefine the study of special operations

May 18, 2021

By Lauren Gilbert

A new journal article from James Horncastle, an assistant professor in the humanities department at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and member of the SNF Centre for Hellenic Studies, and Jack Adam MacLennan, an assistant professor from Park University, proposes the idea that scholars looking to study special operations should extend their focus beyond the mainstream Anglo-American lens. 

In their article, “Where Eagles Err: Contemporary Geopolitics and the Future of Western Special Operations”, released on April 27, 2021, in the Special Operations Journal, Horncastle and MacLennan problematize the doctrinal and academic definition of special forces operations, providing evidence that the demarcation between the “Eastern” and “Western” models used to study the topic is obscured in today’s world. The Western model of special forces, considered to be international, externally focused operations (think US Army Rangers in Vietnam), dominates the field’s literature, which they attest is largely due to the idealization of special forces. In direct contrast, the Eastern model is designated as internally focused, domestic operations.

In reality, special forces have been utilized in both domestic and international contexts for varying objectives, which causes the Eastern and Western models to collide. Moreover, rapidly advancing geopolitical change means that the nature of special operations will continue to shift.

Using Greece as an example, Horncastle and MacLennan introduce the Sacred Band, a British-trained Greek special forces unit developed in 1942 and deployed in the Western Desert and on the Greek islands during the Second World War. Following Greece's liberation and the return of the Greek government in 1944, the Anglo-American special operations unit was converted into a counterinsurgency force in order to abolish the Greek People’s Liberation Army—which was viewed as a domestic threat. A clear example of a Western Special Forces unit changing its course to conduct operations consistent with the Eastern model. 

The authors proceed to point out that early on in 2020, following Turkey’s decision to turn away refugees, Greece relied on Polish and Austrian police special forces to defend its own border. One of the participating Austrian special forces soldiers claimed that he was defending “his country” despite the fact that he was operating on Greek soil. A key takeaway being that conventional war has become increasingly unconventional in an effort to avoid responsibility. The two argue that states will rely on the use of special operations to avoid ruffling diplomatic feathers, despite paving the way for instability. 

Horncastle and MacLennan hope that this article will shine a light on the need to reconsider the conventional definition of special forces operations, not only to enable scholars to study the field more accurately, but also to reliably forecast the application of these units in the future.

James Horncastle is an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities at SFU and the holder of the Edward and Emily McWhinney Professorship in International Relations. James was born and raised in New Brunswick, Canada. After attending St. Thomas University, he was inspired by its emphasis on liberal arts education, which he then applied to his Masters studies at the University of New Brunswick, where he examined the social, political and military dimensions of Yugoslavia's collapse in the 1990s. Upon completion of his Masters, he set out for PhD studies at SFU where he examined the Macedonian Question in the Greek Civil War. After serving as a limited-term appointment at SFU for three years, he joined the Hellenic Studies Program, and since then, the Department of Humanities. James currently serves as a member of the SNF Centre for Hellenic Studies' Steering Committee. 


Jack Adam MacLennan is an assistant professor of political science and Graduate Program Director for national security studies at Park University (Parkville, MO). An international relations theorist, MacLennan’s work focuses on the role of technology in shaping security politics. His specific interests pertain to airpower as a means of managing complex threat environments, the relationship between military force and humanitarianism, and the larger influence of technology on perceptions of threat and attempts to manage them. 

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