It’s about an hour before our flight to Chad, and I find Doug O’Connell in the lounge of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. A compactly built Irishman originally from Maryland, Doug looks like a lot of Special Forces soldiers, in the sense that he does not look like a soldier at all. Wearing khaki pants and a golf shirt, he could be a businessman from anywhere. But the 49-year-old colonel has countless deployments under his belt, including to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is often referred to as the godfather of Special Forces in Texas.

Doug commands Special Operations Detachment–Africa (SOD-A), a group of about sixty soldiers based near Austin in a facility that was part of the old Bergstrom Air Force Base, and in a typical year, he sends his team to a dozen different countries. His unit’s primary mission is to train African special operations forces to fight terrorism. Doug knows I hunt and shoot, and he has one concern: “Don’t bring anything that makes you look military. You don’t want to look like a target.”

We are headed to Chad to observe Operation Flintlock, an annual counterterrorism exercise that lasts three weeks and brings together soldiers from about two dozen Western and African countries. The trip takes six hours on a wide-body Airbus from Paris to N’Djamena, barely a third of the way into the African continent. The length of the flight is a reminder of just how big Africa really is. The Sahara and Sahel regions alone are nearly 40 percent as large as the continental United States.

If you look at a satellite map of the earth, the entire top of Africa appears to be the color of beach sand. This is the Sahara Desert, which begins at the Mediterranean and continues south. Most of us have at least a rough sense of the countries along Africa’s northern coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Below them, where the yellow of the Sahara begins to give way to green forests and plains, is the Sahel. From an ecological standpoint, the Sahel is where the desert meets the rain. From a cultural standpoint, it’s where Arab Africa meets Black Africa.

The Sahara is brutally hot and difficult to cross, but the Sahel has always been one of the world’s primary trade corridors. It links Africa’s Atlantic coast with the Red Sea; it links Africa with the Middle East. The landscape conjures images of camel caravans, nomadic encampments, ways of life that stretch back thousands of years.

Much of northeast Africa is closer to Mecca than either Iran or Afghanistan, and indeed, Islam spread to Africa almost immediately after its founding. Africa overall is about 45 percent Muslim, though the countries in the Sahel—including Niger, Chad, and Sudan—tend to have a slightly higher concentration. And while the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, over the past few decades—and especially in the years since 2001—a strain of militant Islam has spread across the Sahel, from Al-Shabaab in the east to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the west to Boko Haram in the south.

A lot of analysts see Africa as the future of the fight against violent extremists, and so this is where SOD-A tends to do most of its work. “What we’re trying to do,” says Doug, “is empower these African nations to fight Islamic extremism in their backyard. In other words, give them what they need to fight their own battles, while we stay out of the way.”

Special forces units on maneuvers during Operation Flintlock.
Special forces units on maneuvers during Operation Flintlock.Photograph by Philipp Meyer

We land in Chad close to midnight. The airport is small and run-down, with peeling paint and dangling wires. Half the people in the airport wear Muslim robes, and conversations are happening in both French and Arabic. It is late spring of this year, and everyone is still worried about Ebola, so our foreheads are scanned with a digital thermometer before we can proceed.

Outside the airport, the real culture shock begins. There is near-total darkness. The road in front of us is sand. We are the only Westerners, there is no apparent security, and a large group of people are looking at us curiously. Chad itself is basically stable, but the city of N’Djamena is less than thirty miles from territory controlled by Boko Haram. By summer there would be regular terrorist attacks here.

Soon enough two Americans emerge from the darkness. Lieutenant Colonel Tim Ochsner, Doug’s right-hand man, a tall, lean Texan with graying hair, and Art,* a shorter, stockier soldier who is an operations sergeant and the unit medic. Both men are members of SOD-A, but if they are carrying guns, they have them hidden, and I relax. We tromp through the soft sand to their Land Rover. The sand roads give way to dirt roads, which give way to pavement; finally there are streetlights and houses. Eventually we reach our hotel. The security situation appears to be the same as your average Walmart’s.

“It’ll probably be fine,” says Doug. Then he adds, “If anything goes down, when the shooting stops, meet me at that flagpole across the street.”

Tim Ochsner inspects one of his soldiers’ parachute riggings.
Tim Ochsner inspects one of his soldiers’ parachute riggings.Photograph by Philipp Meyer

The Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, have been around since the fifties, but outside of small circles within the military, there is a general misperception of who they are and what they do. There is a misperception of what to call them, even. When you say “Special Forces,” you are referring specifically to the Green Berets. If you want to refer to Special Operations types more broadly—including Navy SEALs, Marine Raiders, and Air Force Pararescue—you say “Special Ops.” “When people think of American Special Ops, they usually think of SEALs, because of all the media attention they get,” says one Navy intelligence officer I spoke to. “But the SEALs are a tiny fraction of American Special Operations. The Army dominates Special Ops.”

Among the Green Berets, who have been nicknamed the Quiet Professionals, there is a bit of annoyance at all the attention the SEALs get. One joke goes, What are the two things a SEAL gets when he finishes training? A movie deal and a book contract. Of course, this is not necessarily the fault of the SEALs; it’s just that what they do is a lot easier for the average person (especially Hollywood producers) to understand. The SEALs specialize in direct action, which is military speak for killing or capturing people or, less frequently, rescuing hostages.

The SEALs’ most famous mission in the Global War on Terrorism was the killing of Osama bin Laden. The operation was incredibly dangerous and brave and, from a philosophical standpoint, basically simple. Get in, kill the bad guy, get out. The SEALs are our pure commandos. They live on bases or ships and are only on the ground for as long as it takes to kill the bad guy or rescue the hostage.

The missions that the Army Special Forces get tasked with are generally a lot longer, a lot messier, and a lot more complex. These soldiers are usually working alongside indigenous forces, and they are usually in-country for the long haul. They eat the same food as the locals, sleep in the same mud huts, use the same vehicles, and occasionally may even use the same weapons. In 2001 a group of Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group, the now famous “Horse Soldiers,” led the Afghan military’s Northern Alliance in a total rout of the Taliban.

Two years later, Doug was sent to Iraq on a similar mission with the 10th Special Forces Group. “We infiltrated into northern Iraq, where the teams led a few thousand Kurdish guerrillas against eleven divisions of Saddam’s army,” he tells me. “The air war hadn’t started yet, and there were no other U.S. troops on the ground—it was the Kurds and the Green Berets.”

As one retired Army captain puts it, “a lot of the Special Forces selection process is for guys who have charm, charisma—who get along with strangers well. You’re selecting for guys who like people and understand people.” In other words, you are selecting for guys who are the opposite of Rambo.

Still, there is a lot of shooting and weapons training. “The popular conception is that we train Green Berets to be super-soldiers, to do more sit-ups, more push-ups, to be experts in hand-to-hand combat, masters of close-quarters battle or sniping,” Doug says. “And while those things are true, that is not necessarily the ultimate goal of the training. We train SF guys to be influencers. We train them to be teachers with guns.”

The people who end up in Special Forces tend to be a lot more independently minded than their conventional military counterparts. They call officers by their first names, grow weird facial hair, and are often a bit iconoclastic. They are used to operating alone or in small groups, with no one looking over their shoulder. “There is no other profession that gives so much latitude and discretion in the execution of their mission,” Tim tells me. “SF guys like being given a mission and not told how to do it. Which is probably what keeps me in. That, and belief in the mission itself.”

Of course, wartime can lead to a drift in the mission, and it is a widely accepted notion now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a misuse of the Green Berets. The men who are supposed to be teachers with guns, who work “by, with, and through” our allies, ended up going mostly on night raids, working as door kickers.

Make no mistake: Green Berets can move, shoot, and maneuver with the best of them. The guys from SOD-A, who as a command-and-control element are generally trying to avoid coming under fire, still practice their jumping, combat driving, and shooting. I spent a day shooting with them in West Texas, and most of them were still punching out fist-size groups on targets at a considerable distance.

The Green Berets’ best role—the one that has the most strategic effect, the one most likely to save American lives—is to teach our allies. Last year William McRaven, the longtime commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command and now the chancellor of the University of Texas System, told Congress that one of the most effective ways to fight terrorism “is by building partner capacity so that [in] the host nation, where the extremists live, they can take care of their own security problems.”

Our first morning in Chad, I wake up to the sound of the call to prayer. It is barely dawn, but I can make out the dun-colored minaret of a nearby mosque. After showering and getting breakfast, I meet Doug outside the hotel, where a Land Rover takes us to a Chadian military base.

N’Djamena is about one and a half million people, and the main streets are well ordered. Low buildings with Spanish-style porticos, vendors of fruits, vegetables, bread, and electronics sitting in front of them. A constant rush of bicycles, scooters, motorbikes. Some of the men wear European-style clothes, others are in dashikis. The women generally wear long, often brightly colored robes; occasionally they wear hijabs, which cover their faces. Despite the dust, there are plenty of trees.

Once we reach the base, which dates back to when Chad was a French colony, we pass through several checkpoints manned by Chadian soldiers. We approach the checkpoints with caution and show our IDs; they inspect the truck and wave us through. The main part of the Chadian base is dilapidated, but there are trees and vines everywhere. It is pleasant and shady; it could be some old villa in Indochina.

Finally we come into a vast open area that is nothing but sand surrounded by an endless chain-link fence. We pass through a final checkpoint manned by some British special forces soldiers and an M240 machine gun. This is the most secure area on the base, and it’s where Operation Flintlock is happening. It seems that no two people are wearing the same uniform; you hear everything from French and Arabic to Dutch and Italian. The structures are all temporary air-conditioned wall tents powered by a massive generator. Though it is March, it is about 100 degrees.

We find Doug’s men in one of the wall tents, running the Regional Security Operations Coordination Center, or RSOCC. Doug introduces me to the half a dozen or so SOD-A officers and sergeants working here. They are good-natured and friendly. Someone gets me an instant coffee and an MRE.

There are several hundred Special Forces operators participating in Flintlock, but what makes Doug’s men different from the others is that they are all in the Texas National Guard. Doug, when he is not fighting terrorism, has a law practice in Austin. Tim is a police pilot for the Texas Department of Public Safety. He spends his days interdicting drug smugglers, conducting manhunts or search and rescue operations.

Most of the other soldiers in SOD-A have full-time jobs in fields ranging from oil-field services to high tech to medicine. There are some who work for the FBI, and there are some who work in intelligence; in fact, there are plenty of people in SOD-A who work for Uncle Sam but whose day jobs cannot be mentioned at all—their work as Green Berets is the least secret thing about their lives.

The RSOCC is bustling. Special Forces soldiers from the U.S., France, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands. African special operations forces from Chad, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria. It is like the UN of special operations. The African soldiers are working in multinational groups, analyzing intel being fed to them.

There is a lot of training going on at Flintlock, much of it tactical. But the training going on at the RSOCC is perhaps the most complicated and arguably the most crucial in the war against twenty-first-century terrorism. The SOD-A soldiers are trying to teach these African armies how to coordinate their communications systems and share intelligence. “It’s a lot easier to teach a soldier a hard skill, to get them better at moving, shooting, and communicating, than it is to teach them how to cooperate,” says Art, the medic who picked us up from the airport.

Sean Vieira, a lieutenant colonel in SOD-A who came over to Special Forces from the Marines, agrees. “The Africans here are great at gathering intel, but they’re usually reluctant to share it. It’s like how our various law enforcement agencies were reluctant to share information with each other before September 11. But this is on a much larger scale.”

Larger indeed. The Sahara and Sahel are enormous, and groups of men vanish into them like needles in the proverbial haystack. Complicating things further, there are a dozen national borders, which terrorists can cross easily but armies can’t. “In the old days,” Sean says, “threats typically originated in single countries. But now you’ve got a lot of regional threats. It’s much harder for a single country to develop an effective strategy—you need multiple countries cooperating.”

“Which is basically our job,” says Tim. “To facilitate that trust.”

But if Special Forces soldiers are good at building trust with local forces, they are wary of the media. Their work is complicated, not easily captured in sound bites, and as with any other government employee, a few misplaced words can jeopardize an entire career. When I ask Vince, a burly, affable major, a question that he considers inappropriate, his immediate response is “Are you trying to Rolling Stone me?”

Vince is referring to the Rolling Stone article published in 2010 that got General Stanley McChrystal forced out of the Army because of some offensive comments. Most civilians have probably forgotten this article ever existed. But you can bet that not a single soldier has.

I mostly stick to safe subjects. I take a seat with the group. They are polite but not exactly forthcoming; they are still sussing me out. We talk about guns and the month I spent at Blackwater. I tell some hunting stories, like the time I got stalked by a pair of mountain lions in East Texas. Still, most of these men have been in combat. There is basically nothing about guns or hunting they don’t know already. Conversation begins to lag. Finally someone says, “So, does being an author get you laid?”

At this, all conversation stops. People turn away from their laptops. They look at me expectantly; this is the only interesting thing I really have to offer.

I would like to pretend that I responded only with great reluctance. But they are all married, and I have been single for many years. So I tell them some stories. Then I tell them more stories. Most of the stories are lies, and none of them are fit for print.

“Jesus, reporter,” says Vince. “By the time this is over, I am going to Rolling Stone YOU.”

Doug O’Connell addresses African officers in Chad.
Photograph by Philipp Meyer

Doug O’Connell addresses African officers in Chad.

Budgets have been cut, and it is thin-living on the base. Warm bottled water and MREs make up breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Africans are used to warm water, but they find the MREs inedible. They are quick to snatch up the Halal meals, the kosher MREs that most closely resemble real food.

Conversation is drowned out by the sound of low-flying jets. Chadian Su-25 Frogfoots—the Soviet equivalent of our A-10 ground-attack plane—are returning to the base with empty bomb racks, having dropped their ordnance on columns of Boko Haram irregulars. The Chadian forces are battle-hardened; they played a leading role in helping the French oust jihadists from northern Mali in 2013. They are now playing a leading role in the fight against Boko Haram.

But though progress is being made, Vince cautions, “Don’t get fooled for a second into thinking Boko Haram is the only real threat. There are half a dozen other big terrorist groups who operate in this part of the world. We’re gonna be in this for the long haul.”

Of these groups, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the largest and best funded. AQIM began staging high-profile attacks in Algeria in 2007, bombing the Algerian Constitutional Council and a United Nations office. In 2012 it was able to take over most of northern Mali, and in March of this year—shortly after Flintlock ended—it launched the attack on the Bardo National Museum, in Tunisia. A good deal of its income comes from kidnapping Westerners; other income comes from taxing drug traffickers and smuggling cigarettes, diamonds, and other items across the Sahel. “Sometimes when you’re looking at these terrorist organizations,” says Tim, “it can be hard to differentiate between your ideologues and your basic criminal element. In a lot of these organizations, there is a mix of both.”

Al-Mourabitoun is still relatively small, but it is led by one of the most famous terrorists in the region, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Since the start of the Algerian Civil War, in 1992, men under Belmokhtar’s command have butchered thousands of civilians. In 2013 he was responsible for the takeover of an Algerian natural gas facility. Eight hundred people were taken hostage, forty of whom were executed. Chadian troops claimed to have killed him in 2013; the U.S. tried to kill him in an air strike this past summer. But so far as anyone can tell, Belmokhtar is still alive.

Ansar al-Sharia is based primarily in Libya and Tunisia, but it also operates in Mali, Egypt, Mauritania, and Syria; it’s responsible for the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Al-Shabaab, which is based in Somalia, has staged dozens of attacks in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Uganda, including the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall, in Nairobi, in which 67 people were killed, and the attack on a college in Kenya this spring, in which nearly 150 students were massacred.

Finally, of course, there is ISIS, a relative newcomer to North Africa. ISIS has put down firm roots in the nearly failed state of Libya. An ISIS gunman killed 38 people, including 30 Britons, on the beaches of Tunisia this summer.

So while the Chadians and other African armies have been scoring big victories—one day a report came in that the Chadian Army had killed more than two hundred Boko Haram irregulars in a firefight—no one is under any illusions. At the end of the exercise, Chadian general Zakaria Ngobongue tells me, “This [terrorist] issue we have is not only an issue here, it’s an issue everywhere. And it will continue to spread like a disease.”

For several days I hope to get on a flight to Mao, a small town 193 miles to the north, where additional tactical training for Flintlock is going on, but the seasonal Harmattan dust storm has all small planes grounded. The Harmattan blows in from the north, picking up sand and dust from the Sahara and carrying it into the Sahel. At noon, the sun is barely visible behind a high cloud of dust.

The Harmattan finally lifts and we have a clear morning. Along with a group of civilians, Tim, Art, Vince, and I climb into a C-130 bound for Mao, which is on the map, but just barely. The flight is rough and bumpy and loud; we are all issued earplugs. We get seated near the toilet—an elevated bucket about six feet high, partially screened by a tarp. We sit in narrow rows, facing one another with our legs interlaced, our knees nearly in one another’s crotches. If you get sick, you have no choice but to throw up into the lap of the person sitting across from you.

Shortly after takeoff, a civilian throws up. It has all seemed like fun and games until now. I spent the previous night trying to outdrink the SOD-A. Nate, one of the public affairs officers with the Special Operations Command Europe, in Germany, smells weakness. He jostles me. “You doin’ all right, tough guy? You’re not a sympathetic puker, are you?”

“I dunno,” I mumble. But the truth is beginning to dawn on me.

“Uh-oh,” says Nate. “Don’t look now. It’s about to get even uglier.”

Another civilian makes a break for the toilet, which is, as I mentioned before, actually just a bucket. Later we hear that some BBC reporters spent a night at a public camel roast and likely ingested a lot of microbes. Right now the entire aircraft smells like an outhouse. Nate finds this hilarious. I spend a long time breathing through my mouth. Finally the smell passes, and I get up and stand for a while and look out the window.

Below us is unending scrubland that would be familiar to anyone who has ever visited the Big Bend region. As we make our way north, the scrubland gives way to pure desert. What tiny settlements there are are spaced very far apart. And yet people have been living here for thousands of years. Before the twentieth century, you could cross most of the Sahel by following the trail of dead camels.

The C-130 touches down outside Mao, which really feels like the Sahara. Wind-rippled sand dunes in every direction, scattered acacia, and a few enormous baobab trees.

I climb into the back of a battered Toyota pickup with the rest of the group. The driver takes off over the dunes as if he’s driving in the Paris–Dakar race, several times nearly launching us out of the truck bed. It would not be that fun to get hurt out here, and another soldier thumps the roof with the butt of his M4 until the driver slows down.

We are headed toward the compound of a local chieftain. Because of the weather, we’ve been stuck for the past four days on the base in N’Djamena, and I’m excited to see some local scenery. But the group decides that since everyone (except me) is armed, and the chieftain’s men are jumpy, a visit is probably a bad idea. A group of strange armed men driving up in a truck is not exactly a welcome sight in this part of Africa. Someone tells the driver to turn around.

“C’mon, guys,” I say. “Give a brother a break here.”

“Sorry, reporter. No international incidents today.”

Instead of going to the chieftain’s place, we go sit in a small encampment of Americans. They are mostly in their twenties and mostly from one of the active-duty Special Forces groups. They’ve been here for a month, training the African operators on weapons and tactics. Today marks the end of Flintlock, and they are running around like fathers at their kid’s first ball game. There is a real sweetness about it, a group of muscle-bound twentysomethings nervously watching their African protégés. Of course, I do not mention this. Special Forces operators are not “sweet.”

The encampment is a village of canvas tents. I follow the soldiers from tent to tent. It is brutally hot. What we are looking for is air-conditioning. There is none. We find the lone shady spot under a cluster of acacia trees. We spend the next few hours fending off other soldiers trying to steal it from us. “You can’t sit here,” Vince tells everyone. “The reporter is weak. He needs to be in the shade.”

It is hot. More MREs are eaten, out of boredom more than anything, and more hot bottled water is guzzled. I am hot. I can barely think straight. Everyone else has been here for months, so I will never admit it. People are cheerful, but everyone is keeping their eyes open. There are a lot of Westerners here—a good target—and none of us can see over the sand dunes that surround the encampment.

“If the shit really hits the fan,” I say at one point, my brain melted by the heat, “get me one of those AKs.”

Vince shakes his head. “If you really want one of those AKs, I have no doubt someone  here will sell you one for thirty bucks.”

“You’re ruining my fantasy,” I say.

“It’s all right, tough guy. Maybe you can join the French Foreign Legion. Here, have another MRE.”

This goes on for a while. There are reporters and well-dressed State Department officials wandering around. There are BBC reporters burned bright pink by the sun. Finally there is an announcement about the maneuvers, and everyone goes out to a hilltop to watch the closing exercise being put on for all the visiting brass and reporters. A joint African assault group, made up of Nigerians, Nigeriens, Tunisians, Algerians, Chadians, and Cameroonians, stages a raid on a compound. There is the crackle of AKs, the rattle of PKMs, and the occasional thud thud thud of a DShK.

A handful of photographers have flown in for this—machine guns and explosions make for good photographs—and indeed, this is what media coverage of Flintlock primarily focuses on. But this is not what Flintlock is really about. U.S. and European special operations forces give weapons training to partner nations all the time—there are SF operators training African forces all the time. Flintlock, and the other big exercises like it, are about bringing together these various host nations to learn to work together. Not in the sense of holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” but in the sense of Does our radio system talk to your radio system? Do we understand each other’s tactics? And, most fundamentally, can we trust each other? 

As we have witnessed in the days since 9/11, the battles of the future are a lot more likely to be asymmetric or unconventional than they are to be like the battles of the past. What the conventional military excels at is tactics and logistics. How do we land a million troops at Normandy, keep them supplied with food, fuel, and ammunition? How do we recapture France and Germany, town by town? Big Military is Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, Desert Storm.

While Special Ops will often play a small role in those battles, their best use is to keep us out of them in the first place. Sometimes that means taking the fight to the enemy early (taking out high-value targets), but most of the time it means helping partner nations build their military, intelligence, and human rights capacities, keeping an eye on potential terrorists. It’s stopping the Osama bin Ladens of the world before they attack—providing other options to the population groups that terrorists recruit from. Boko Haram is a case in point. It started out as a tiny movement in northern Nigeria and was able to grow unchecked until it posed a threat to half a dozen different countries.

The conventional U.S. military was designed to prevail in big conventional battles: tanks against tanks, ships against ships, divisions against divisions. It has a poor track record in insurgencies and in fights against non-state actors, i.e., terrorists. It simply is not designed to prevail in asymmetric warfare. As the retired Army captain told me, “in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties, it was a very small number of Americans who helped beat the Soviets. Of course, there were logistics involved; we gave away lots of Stinger missiles. But one hundred thousand boots on the ground is not how we accomplished that goal. We accomplished that goal by empowering the Afghans.” The same thing happened in 2001, when a few Special Forces operators partnered with the Northern Alliance and helped drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan. Again, Afghans fighting on their own ground, and again, a small number of Americans alongside them. What happened after that—when things began to go south—was that the conventional U.S. military was ordered to take on a task (counterinsurgency) that it is fundamentally not suited for.

Hopefully we have learned a lot since those days. But we still have a long way to go. “We now do a great job at targeting and rolling up bad guys,” says Lieutenant Colonel Michael Waltz, a member of SOD-A and the author of the book Warrior Diplomat. “What we’re less good at is figuring out why this guy became a terrorist in the first place.”

If we want to win the war against extremism in the long term, this is what we need to learn. And you can’t figure this out by fast-roping onto a roof, killing a bad guy, and getting exfiltrated half an hour later. If you want to figure out the why, you need guys sleeping in mud huts, eating bad food, learning to speak languages they didn’t grow up speaking. You need guys living among our allies and maybe even among our enemies. And, just as important, you need leadership at the top—both civilian and military—that understands the importance of doing all of that. Priorities—and budgets—will have to be shifted.

A lot of people in Washington are still stuck in a Cold War mentality. Is America really safer if we spend $150 billion on a fleet of new jet fighters? You can train several Green Berets for the cost of a single Tomahawk missile. You can, in fact, field thousands of operators for a fraction of the cost of a big conventional weapons program. And, as we have seen, those Green Berets will go a lot further in preventing the next September 11.

As we leave Chad, Doug is reflective. This will most likely be his last Flintlock, likely his last overseas deployment. After years of splitting his time between his law practice and the Special Forces, he is retiring to practice law full-time in Austin next year. “You know, I never expected to become a colonel, and I never expected to stay in for twenty-eight years,” he says, looking wistful. “But interesting things kept happening.”

When I run into him six months later, however, he looks better than I’ve ever seen him. Tan, fit, and relaxed. His law practice is bustling, and he’s preparing to hand over the reins of SOD-A. For the first time since the 9/11 attacks, he is not living in two different worlds. I begin to suspect that staying in the fight takes a bigger toll than most of these soldiers will ever admit. When I ask Doug about this, he tells me he feels fortunate. “No one comes back from deployment the same. It’s hard to explain and civilians seldom understand, but when you’ve dedicated a big chunk of your life to training and preparing for the fight, there’s always a part of you that feels guilty being here and not being over there with your brothers in the fight.”

The war against Islamic extremism has been going on for two decades now. In that time, a new generation of fighters has been raised, and now the next generation of fighters is being born. “It took seventy years to defeat communism, thirty years to defeat fascism,” says Michael. “This fight is going to be working on a similar timetable. Fifty years, a hundred years.”

Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, victory in conflicts like these does not necessarily mean Americans engaged in combat. Winning the war on terror in Africa will mean Africans fighting their own battles, stopping extremists in their own deserts and jungles. And, probably, a small group of Texans embedded with them, living on goat meat and bad water, their eyes clogged with sand and dust, sleeping on the ground far from home.

*According to military policy, some soldiers have been identified only by their first name.

©2015 by Philipp Meyer. All Rights Reserved.