When I went to Ranger School, I memorized the Ranger Creed and learned that “surrender is not a Ranger word.” I love that. As a student of military history, the Green Beret knows what happens after surrender. In Afghanistan, there were some very frank team-room discussions about capture. Short of being blown unconscious by an IED, there was no way I was going to be a prisoner. Surrender was not an option; nobody was going to put video of my beheading on the Interwebs. Fighting to the end was a better option than the possibility of a few more days of life.
As it happens, surrender is a Green Beret word. It is not an action verb, it is a command. While we never want to come under enemy control, allowing our enemies a humane way out gives us the moral high ground and saves lives. Our lives.
In ancient China, warriors were encouraged to build a golden bridge for the enemy to retreat across. The idea was to provide a route of withdrawal to avoid a desperate fight to the death with high casualties on both sides. If a Green Beret leaves the enemy a way out, it is probably a baited ambush with interlocking fields of fire. But not always.
On 20 December, 1989, at 1:00 a.m. local time, 27,684 U.S. troops rescued Panama. The AC-130s, Rangers, SEALS, the 82nd Airborne, and a lot of other soldiers secured the canal and neutralized 20 percent of Panamanian forces that night. Major Gil Perez, a Green Beret, took care of the rest of them.
Perez was the commander of A-1-7 SFG(A), a Cuban-American, and a fluent native Spanish speaker. He was the mastermind behind what came to be known as Operation Ma Bell. The initial U.S. assault left about 80 percent of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) untouched, safe in their bases. PDF commanders had all been hand-picked and promoted based solely on their loyalty to el Comandante Manual Noriega.
There had been attempted coups and many murders of less-than-loyal commanders. At this time, Noriega was not in custody and the Panamanian commanders were playing for high stakes. Major Perez was very persuasive.
It went down in a series of operations all across Panama, something like this: Perez called each PDF quartel (base) and spoke to the commander. After politely introducing himself, Perez told the commander that an AC-130 Gunship was overhead, and invited him to step outside to confirm it. The commander was also told that there was an infantry unit waiting in helicopters, ready to assault.
Of course, none of this was really necessary, because two reasonable guys can work this out over the phone. Words to the effect of, “That is a nice infantry battalion you have there, it would be a shame if anything happened to it.”
The PDF commander was then given conditions for surrender. Gather all personnel in the courtyard of the quartel, secure all weapons in the arms room, and come to a designated spot to be picked up for a helicopter ride. If the commander agreed, Green Berets moved into the quartel as the new advisers.
There was a procedure established if the PDF commander did not want to surrender: The AC-130 would be directed to fire one round outside the perimeter of the quartel. Another phone call would be made. If the commander still did not want to surrender, he would be told that the next round would land inside the quartel, and the exact location of impact would be given. The AC-130 would then fire the round and another phone call would be made. If the commander still elected to hold out, he would be told that the infantry was going to assault. I don’t think the AC-130 ever had to fire a round.
Accepting surrender has a lot of benefits. There are no piles of stinking bodies to bury, the captured equipment is in better shape, you know where all the trained soldiers are, and you can continue to pay them so they become policemen, not insurgents. In Panama we did a lot of things right. Big Army forgot those lessons in Iraq, but the future is filled with Green Beret ideas.
Green Berets believe in working smarter, not harder. When you can, give people a chance to do the right thing, but keep an AC-130 overhead as an incentive for cooperation. Sometimes, the threat of a good kick in the balls is more effective than the kick itself.
This article was originally published on the Loadout Room and written by