Editor's note: Charles Pinck is president of The OSS Society, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that honors the historic accomplishments of the Office of Strategic Services, and its successors, the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Command.
The Islamic State group has presented the United States with an enemy unlike any other in its history. Its sophisticated propaganda would impress Hitler’s favorite propagandists, Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. Fueled by religious zealotry, its message is being spread worldwide through social media to recruit and motivate its followers to undertake terrorist attacks on the West, hoping to incite their governments to send ground troops to the Middle East. This would fulfill its religious prophecy of an apocalyptic battle between Christianity and Islam, thereby recruiting more followers to its cause. The Islamic State group is a non-state actor with a burgeoning state. It is confounding us.
Experts have warned that the United States is ill-equipped to deal with this and similar foes. Admiral Eric T. Olson, U.S. Navy (ret.), a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), wrote that “adversaries the world over are developing new approaches to conflict in ways that are designed to mitigate the advantages of more powerful military opponents. But we in the U.S. have neither changed our military enough, nor developed non-military alternatives that are trained, equipped and expeditionary enough to respond robustly to crises that are not primarily military in nature.” Olson’s recommendation is to look to our past for guidance on how to retool the United States military and government agencies by following the example set by World War II’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA and USSOCOM.
OSS founder General William J. Donovan said: “Espionage is not a nice thing, nor are the methods employed exemplary. Neither are demolition bombs nor poison gas. We face an enemy who believes one of his chief weapons is that none but he will employ terror. But we will turn terror against him."
The OSS turned terror against its enemies by utilizing brutal and ingenious methods. It engaged in demolition by blowing up more than 150 bridges in China to stop the advance of the invading Japanese Army. It sabotaged German railroad cars by replacing axle grease with abrasive grease to prevent the Nazis from sending tanks to the site of the Normandy Invasion. Marlene Dietrich recorded songs in German that were broadcast to demoralize German soldiers. Its Morale Operations Branch disseminated inspired propaganda leaflets. One was printed on toilet paper, a rare commodity during World War II. It obtained actionable intelligence to support our military forces.
Its Special Operations Branch engaged enemy forces in direct action behind the lines, which prompted Donovan, a World War I Medal of Honor recipient, to say that OSS personnel performed “some of the bravest acts of the war.” It organized and supported resistance movements in Europe and Asia by recruiting first- and second-generation Americans to return to their countries of origin. Donovan pointed out that no country in the world had as many citizens with knowledge of other countries as the United States. This is still true today.
The section of the OSS Simple Sabotage Manual about how to disrupt organizations could have been written by Mel Brooks. Its suggestions included bringing up “irrelevant issues as much as possible … hold conferences when there is more work to be done … give speeches … misfile essential documents … be as irritable or quarrelsome as possible without getting yourself into trouble … cry and sob hysterically at every occasion … act stupid.”
One OSS operative in France was trying to eliminate a German tank blocking a vital crossroad. He walked up to the tank, knocked on its closed hatch and said, “mail call.” When the hatch opened, he tossed a grenade inside. Its deputy director said the OSS “assaulted the enemy’s mind as well as its body; it helped confuse its will and disrupt its plans.”
While these specific tactics may not apply to our struggle against the Islamic State group, we must employ similarly creative approaches today. We will need to recruit people as brilliant and diverse as those who served in the OSS to devise them. They included Hollywood director John Ford; the actor Sterling Hayden, who served in the OSS Maritime Unit, the predecessor to the Navy SEALs; the “French Chef” Julia Child; the architect Eero Saarinen; Ralph Bunche, the first person of color to receive the Nobel Peace Prize; Pulitzer Prize recipients Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Carl Schorske; Col. Aaron Bank, a founder of U.S. Special Forces; Nobel Physics Prize recipient Jack Kilby, the inventor of the integrated circuit; and Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. The OSS drew its personnel from every military branch and the civilian population.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opened Thursday. From the design of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon (which was patterned after a B-29’s cockpit), to the many Nazi-inspired elements of the “Empire,” including its Stormtroopers and officers’ uniforms, the “Star Wars” films are replete with references to World War II.
In the films, the Jedi Knights are the forces of good against evil. I’d like to think they were inspired by the OSS Jedburghs, three- to four-man teams who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe to supply, train and lead resistance organizations. (Their name may have come from 12th century Scottish guerrillas who used their axes with legendary skill, which is reminiscent of the Jedi’s light sabers.) In “Eisenhower’s Guerrillas: The Jedburghs, The Maquis, and the Liberation of France,” Ben Jones writes that "the Jedburghs were a courageous and imaginative group of Allied soldiers whose experiences directly impact how we wage insurgencies and counter-insurgencies today.” Drawing on its OSS heritage, the Army Special Operations Command has created new Jedburgh teams.
May the Force of the OSS be with us.