Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The SAS Eyeballs

US Marines zeroing their M16 assault rifles
                     As I briefly mentioned in the two of my previous posts: 'The Man in the Eye of the Storm' and 'The Special Ones?', one thing that drew my attention about Major Peter Ratcliffe is a particular look in his eyes. It's hard to describe this 'particular' thing except that it seems to convey a certain quality of his character. It is more than aggressiveness which may be associated with being a soldier. It seems to express his inner logic that he will pick up his M16 rifle at any moment to take on enemies if required - I would call it combative discipline.
During the Gulf War in 1991, not only did he command a successful mission inside Iraq, but he also led from the front by putting himself in the most dangerous part of the operation. Whether in sabotaging the communication lines or in the raid on the Scud missile control station, he didn't sit back and let his men do the dirty work: he willingly placed himself closest to the enemy to achieve objectives. His eyes seem to show that's what he enjoyed the most.* 

It is said that eyes can express more than words. The late Brigadier Andrew Massey was one of those SAS men whose look in his eyes spoke loudly. Brig Massey was the Commanding Officer of 22 SAS from 1984 to 1987, and during the first Gulf War, he was Deputy Director, Special Forces. Even Major Ratcliffe acknowledges in his memoir 'Eye of the Storm' that the Deputy Director was not the man to mess with. When he was the CO, he apparently sacked all four Squadron Sergeant-Majors.**

As a senior commander, he hardly ever needed to raise his voice as his icy gaze could send chills down the spines of the rough and tough SAS soldiers. One SAS is said to have convinced himself that Brig Massey put his eyeballs in the fridge every night.† He was more than just an intimidating figure, though: long before the Iranian Embassy Siege, he was tasked to define the SAS's strategic role. He formed the concept of the SAS as a self-contained assault force ready to be deployed for a counter-terrorism operation promptly.  

SAS counter-terrorism team in action during the Iranian Embassy Siege

Across the pond, the people who are supposed to be in charge of counter-terrorism have been in trouble at home recently. To the surprise of many, the former chief of ISAF in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, suddenly resigned from his post as Director of the CIA. If Gen Petraeus were French, people mightn't have batted an eyelid, but a possible compromise of security may have been made into an issue. Even his successor in ISAF, General John Allen, appears to have been dragged into the 'scandal' although the latter firmly denies any improper conduct.

I don't want to start the argument of "Who makes a better soldier, an American or a British?" because I have no idea. I don't even know if it's a myth that American soldiers are more trigger-happy than their British counterparts. I suppose neither Gen Petraeus, nor Gen Allen got to where they are as officers by being utterly useless. Their CVs are impressive, and Gen Petraeus has been praised for his leadership in dealing with the chaotic aftermath of the second Gulf War. 

What I observe, however, is that something seems to be missing from the two American Generals. I dare say that that something is the kind of eyeballs possessed by the SAS officers like Brig Massey and Gen Sir Mike Rose (bottom left - but the bottom right is not Brig Massey as you may have guessed).

Have a look at the two American Generals -

And compare them with -

          or even......

You can tell that the British SAS eyeballs are distinctly sharper and more focused than those of the American officers. I can hear some of you say that it's unfair on the Americans because photos only catch people's momentary facial expressions. I'm aware of that - so I chose the unsmiling, serious-looking ones of Gen Petraeus and Gen Allen.

In the age of unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) taking out military targets, and the possible use of robots in combat zones to carry out infantry soldiers' job, a look in an officer's eyes may not be the most important in modern-day warfare, but if I were a bad guy, I know which pair of the officers I'd prefer not to see sitting across a table from me.

   *For a related topic on the Gulf War, please go to BLOG ARCHIVE at the top right-hand side of this page, and click on my September 2012 post: "Opinions are like arseholes - we all have one." 

  **In 'Eye of the Storm', Peter Ratcliffe does not mention Brig Massey's name, but refers him only as 'Deputy Director'. Mr Ratcliffe was Squadron Sergeant Major of D Squadron in 1987. I therefore surmise that he directly succeeded the Sergeant-Major who was one of the SSMs sacked by the then CO, Brig Massey. 

  †The Independent newspaper obituary.

"Are you looking at me?"

Eyeballing for Peace: General Sir Mike Rose as commander of UN peace-keeping force in Bosnia in 1994. He testified against the former President of Serbia, Radovan Karadzic, who is being tried at the International Criminal Tribunal in Hague for genocide and crime against humanity. Mr Karadzic denies the charges. To read more about Sir Mike, go to BLOG ARCHIVE and click on my October 2012 post: Unconventional Commanders.


  1. I would also like to point out that as well as having 'harder stares' the Brits are far 'scruffier' than their US counterparts.

    1. Yes, they seem to live a more outdoorsy life. General Rose was nevertheless a gorgeous man when he was young. His wife is a lucky woman.