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The Atlantic: From Roman Legions to Navy SEALs: Military Raiding and its Discontents

Author: Adam Elkus
May 10, 2011

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Adam Elkus explores the costs and benefits of military raids by special operations forces throughout history.

The Osama bin Laden raid has been hailed as the centerpiece of a new style of "collaborative" warfare that leverages intelligence fusion and networked interagency teams to focus precision force on America's enemies. Collaborative warfare, while impressive, is only the latest and greatest in a genre of military operation that dates back thousands of years: the punitive raid. From the days of the Roman Empire through Sunday's raid in Abottabad, Pakistan, governments have relied on punitive raids and manhunts to eliminate challengers to state power without resorting to costly, large-scale occupations.

But a look at the history and evolution of punitive raiding reveals that it is not a substitute for sound strategy -- and can be far more costly than policymakers might suspect and may have political costs that outweigh the strategic benefits. Punitive raids -- whether they consist of a large column of raiders advancing by horseback or an airmobile squad of commandos about to drop into an enemy cross-border haven -- have always been deceptively appealing as low-cost alternatives.

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