Of all the great magic tricks performed throughout history, the most effective glamour known to man has been the illusion of Law. The greatest deck of cards ever to be shuffled and shifted, appeared and disappeared, has historically been made up of the pages of national constitutions and international peace accords. And the magicians themselves, the true experts at slight of hand, distraction and execution, have been those we’d refer today as military Black Ops.
It’s a term most commonly associated with movies and videogames – most recently, Call of Duty: Black Ops – and it’s a strange, half-whispered reality that we choose to explore almost entirely in fiction. After all, the very point of such an operation would be to leave behind such insufficient evidence that its existence could only ever be attributed to a story or a myth. And even then, if you told it, you might find yourself in the back of some CIA van as it drives into the desert at dusk.
Culturally, we tend to view the concept of Black Ops as a modern one, attributable largely to 20th and 21st century covert stratagem. The image conjured is that of a small group of special forces, moving slowly through some jungle, desert or crumbling, urban façade toward a specified target; Castro reaching for the infamous exploding cigar or US military pilots flying Russian-made aircraft during the Cold War. Further back, perhaps we imagine the birth of the CIA in the aftermath of WWII; coded, teletype messages crossing the wires in London or Moscow before someone, somewhere, is found dead in their bathtub, or in the wreckage of a car with tragically failed breaks.
But the historical roots of these covert actions extend much, much further through history, back into a time well before term “black op” had ever been officially coined. Certainly one could look at the followers of Al-Hassan in the mid-11th century – the modern term for which, “assassin,” is entirely applicable even today -- as an early example of both public and semi-secret strikes against select targets, underlining the grey zone that still exists between surgical military intelligence and outright terrorism. Later, in the 14th century, the rise of the ninja in Feudal Japan would offer an historical equivalent of today’s well-trained Navy SEAL.
In truth, history is littered with wars averted – with entire regimes built and toppled – by a well placed bullet, a dagger in the dark, a drop of poison in a cup of afternoon tea. The price, however, is the utter disregard of commonly accepted rules of global conduct, such as the prohibition of political assassinations. But when you absolutely, positively have to kill every single dictator in the room, a well-placed car bomb with the forged explosive signatures of a sectarian group or foreign country is a good way to achieve your goals and avoid worldwide suspicion in an age of information.
If there is a word that best describes the point of any Black Ops mission, it’s “deniability.” Few elements of such an operation are as important as the cover story. Whether the orders emanate from the hallways of the Pentagon or the CIA – or with a wink-and-a-nod from behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office – whatever eventually occurs…simply never happened…and if it happened, it certainly wasn’t the result of an official order.
Call of Duty: Black Ops will no doubt paint a much more action-intensive picture of what is, by nature, an almost entirely covert affair, but the vital role of stealth, secrecy and ruthless efficiency in our geo-political history is absolutely a real and everyday reality of war.