In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Special Operations Forces

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Battle Biographies and Memoirs
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Air Commandos
  • Australian SOF
  • Civil Affairs
  • Israeli SOF
  • Marine SOF
  • North Korean SOF
  • Psychological Operations Forces
  • Rangers
  • South African Special Forces
  • SEALs (Sea, Air, Land)
  • Special Air Service
  • Special Boat Service
  • Special Forces
  • Special Mission Units
  • Spetsnaz

Military History Special Operations Forces
Christopher J. Lamb, Fletcher Schoen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0178

Christopher J. Lamb and Fletcher Schoen updated this article on 24 May 2018. It was originally written by Christopher J. Lamb and Shane Bilsborough, published on 24 July 2013. The original article can be found here.


This Oxford Bibliographies article covers professional and popular literature on military forces that are raised, trained, and equipped to conduct special operations. In some countries these units are called “special forces,” but in NATO they are referred to as Special Operations Forces, or “SOF,” which is the term adopted here. It also is important to distinguish between SOF and other units that conduct difficult and sometimes secret missions. SOF are often confused with elite military forces. Elite military units—including those with ceremonial duties—take on the same tasks as general-purpose forces, but they receive distinctive designation, training, and resources so that they may perform at a higher level. SOF are typically elite but also special because they are used for different purposes, conducting missions that general-purpose forces cannot perform, either at all or with acceptable levels of risk and costs. SOF also are often confused with units that perform covert operations for intelligence organizations, operating under different authorities and employing different skill sets in order to keep the sponsorship of the units and their activities hidden. Sometimes elite military units are used to perform special operations, and sometimes SOF are loaned to intelligence organizations to perform covert operations, which often leads to less satisfactory results and confuses the boundaries between elite, SOF, and covert operators. Still, the distinctions between these types of forces remain important, and they are observed in this bibliography to the extent possible. Thus, the bibliography only covers uniformed SOF, not elite forces more generally, or paramilitary forces used by intelligence agencies to conduct covert operations, such as those employed in World War II by the British Special Operations Executive or the American Office of Strategic Services, or by the French Service Spéciaux, or more recently the US CIA’s national clandestine forces, or by many other national intelligence organizations. The article does cover classified SOF units, often referred to as “special mission units” in the United States to avoid use of their classified names. There are some excellent sources that cover SOF but also elite forces and/or covert intelligence operations and units. In general, these are included in this bibliography only if they pay disproportionate attention to SOF. There has always been a great deal of popular interest in SOF, particularly since World War II, but after the terror attacks on 11 September 2001, the number of books and articles on SOF exploded and shows no signs of abating. Depending on the filters used, online library search engines depict thousands of English-language books on special operations, most produced since 2001. A survey of the literature in 2011 revealed there are almost five times more historical accounts of SOF in action than there are texts examining the forces themselves. The next largest body of SOF literature was devoted to describing how SOF are raised, trained, and equipped. Here, too, the literature was skewed, focusing on those forces most renowned for daring, lethal operational exploits, such as the Special Air Service, US Navy SEALs, and US Army Green Berets. Air Force SOF that typically support other SOF units receive scant treatment, as do Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations, which some cognoscenti argue should not even be categorized as SOF. Most English-language SOF literature addresses US and British SOF. Within US SOF, the Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Army Rangers attract the most attention; within British SOF, more attention is paid to the Special Air Service (SAS) than to the Special Boat Service (SBS). Classified special mission units are a subject of great interest in many countries, and after almost two decades of counterterrorist and counterinsurgency warfare there are an increasing number of good sources on these forces as well. Recent spot checks of the literature base on special operations and SOF suggest that these trends have only accelerated since the 2010s. The views expressed in this bibliography are Dr. Lamb’s and Fletcher Schoen’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or National Defense University.

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