I wanted to ask about the One Man Army trope, where a (non superpowered) person with a diverse and accomplished enough skillset is sent into a high-risk situation alone or with minimal backup, for a job that you’d think would require a team or an even larger military unit. James Bond, MacGyver, Mr. Clark from the Jack Ryan books. Are there ever real world circumstances where you’d do this, or is it just a trope we accept because it’s fun?
Yes and no.
None of those characters are particularly good examples of One Man Armies. John Kelly is probably the most realistic example you gave, and from what I remember, the things he gets into in the books tends to be plausible. This includes things like infiltrating Tehran to laser designate a house for an airstrike, or working as part of various special operations groups. The character was a member of SOG, and a Navy SEAL, so that tracks.
In general, Kelly isn’t presented as a One Man Army, he’s mostly engaging in the kind of operations that you do task to small groups. Breaking in, stealing things, reconnaissance, espionage, and assassinations. Not, full on combat missions.
Now, I am going from memory, and haven’t touched any of Clancy’s novels in close to a decade, so I could be forgetting something egregious, but the stuff with his name that really gets into One Man Army territory are the later video games. (Splinter Cell, especially Conviction and Blacklist, Rainbow Six: Vegas and Vegas 2, The Division and it’s sequel (which are probably the most extreme and off-brand examples), and every Ghost Recon game starting with Future Soldier.)
Also, Kelly’s the only example you gave where the character doesn’t have superpowers. James Bond’s popularity kickstarted the superspy genre, and while Bond himself is more subtle than the imitators that followed, he is still superhuman. Even if you just go by descriptions in the books, he’s consuming enough alcohol and smoking so heavily that any, real human, would be barely functional. This is before you factor in the various gadgets of one variety or another, which really push him over the edge into superhero status. Even if he is also an amoral, misogynistic, asshole most of the time. (Yes, the literary version of Bond is a particularly unpleasant individual, and that’s something that frequently gets glossed over by the film versions.)
MacGuyver has a supernatural aptitude for jury-rigging solutions out of whatever’s left lying around. Again, as superpowers go, this is a subtle one, but it’s not something a real person could do, at least not with that degree of variety. (I’m just going to add, I haven’t seen any of the reboot, I’m strictly going off of Richard Dean Anderson’s version of the character.)
So, there reasons you’d send out small teams. In basic terms, these are situations where your operators need to remain undetected. The more people there are, the harder it is for them to avoid detection. The trade-off is that if these teams are detected, they’re dead. This is where that, “yes and no,” thing comes in. Yes, there are situations; no, they’re not One Man Armies.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are a few examples of where small teams are preferable.
Reconnaissance: You’re better off with a team of two to four. Their entire goal is to remain completely undetected and gather information on enemy deployment. Their job is to hang out, watch what the enemy does, and then pass that information back to the assault. This can involve spending days hunkered down observing an enemy position. This can frequently put the recon team inside the enemy’s perimeter, meaning they’re going to need to hide from the enemy’s perimeter patrols. Obviously, the more people you have, the harder this will be.
Snipers: Normally this is a sniper and a spotter. These teams will deploy behind enemy lines, get into position, and take their shot. Larger teams aren’t beneficial because it increases the chances of them being detected before they get to position and the extra people aren’t useful for completing the mission. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for multiple snipers to be tasked to a specific objective, but if the job is to kill someone in particular, extra people will just get in the way.
It’s possibly worth considering that selective ambushes with hit and run tactics may be somewhat viable. A shooter or two might be able to wipe out a small patrol, and then disappear before anyone realizes something’s happened. However, this won’t work indefinitely, as the forces being ambushed would probably respond with better equipped, better coordinated, squads. So, your character might see some success initially, but a continued campaign would see them hunted down and eliminated (assuming they don’t have significant forces backing them up.)
Surgical strikes: This a little different because you’re probably talking about a full squad. This is the model for groups like the Navy SEALs, and other special forces. (So, these are the people John Kelly was based on.) In an assassination, sometimes you need people on site to confirm the kill, so taking the victim out at a 1.5km with a rifle won’t cut it. This frequently involves covertly deploying the team as close as possible, letting them do their job and extract. Similarly, if you need to capture someone, this is the preferred approach. There’s a kind of symmetry here. The more people you have, the more bullets are flying around, the greater the danger of one of those rounds hitting the person you’re trying to extract. This does end up being a balance between having enough operators on the ground to manage things if the situation gets out of control, while still keeping the number low enough that they’re unlikely to be detected. Though, again, in this case you’re talking about an army of twelve or more, not an army of one. Additionally, this kind of operation is very time sensitive. The longer the team stays, the more time hostile forces have to respond.
On a similar note, a lot of, “behind enemy lines,” resistance, and insurgent operations have similar considerations to the surgical strikes above.
Now, if you’re talking about, straight up, clearing out a fortified location alone or with a small team; that’s not happening. If it turns into open combat, they’ll be overwhelmed and eliminated. If they’re trying to operate covertly, that’s a ticking clock from the moment the first body drops. They would need to eliminate almost the entire garrison before anyone notices something odd. That’s feasible if your characters have superpowers, but it is (effectively) impossible when you’re talking about normal people. Even highly trained and well equipped, “normal people.”
There is one final situation, and this comes out of your use of Bond: Infiltrating. There’s a lot of extremely unrealistic elements to James Bond, and his practice of sneaking into places straddles the line. It’s both realistic and unrealistic at the same time. Realistic in the sense that this is something spies may need to do. Breaking and entering is one of the more dangerous activities a spy may need to engage in while pursuing their objective, and it can go horribly wrong very quickly. In that sense, there is a degree of realism when Bond gets caught while he’s sneaking around. This converts to a complete lack of realism when he shoots his way out with a Walther PPK.
To be clear, Walther has an excellent reputation for high quality firearms. The PPK is an excellent pistol in it’s intended role. It’s a compact semi-automatic designed for use by plainclothes German police. Between the low capacity and small cartridge, it’s not an ideal combat pistol. The size does make it a good choice for a spy or assassin, but they’re not going to be shooting their way out of a bad situation or blown cover with one. (While it is a combat pistol, this is still true in the films where he’s using a Walther P99.)
You can’t take a handgun and expect to shoot your way out when your foes are using automatic weapons. As a single combatant, you cannot win a gunfight against a dozen mercenaries. Bond does it all the time, because he is superhuman. Some of it is the gadgets, some is authorial cheating. Either way, that’s not how this works.
So, like I said at the beginning, “yes and no.” There are reasons to split off small teams and send them out, but the one man army is far more fiction than fact.
Having said that, there are a lot of real world examples that fit the trope. It’s not realistic, but that hasn’t stopped it from occurring. There’s plenty of examples of individual soldiers who got split off from (or were the last survivors of) their unit, and then went on rampages. There’s also a few examples of snipers getting pinned down somewhere, only for them to turn around and rack up kills in the double digits. Worth remembering that in almost of those cases, the decision to go in alone was made in the moment, or was an act of last recourse. It was not the original plan.