top of page

Army Special Forces and Ethics

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

By Timothy Lawn

Elite special operations forces from Kuwait, Qatar, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and the U.S. conducted a simulated raid on a defended objective, practiced room clearing, responded to an explosive device, searched for and detained a high value target and evacuated a wounded teammate as part of exercise Eagle Resolve, April 2, 2017. (Photo by Master Sergeant Timothy Lawn)


In a call to action, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Commander, General Raymond Thomas III, published a memo in 2018 calling on all U.S. special operations forces (SOF) to uphold their sacred oath and duty of trust. In his paper, Thomas said that trust is SOF’s crucial currency to America and the world, and individuals within SOF trade in trust every day. Additionally, Thomas demanded obedience, saying that no matter what achievements, heroics, or honorable service occurs, when our SOF performs grievous violations of trust, it erodes America’s faith in her warriors (USSOCOM, 2018). What Thomas is alluding to is the escalation of ethical and moral breaches among SOF enlisted and officer ranks. These violations within the ranks have risen to the point Congress directed USSOCOM to conduct a cultural review, released on 23 January (Friberg, 2020).

The purpose of this article is to frame and assess the root causes and investigative conclusions of United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) ethical and moral violations. This thesis explores how incorporating a holistic assessment and philosophical training program of ethics, morals, and emotional intelligence may enhance our Army special operations forces (ARSOF) warriors throughout their career and transition to civilian. In conclusion, this paper provides recommended ideas and solutions to explore ethics and moral judgment as analyzed through the Army’s “ethical triangle” for the decision-making process (Kem, 2016).

Army Ethics, Morals, and Trust

According to the Department of the Army (2019), The Army Leadership and the Profession (ADP 6-22), ethics are an enduring set of beliefs, laws, and moral principles that guide and create an essential culture of trust within the Army profession. This culture of trust and expectations has its foundations nested within the Army leadership requirements attributes­ of “Be” and “Know.” These attributes are the development of character and honing the seven Army values; Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage, including the presence of military and professional bearing, and intellect. These requirements provide leaders with expectations that foster the development of skilled leadership, sharp mental-agility, and sound judgment, enabling Army leaders to prepare themselves for the dynamics of the unplanned. Finally, the Army leadership requirements model concludes with the “Do,” which are, leading others, developing self, and achieving results (Department of the Army, 2019).

America and our Army depend on our elite warriors to model the essence of leadership and to exhibit the values and characteristics of the Army leadership requirements model. They must be trustworthy, demonstrate honorable service, develop military expertise, portray stewardship, and esprit de corps. Living and emulating these attributes, beliefs, competencies, laws, and moral principles enable ARSOF to maintain its proud standing within the Army, America’s most trusted institution.

The Army entrusts and deploys unsupervised, highly skilled special operations warriors as individuals or in teams to operate remotely and ensure mission success, often in extreme environments. ARSOF warriors have Americas and the Army’s faith and trust that they will conduct their mission with discipline, empathy, ethically, with humility, honorably, morally, and inspired with ARSOF’s core attributes, warrior creed, ethos, and SOF imperatives and truths (U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, 2015).

For example, through practicality, most Special Forces missions or operations rarely enable the participants to maintain contact with higher headquarters. ARSOF often discover they must make immediate and sound ethical and moral decisions while conducting operations. For example, years before the story of Marcus Luttrell’s The Lone Survivor, during the first Gulf War in 1991, three ARSOF noncommissioned officers (NCOs) were conducting a reconnaissance mission south of Baghdad, Iraq. A young Iraqi girl compromises their mission after they let her live, and they soon find themselves aggressively hunted by Iraqi soldiers. They lived to fight another day only through being rescued in daring daylight joint Air Force and Army raid, which extracted all three ARSOF NCOs from their tenuous position (Dillon, 1992).

Emotional Intelligence

In 1995, psychologist Daniel Goleman coined the word emotional intelligence (EI) and published a book highlighting common EI’s concepts and ideas he believed comprised the theory’s key components. These components are a diverse and holistic range of thoughts, ideas, and skills, including empathy, motivation, self-regulation, and a unique combination of communication and social skills. Goleman believed that people who mastered emotional intelligence skills could thrive and function as leaders in a collaborative environment (Neff, 2014).

By nature of their mission and operational requirements, ARSOF must train and prepare to operate, thrive, and survive, in a collaborative environment. Humans do not have emotional intelligence (EI) at birth; it is a learned ability over time. EI must be core-curriculum in special operations classroom and field training. Today and tomorrow, ARSOF will operate in complex, contested asymmetric, and multi-domain environments. Additionally, this entails our Army’s elite warriors must also be able to perform at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels within a collaborative environment, and engage with interagency and multinational partners in a whole-of-government approach (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 2017). Today ARSOF warriors must comprehend and employ emotional intelligence to operate and survive within a collaborative multi-domain operational environment (Neff, 2014).

Framing the Ethical Dilemma

Army SOF is an elite culture and has been at the Tip of the Spear in the Global War on Terror. They are America’s handpicked warriors charged and entrusted with conducting highly specialized missions around the globe at any time. These Army warriors are Green Berets, Rangers, SOF advisors, Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations units, training cadre, and sustainers. According to USSOCOM (2019), there are 33,000 Army SOF (refitting, training, and deploying and operating in more than “149 countries” (ALL Gov, 2018) around the globe at any given time. Even more crucial, SOF has devoted the last 19 years, training, deploying, fighting, and wounded or killed in the line of duty. Evidence collaborating this persistent cyclical engagement is taking its toll. Our warrior’s experience high-intensity training and military operational tempo deployments return home only to immediately begin preparing for the next deployment (Turse, 2020). They suffer wounds, bone, or muscular injuries, take medications for pain, rest, or to wake up. There is evidence of the abuse of high-performance drugs or strength gaining supplements.

The fact is SOF operators conduct hazardous missions while exposed to continuous complex stimuli of hi-mental rush and stress combined with a sense of extreme urgency to perform, coupled with social and peer pressure to succeed. This excessive demand to excel and exceed is exhibiting signs of blowback. One only needs to google SOF to have stories of murder, theft, drug use, or moral-ethical dilemmas assail you (Myers, 2019). These challenges or difficulties are not specific to any one rank. The question is how can SOF leadership predict or identify them before they occur, or how can we mitigate and eliminate them in their entirety.

SOF Ethics in Selection, Education, and Training

Traditionally senior enlisted ranks and officers receive limited ethics and moral judgment, philosophy, and training. Today’s SOF-centric outsized global commitments require an educational and strategic re-think. There is no road map, and it is impossible to judge or predict what a SOF member may encounter in training or deployment. Additionally, the goal is not to make all Soldiers philosophers. It is merely a prudent suggestion. Adopting the addition of a holistic emotional intelligence, ethical and moral training program beginning at SOF selection and increased in increment and complexity, over time and career, may stymie future ethical or moral dilemmas and regain America’s trust in her elite warriors.

SOF Selection:

SOF selection is already renowned for being a grueling combination of physical and cognitive stressors and demands. Candidate training stresses an individual and aims to test their mental and physical capabilities. Initial training exposes a candidate to extreme psychopathological stressors to gauge whether they can accomplish an assigned mission (Holmes, 2014). An example of ethical and moral judgment training at this initial stage may begin with a tired and exhausted selectee assailed by a vulnerable refugee or enemy during an exercise. Through testing individuals or teams, reactions to cope with an extreme humanitarian stressor and the judgments they or their teammates make under duress may provide additional recommendations for future training. Additionally, stress testing provides a more thorough assessment of empirical data to judge the emotional capabilities of SOF recruits.

Educating Future SOF Warriors:

Once a SOF selectee clears course indoctrination and tactical combat skills phase, they enter their formal military occupational skills and education phase. Through incorporating a holistic compilation of ethical and moral dilemmas SOF personal and peers, receive an assessment on honesty and integrity. The focus of this new regimen provides cadre opportunities to spot and address potentials for future misbehavior. Additionally, this complex assessment and training provide opportunities to harness emotional intelligence and coping skills to combat internal and external temptations. There is a multitude of methods to incorporate cost-effective and holistic training. For example, have an instructor leave or readily post a copy of test answers where Soldiers can access them. Ethics challenges provide cadre an opportunity to assess and track how far cheating may infect the students and course. Failure does not have to be a career-ender. To offset the loss of valued ARSOF, students consider deliberate testing at an early stage of the education phase and employ the results as learning examples.

Honing a SOF Warrior:

After assignment to a detachment, team, or unit, Soldiers continue training, education, and honing individual and group/team skills. There are limitless possibilities and methods for assessing ethical and moral behavior and judgment. Every classroom or exercise should contain challenges and dilemmas designed and included in each stage of curriculum or events. Exercises or tests should not be elaborate, expensive, or time-consuming. However, it is essential to develop a regimen to challenge and ensure both Soldiers and leaders remain alert, offering opportunities to practice, perform, and provide and receive self and group assessments and how best to respond and act if ethically or morally challenged.

Application of the Ethical Triangle

Beginning with Army initial entry through ARSOF recruitment, assessment, and placement, and career progression, the Army must incorporate the application of ethics. ARSOF prides itself on its uniquely rich and values-based culture. The terms “quiet professionals (Special Forces), warrior diplomats (Civil Affairs), free the oppressed” (Green Berets) (USSOCOM, 2019), all harken to a historical institution that deeply embodies the philosophy of ethics, pride, discipline and virtue (Ordiway, 2020).

However, there is a renewed demand for discipline, ethics, and pride. Examples abound of errant warriors on the battlefield, physical assaults or violence on males or females, or the use or abuse of performance-enhancing drugs to stay alert, to get high, or make a fast buck. Even officers have proven vulnerable to temptation or corruption. The cases do not discriminate nor acknowledge rank or creed; all are vulnerable and have parallels in common. Ethical and moral failures destroy reputations and careers, disrupt or defeat unit integrity and cohesion, and instigate severe blowback and repercussions. The damage may occur at the local, national, or international level and nullifies the ARSOFs promise to serve and protect our nation and may alter our nation’s strategic ends or national security (Emonet, 2018).

To develop ARSOF Soldiers emotional intelligence and hone analytical and systematic decision making, the Army has adopted a framework that provides a model of two types of ethical choices that are the “legal motivation of compliance,” and “moral motivation of aspiration” (Department of the Army, 2019, pp. 1-7). According to the Department of the Army (2019) publication, Army Leadership and the Profession (ADP 6-22), ethics apply to the Army profession, and trusted Army professionals. What this vague definition offers the reader is that sometimes there is no easy answer and that moral courage and character may be the only right answer.

According to Kem (2016), the first step is to clarify or define the ethical dilemma in terms of “right versus right.” Kem’s model identifies four ethical dilemmas to frame a problem: trust versus loyalty; individual versus community; short term versus long term; justice versus mercy.

The first dilemma is “truth versus loyalty.” In “The Fall of the Warrior King,” Army Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman in Iraq attempted to cover up his Soldier’s crime of killing an unarmed Iraqi citizen (Filkens, 2005). This story examines how a commander’s breach of trust and a lack of moral duty rebounded with severe repercussions. Sassaman did not aptly employ emotional intelligence and made improper moral and ethical decisions that ended his stellar career (Filkens, 2005).

The “individual versus community” perspective pits a single Soldier against a unit. An excellent case study of ethical and moral choices of teammates pitted against one another is the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman and the subsequent Army cover-up (Neuman, 2014).

In the “short term versus long term” (Kem, 2018, pp. 3-8), this perspective offers ARSOF trainees with a scenario to explore how short-term decisions may affect long-term results. Through the experience of the lone survivor former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and his team, we explore critical choices when they allow a young shepherd to live, and end up compromising their unit, resulting in the death of Luttrell’s team and mission failure in 2005 (National Public Radio, 2007).

Lastly, the fourth and final moral dilemma is the application of “justice versus mercy.” An example of this may occur when a cadre catches a Soldier lying or cheating on required coursework and failing to apply fair and equal punishment due to the Soldier’s previous upper-class record. This dilemma places other Soldiers in an unfair standing if discovered in the same predicament (Kem, 2018). The challenge in “justice or mercy” is that it defines moral and ethical dilemmas. Participants or leadership must draft courses of action and cross-examine them before making judgments.

There are three different criteria for ethical decision-making assessment known as “the ethical triangle” (Kem, 2018, pp. 4). Additionally, employing the Ethical Decision-Making Model (EDMM) first will assist in defining the problem in terms of the four dilemmas, “right versus right” (Kem, 2016, p. 8).

Rules-Based Ethics:

No matter the environment, ARSOF needs to act according to agreed-upon rules and principles. For example, the Army values, constitutional rights, or laws and treaties such as the rules of war or international humanitarian law. The example provided as a case study is Luttrell’s experiences in Afghanistan and his team’s morale and ethical decision not to kill the young sheepherder (Bazja, 2020). It should be a requirement for Soldiers at any rank should examine Luttrell’s predicament. There are no right, or wrong answers; however, students must comprehend and understand the consequences of decisions based on existing rules of war, laws, and treaties.

Consequences-Based Ethics:

This perspective examines ethical and moral decision-making through consequences (Kem, 2018). A case study is the trial of Soldiers who burned the Muslim Holy Books, the Quran. The event triggered riots and resulted in two green-on-blue deaths of U.S. Soldiers. Afghan public outcry and dissent reverberated to Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Baldor, 2012). This scenario makes for ideal classroom cross-examination of how the negligent decisions of one or a team can reverberate at the strategic level and initiate changes in strategy or foreign policy.

Virtues-Based Ethics:

In the virtues ethical decision-making process, we examine how Soldiers perceive virtue in moral and ethical decision-making, such as the Soldiers Code, or Warrior Ethos. An excellent case study is the example of the disciplining of Army Green Beret, Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland for beating up an Afghan police officer he caught sexually assaulting a young boy (Mark, 2016). This case study provides clear lessons learned of the cause and effect of standing the moral high ground.


This paper evaluates ethical and moral reasoning through the lens of Army special operations forces. ARSOF analyzes ethical dilemmas and explores how they may define or structure problems, thereby allowing for the development of COA’s. Additionally, the paper explores the Army ethical triangle, which provides the opportunity to self-evaluate COAs. Through applying lessons learned in this paper, commands can construct a cost-effective model for assessment, training, and evaluation of emotional intelligence, ethics, and moral training, both classroom, and field. Only through a holistic and continuous career progression that increases in complexity and rigor can our warriors learn to overcome recent challenges and dilemmas. In conclusion, ARSOF must uphold honorable service to earn and maintain our Army’s and America’s trust.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

About the Author

Sergeant Major Timothy Lawn is a Public Affairs Non-Commissioned Officer in the United States Army Reserve. He holds of B.F.A in Computer Graphics and Interactive Communications from Ringling College of Art and Design at Sarasota, Florida., and an M.A. in Defense in Strategic Studies from University of Texas at El Paso, Texas. Timothy is graduating Class 70 (2020), of The Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas.

End Notes

ALLGov. (2018). U.S. has special forces in 149 countries and ambassadors in 144. Retrieved from

Baldor, L. (2012). No charges in Quran burning, urination video. Retrieved from

Bazja, S. (2020). Marcus Luttrell is the lone survivor. Retrieved from

Department of the Army. (2012). Army leadership (ADRP 6-22). Retrieved from

Department of the Army. (2019). Army leadership and the profession (6-22). Retrieved from

Dillon, P, J. (1992). Ethical decision making on the battlefield: An analysis of training for U.S. Army Special Forces. Retrieved from

Emonet, F. (2018). The importance of ethics education in military training. Retrieved from

Filkens, D. (2005). The fall of the warrior king. Retrieved from

Friberg, J. (2020). USSOCOM report on SOF culture and ethics. Retrieved from

Holmes, M. (2014). SOF selection prep [Part I]. Retrieved form

Kem, J. (2016). Ethical decision making: Using the “ethical triangle.” CGSC Ethics Symposium. Retrieved from


Mark, D. (2016). Green Beret who beat Afghan official over alleged child assault to stay in Army. Retrieved from

Myers, M. (2019). Spec ops in trouble: Mired in scandal and under Pentagon review, what will it take to clean house? Retrieved from

National Public Radio (NPR). (2007). A former Navy SEAL questions rules of war. Retrieved from

Neuman, S. (2014). Soldier speaks up a decade after Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death. Retrieved from

Ordiway, B. (2020). Fixing the problem. Retrieved from

Thomas, R. (2019). “Ethics and our SOF culture: A call to action SOCOM. Retrieved from

Turse, N. (2020). U.S. special operations troops are getting busier, and concerns about their behavior have only gotten worse. Retrieved from

United States Special Operations Command. (2018). U.S. Special Operations Command commander and Assistant Secretary of Defense Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict issue guidance on ethics for special operations forces. Retrieved from

United States Special Operations Command. (2019). Fact book. Retrieved from

U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. (2015). FY 2015 Academic handbook. Retrieved from


U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (2017). Multi-Domain Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century: 2025-2040. (Ver. 1.0). Retrieved from




Yousef Parrish
Yousef Parrish
May 04, 2022

If you are a foreign man looking for a wife, consider a Russian mail order bride. Although Russia has a huge population, more than 10,5 million women live there, and many of them travel abroad to meet men. Dating apps and social media are common ways for Russian women to meet men. Russian brides also take part in speed dating events. Russian women do not care about nationality, so they are happy to meet men from any country.


Interesting read, I think generally by nature people do try to make the right ethical decision although often don't due to misplaced allegiances, however especially for SF teams your note under Rules-Based is very true "there is no right or wrong answer" especially when making rapid decisions in a heated environment, although integrating ethics into training would make people aware based on historic events.


Oct 04, 2021

Thank you for beinng you

bottom of page