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.