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).