A House Divided: A Look at SOF Values
By Dan Pace
In the wake of the recent analysis on SOF misconduct, a bumper sticker has emerged that claims SOF doesn’t have an ethics problem, it has a leadership problem. While this is partially true – the strain on the force created by rapid, frequent deployment has stretched SOF leadership’s ability to build and maintain discipline – the slogan doesn’t tell the whole story. SOF does have an ethics problem, and it stems from a dissonance the community breeds into its operators. SOF operators are selected for a willingness and aptitude to conduct traditionally immoral acts, trained to be proficient at the conduct of those acts, but then expected to refrain from those acts outside of approved operational circumstances. This dissonance is frequently compounded by a reliance on unspoken guidance and tacit approval during communication on the specifics of how things get done on the ground, which creates a habit of lying or telling partial truths between operators and their leadership. Given what they do for a living, how well trained they are to do it, and how frequently they are asked to either talk around or avoid discussing it, is it any wonder SOF operators get in trouble for smuggling, lying, manipulation or even murder?
While this sounds grim, there is a solution. SOF operators must be indoctrinated and trained to adhere to a code of ethics that emphasizes one set of activities while working operationally and separate set while at home, and then - critically - they must be taught to transition between the two. The operational set should be grounded in mission accomplishment and complete transparency with leadership. The home set should be based on the Army values and U.S. law. These two sets should be linked by an overall sense of purpose that provides continuity both at home abroad and a clear list of activities that are never allowed under any circumstances. The entire system must be deliberately managed by SOF leadership through selection, training, and the pre-mission and post-deployment reintegration processes.
Through the creation of a bifurcated ethics system, the indoctrination of this ethics system into SOF operators, and the reinforcement of this system continuously, SOF leadership can develop operators that are capable of executing the nefarious tasks the country requires of them, but also able to leave the more unsavory aspects of work at work.
A principle reason SOF operators have problems with misconduct is that there is dissonance between how the regiment says operators should behave and how it actually expects them to behave. Officially, ethical guidance is this:
“As one of the Nation’s premier problem-solvers, every member is expected to perform at the highest levels of personal and team integrity to ensure our success in the next fight. You will be put into situations where moral and ethical decisions must be made in a timely manner and with sensitivity to the mission. You are expected to maintain a strong moral compass and navigate through difficult environments to achieve the best outcome in the interest of national security. Displaying illegal, immoral, or unethical behavior is unacceptable and immediate grounds for disciplinary action. Members of U.S. Army Special Operations are a self-policing organization, and we maintain a solid moral and ethical base and ensure everyone around us follows that model. We ask you to use good judgement and common sense.”[i]
That is the Command’s ethical guidance for Army SOF, but what does it mean to an operator on the ground? As unconventional warfare and psychological warfare are the core proficiencies of Army SOF, ethically questionable activities are at the heart of SOF’s identity. Specifically, these two mission sets require SOF operators to be prepared to lie, smuggle, bribe, kill, violate sovereignty, generate and spread propaganda, and to train other people to do the same. Additionally, the nature of the forces we often work with generates an additional requirement to be willing to overlook even grosser transgressions in our partners to maintain rapport. Many of those activities are illegal, and some of them are immoral (by a traditional U.S. standard), so how is an operator supposed to distinguish between an activity that is “unacceptable and grounds for immediate disciplinary action” and one that is not?
This issue is further complicated by the training SOF operators receive. During one exercise I remember, there was a situation where the team was trying to build rapport with a resistance leader. During the meeting with the leader, there was a cage with a naked prisoner in it who screamed as though in pain throughout the meeting. When we confronted the leader about the prisoner, the leader informed us it was an internal problem and that we didn’t need to worry about it. As a young team leader, the decision was clear: ignore the prisoner’s plight (except to report on it) and continue to work with the leader to accomplish the mission, or risk my team’s life & operational success by provoking an ethical argument with the leader. I chose the former and passed the event.
This sort of reinforcement is common in SOF training – and with good reason. SOF operations require young operators to understand they will have to step outside their traditional moral comfort zone to accomplish SOF missions. Ultimately, SOF indoctrination and training produces an unofficial set of SOF ethical guidelines in its operators. These guidelines are something like this:
- Accomplish the mission, no matter what
- If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin, but if you get caught, you ain’t SOF material
- Don’t embarrass the regiment
- Be loyal to your team
These guidelines conflict with official guidance. The difference primarily being that while official guidance emphasizes a strong moral compass and avoiding illegal or immoral behavior, the unofficial guidance emphasizes a willingness to do illegal or immoral things, but not to get caught doing them. This regularly leads to situations where operators do what they think is right according to the unofficial guidelines (and are often praised by leadership for so doing), but are then punished and disowned by the regiment for failing to adhere to the official guidelines when the specifics of their behavior comes to light. Examples of this are common. A few noteworthy cases are Jim Gant and Matthew Golsteyn (active duty SOF personnel) or the recent Silvercorp caper in Venezuela (prior service SOF personnel). These green berets thought they were doing the right thing, but they found out the hard way that they were not, and their actions damaged the reputation of the regiment as a whole.
The dissonance in SOF ethics and the regiment’s willingness to punish severely for infractions creates another problem: SOF operators learn from an early age that there is a difference between what a team does and what it reports that it does. As an example, I remember an initial counseling I received from one of my best Company Commanders. “Dan” he said, “always remember one thing. If you bring a problem to me, the only tool I have in my toolbox to fix that problem is a hammer. As the wielder of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in the Company, I don’t have the luxury of handling things below the radar; I can only handle them with the hammer of justice. Remember that.” His meaning was clear: solve things at the team level if at all possible, because if I couldn’t, he would solve them for me in a very visible, heavy handed way. I suspect every SOF leader doesn’t give this guidance, but based on informal polling, it isn’t uncommon either. As a young team leader, I understood his meaning. The reputation of myself, my team, the company, and the regiment sometimes depended on my ability to keep information from my Commander and handle it myself.
As operators get accustomed to handling things internally and keeping higher command out of the loop on sensitive topics, they are essentially continuing to practice what they are already trained to do – mislead people to accomplish their given mission – with their leadership as the target of this deception. Unfortunately, habits built in training and on operations to conduct and conceal operational acts for good reasons often continue to support other illicit activities for bad reasons, and teams that are proficient at concealing operational activities in the combat zone, are often just as good at concealing team member misconduct on overseas training events.
This cycle of misinformation continues as operators that mislead leaders grow into leaders that expect to be misled by operators. When the misinformation loop breaks - through some action so grievous the team can’t handle it internally, an investigation, or some other breach of operational security – the results are catastrophic, and the regiment generally responds by destroying those involved and doubling down on its official guidance. This in turn creates further pressure on operators to conceal questionable activities and on leaders to resist looking too closely at possible misconduct.
A Possible Solution
To an extent, the SOF mission necessitates a degree of obfuscation about the work the regiment does; there are tasks conducted that are unpalatable to the public and cannot be openly discussed. As a regiment though, we can ensure our operators build habits of internal honesty, and we can help them develop the ability to discern between an operationally necessary and authorized act and an immoral act they should avoid. This can be done by creating a bifurcated ethics system that emphasizes one set of operational behaviors and another set of behaviors at home and links the two with a common sense of purpose and values.
The idea of behaving differently while operational than at home is not new. Christian scholars codified rules for the concept in just war theory to justify soldiers conducting decidedly un-Christian acts – such as killing people - during morally justified wars. Similarly, soldiers from cultures as diverse as the British Empire and Moslem Jihadists were provided rules of conduct by their respective societies to explain why the sometimes disturbing actions conducted on campaign were distinct, but acceptable in that context. While the specific activities allowed in these examples are not all applicable to the modern SOF operator, the idea of a deployed code of conduct that is distinct from a home code of conduct is still useful.
The specifics of this system requires explanation. Regardless of whether operational or at home, all SOF activities must be grounded in a common sense of purpose. This purpose should be a combination of the sense of duty, loyalty, honor and integrity already instilled in SOF operators and a focus on ensuring all of one’s actions contribute to the furthering of U.S. interests and objectives. Additionally, there are some actions that are never acceptable under any circumstance – operational or otherwise (e.g. rape). These actions must be clearly laid out and emphasized to ensure operators clearly understand where the ethically questionable stops and the ethically forbidden starts.
This paper will not invest time in the development of home values here. It has been captured in the officially presented SOF values, the Army values, and hundreds of years of U.S. military ethical instruction.
Describing the operational set of values is more interesting. Operators need to be educated on the sorts of activities that are authorized when operationally necessary, and the regiment needs to reassure operators that they can always communicate openly and honestly about these activities through the secure reporting chains that exist. Without the context of a specific operational environment, this list cannot be comprehensive, but it should offer operators with moral guidance on the sorts of things they can do. As specific operations are developed, this list should be refined and specific activities added and discussed. Examples of these sorts of actions can vary widely. Is the cultivation of drugs by a partnered resistance force for the generation of revenue for an unconventional warfare campaign acceptable? Is the development of assets by a partnered resistance force in a neighboring, uninvolved country okay? Are methamphetamine producers allied with the opposition legitimate military targets who can be killed and their assets appropriated? Can I provide inaccurate information to an attached reporter to ensure he produces a message that benefits my operation? This is a small list of specific ethical issues operators need help deciphering. If operators are not able to communicate honestly with their commands, they will make decisions themselves, and often their decisions will not line up with leaders’ expectations or overall operational objectives.
Once developed, this bifurcated code must be instilled in the regiment and reinforced. Additionally, as operators deploy and redeploy, transition between the two sides of the code must me managed deliberately. The instillation can be conducted through the same mechanisms used to indoctrinate new members of the regiment now, and as long as internal communication remains open and honest, and ethical education continues, regular reinforcement will occur. The transition from home values to operational values can be similarly managed through existing pre-mission training and post-mission recovery processes. Managing this transition deliberately can reduce instances of misconduct by assisting operators’ ability to “flip the switch” (picture Sylvester Stallone’s character in Over the Top) when they come home. Additionally, when misconduct does occur, increased trust between operators and leaders can help reduce overall damage by identifying such instances early.
Over time, the development and integration of this code into the regiment could significantly improve operators’ ability to make ethical, operationally effective decisions. In addition to the obvious benefits of increased decision making quality, the regiment could enjoy numerous other benefits. Deeper understanding of the specifics of an operator’s actions improves leadership’s ability to capitalize on them through information operations and enables them to be more easily synchronized with other efforts. This understanding also ensures any operational missteps are recognized early and can be mitigated more effectively. From a force preservation perspective, this ethical code could result in a reduction in the number and severity of moral injuries to the force. Operators that understand why they are doing what they do, and that their actions are condoned by higher will be better equipped to deal with the mental fallout such actions can cause. Finally, implementation of this code improves the discipline and reputation of the regiment by helping avoid the disreputable publicity that comes from scandal. The changes will not be felt immediately, but over time, they could have significant impact on the well-being and effectiveness of the force.
As the regiment looks at solutions to the problem of SOF misconduct, it needs to ensure it isn’t making any false assumptions. Improving leadership assessment and selection, reducing strain on the force, and strengthening SOF’s identity are necessary, but if they rest on a weak moral foundation, they will not be sufficient.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
[i] “Our Expectation” United States Army Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, NC. 2020.