Small Wars Journal

Ethics in Special Operations and the Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy

Fri, 12/25/2020 - 4:26pm

Ethics in Special Operations and the Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy

By Wojciech Labuz, Kari A. Thyne, Joseph E. Long, and Christopher D. Hughes

Abstract

The emerging global environment marked by the competing interests of current and emerging great powers has enmeshed American foreign policy and strategic military preparations in understanding the 21st century’s new “converging, trans-regional compound security dilemmas” (Wilson III, 2020, p. 3). This compound security dilemma combines the Joint Special Operations Forces’ (SOF) decades-long imperatives to counter violent extremist organizations (CVEO) and counter weapons of mass destruction (CWMD), all within the global framework of "rising competition with China and Russia, under conditions of eroding US relative military advantage” (p. 3). To confront these challenges, SOF must reimagine ethical decision-making as a foundational aspect of leadership and leader development in the context of the future SOF environment.

As discussed in recent Joint Special Operations University (JSOU)-sponsored forums on JSOU Next, the strategic need for American SOF to build micro-level relationships in highly complex, increasingly diverse and remote, potentially hostile environments within developing states and often tribal societies has never been more critical. In developing this new way of thinking about the strategic importance of relational leadership in SOF formations, the Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy (JSOFSEA) is increasingly recognizing that the emerging concepts of guerrilla leadership and the guerrilla-leader identity characterize the SOF-distinct-and-SOF-peculiar nature of the future global environment (Long, 2017, 2019; Long & Walton, 2019).

Introduction

The emerging global environment marked by the competing interests of current and emerging great powers has enmeshed American foreign policy and strategic military preparations in understanding the 21st century’s new “converging, trans-regional compound security dilemmas” (Wilson III, 2020, p. 3). This compound security dilemma combines the Joint Special Operations Forces’ (SOF) decades-long imperatives to counter violent extremist organizations (CVEO) and counter weapons of mass destruction (CWMD), all within the global framework of "rising competition with China and Russia, under conditions of eroding US relative military advantage” (p. 3). To confront these challenges, SOF must reimagine ethical decision-making as a foundational aspect of leadership and leader development in the context of the future SOF environment.

As discussed in recent Joint Special Operations University (JSOU)-sponsored forums on JSOU Next, the strategic need for American SOF to build micro-level relationships in highly complex, increasingly diverse and remote, potentially hostile environments within developing states and often tribal societies has never been more critical. In developing this new way of thinking about the strategic importance of relational leadership in SOF formations, the Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy (JSOFSEA) is increasingly recognizing that the emerging concepts of guerrilla leadership and the guerrilla-leader identity characterize the SOF-distinct-and-SOF-peculiar nature of the future global environment (Long, 2017, 2019; Long & Walton, 2019).

            In preparing the Joint SOF senior enlisted community for understanding leadership in the future SOF environment, JSFOSEA recognized that traditional professional military education (PME) inadequately addresses the skills required for gaining the competitive edge needed to analyze, interpret, and act decisively and effectively in the increasing ambiguity of the future SOF environment. JSOFSEA has reimagined ethical decision-making and leadership development in a way that arms SOF leaders with new and innovative approaches to leading SOF units and partner forces. As such, JSOFSEA is building on the academic concepts of relational and guerrilla leadership studies in the development of the newly designed “Leader-Shift” program. This innovative concept is specifically designed to foster the next generation of ethically minded Highly Educated, Hyper-Enabled, Responsible Operators (HE2RO).

Re-Imagining Ethical Decision-Making and SOF Leadership Development

            This new JSOFSEA leadership development curriculum empowers the next-generation SOF HE2 RO as a program that teaches enlisted team members how to capitalize on their personal individual leadership experiences while providing advanced, ethically grounded leadership education designed to develop SOF’s senior enlisted leaders as highly effective organizational leaders. Within this academic area, SOF enlisted leaders research the essential concepts of proven leadership theories, apply the proven SOF Leadership Competency Model (LCM), complete personalized evaluations of leadership traits, and discuss executive leadership considerations centered around tenets of (a) organizational change and (b) management and conflict resolution. Simultaneously, they focus their research and study on creating a culture of shared responsibility and commitment grounded in ethical behavior.

As indicated by the future SOF environment, ethical awareness by enlisted leaders and ethical decision-making in complex SOF operational engagements remains increasingly vital to how operational units frame the quality of their leaders and how their actions and behaviors impact mission effectiveness. For JSOFSEA educators, “humans are more important than hardware” is a bedrock truth of the SOF community and the driving force behind deliberate educational investment in SOF operators. This multi-dimensional approach to creating leaders with values and behaviors will synergistically develop and strengthen SOF’s unique organizational culture.

Ethical Decision-Making in SOF

            A key aspect of organizational culture is that it guides individuals when faced with ethical dilemmas, making ethical decision-making the glue that holds mission success and SOF operational culture together. Specifically, ethical decision-making has become increasingly relevant in the modern Joint SOF world where Senior Enlisted Leaders (SELs) remain the key to building relationships and enhancing the survivability of the Special Operators who deploy alone or in small teams, across and within the hazards of the developing world. As the 2017 ambush of American Green Berets in Niger reminds us, SOF operators are in harm’s way wherever they go. Therefore, when the ethical concerns of SOF units conflict with the distinct needs of micro-level partner forces, risks to mission and risks to force can skyrocket.

Understanding the nuances of ethical decision-making in the future SOF environment requires that SOF operators receive an increasingly realistic and deliberate ethics education underwritten by a thorough understanding of both human nature and the realities of the complex challenges found in SOF operating environments. Only an ethical education tailored for SOF leaders, operators, and operational teams remains sufficient for developing SELs capable of maximizing the physical and mental strength and resilience of the modern SOF cross-functional team. JSOFSEA recognizes this reality with a redesigned curriculum that emphasizes the reality that ethically capable problem-solvers are key to forming trustworthy and empowered teams that sharpen SOF’s competitive edge in environments where small, decentralized teams operate alone and far from support, in dangerous environments, often dependent on partner forces for survival.

            The JSOFSEA ethical decision-making program builds on a thorough review of traditional ethical theory combined with a SOF-specifical viewpoint expressed as the Six SOF Ethical Truths (Thyne & Long, 2020). This ethical framework sets the parameters for the redesigned ethics portion of the Leader-Shift curriculum and focuses on the broader demands of the environments in which SOF teams operate:

#1: Individual moral character is neither inherent nor fixed. Ethical decision-making requires continuing education for even the most experienced SOF operators. Members of SOF units who cannot be shaped by education and experience must be removed from SOF formations because SOF environments, like other respected professions, invite moral drift. This is particularly true if operators are not prepared to deal with the complexities of SOF environments ahead of time.

 

#2: SOF does a great job of selecting and training the right people. Despite rigorous selection and training programs, SOF operators will be morally challenged when they are least prepared to deal with it. Ethical problem-solving skills must be developed and strengthened. Education provides the opportunity for slow thinking that builds the intellectual arsenal operators will draw upon in situations where there is only time for fast thinking.  

 

#3. SOF ethical decision-making must be developed with honest and frank consideration for the harsh realities of SOF environments and operational requirements. SOF units must see the world for the way it is, not for how they might want it to be. In addition, a better understanding of human nature will ensure SOF sees both its strengths and weaknesses clearly.

 

#4. Binary ethical codes do not provide sufficient guidance in SOF environments. In fact, strict adherence to binary ethical codes, which are characteristically black-and-white, can be harmful in some SOF environments. They encourage oversimplification when what is critical is obscured by complexity.

 

#5. SOF leaders should not be naïve or insensitive to human behavior and must recognize that people are not as ethical as they think they are. SOF operators need training to close the gap between the expectation and reality of what they must do and must endure. Leaders at all levels should not expect others to adhere to standards they were unable or unwilling to maintain.

 

#6. SOF culture must be an environment where conversations about ethical decisions, good and bad, are a natural occurrence. Since JSOFSEA recognizes that conversation is education, asking one another questions, sharing experiences, and developing possible solutions becomes a practical exercise in building moral fitness within each other. Moral fitness is essential when lives are at stake, and intellectual overmatch defines operational success.

 

Operationalizing SOF Ethical Decision-Making

 

            The JSOFSEA Leader-Shift approach to understanding the guerrilla-leader identity necessary for leading in the future SOF environment builds explicitly on the Six SOF Ethical Truths as well as a detailed understanding of human behavior, moral drift, and moral injury. By recognizing that human beings are all susceptible to moral drift and that moral drift often leads to moral injury, the ethical component of the guerrilla leader theory captured in the JSOFSEA Leader-Shift program recognizes the leader's responsibility to operationalize the logic of ethical decision-making and take active steps to reverse the effects of moral drift.

As a fundamental aspect of human dynamics, moral drift can be imagined as a concept similar to mission creep. As such, moral drift is the gradual decline in how people consider ethical behavior that often occurs with individuals and within groups, often resulting from the pressures of organizational cultures (Junegi, 2015). When people experience moral drift or observe moral drift in others, they often remain unaware, although people most often drift for the worse, not the better. Because inattention often goes hand in hand with moral drift, people and organizations only realize it after the long-term effects of moral drift have become observable and, in many cases, the person or organization will have completely lost all original bearings and resort to rationalization (Sternberg, 2012). When this happens, a significant event often shines a light on moral drift, leaving people and organizations shocked by the moral misbehavior of others, or the absence of shock serves as a reminder that the organization may have also drifted right alongside them.

            Moral drift left unchecked typically leads to moral misconduct, which is causal to moral injury. Although there are nuances to defining moral injury, a summary definition is a “violation of confidence in one's moral behavior or in expectations that others will behave in a just and ethical manner” (Litz et al., 2009). Moral injury manifests as profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases, also a sense of betrayal, anger, and profound moral disorientation. Given the complexity of ethical decision-making in SOF operational environments and the insufficiency of guidance in current ethical models, SOF units must find pragmatic anchors to improve ethical decision-making.

Countering Moral Drift in SOF

            As a first step in combining the practical and the theoretical, JSOFSEA has developed a SOF Ethical Decision-Making Model to better understand how moral drift affects the operational outcomes of SOF teams. The model is anchored in ethical theory from the Western philosophical theories of the past 2,300 years and accepts the reality that moral drift is an essential part of human nature, especially in high-performing professions similar to SOF. The model provides a common language designed to enhance the collective understanding of ethics throughout the enterprise and to build increased trust from the team room to the strategic levels of leadership to the American people SOF serves.

            Quadrant 1 (blue) of the SOF Ethical Decision-Making Model is the best-case scenario and the one at which everyone should aim. In this quadrant, low moral drift combines with positive operational outcomes. It is the arena in which SOF expertly executes mission sets. Quadrant II is the adverse outcomes arena. Even in cases of low moral drift, there are less-than-fully-successful operational outcomes. These outcomes are considered "unfortunate," but many SOF leaders and operators recognize that they occasionally happen as a “cost of doing business." In such cases, re-training is often the remedy. Quadrant III (red) is the worst-case scenario wherein SOF teammates and teams are "busted" and make headlines in the national news. In this arena, high moral drift combines with low operational outcomes, that is, failed missions. Because of the rarity that SOF operators actually make news headlines, it is tempting to undervalue the nature of ethical decision-making in SOF. On the surface, things look fine as over 70,000 people assigned to special operations units across the joint force produce only a handful of news-worthy ethical problems. From this lens, the ethical failure-rate of SOF ethical behavior is statistically indistinct from zero.

            The model challenges the logic of these conclusions in Quadrant IV (yellow), where high levels of moral drift combine with positive operational outcomes. This is the quadrant mark by leaders who say, “I don’t worry about ethical misbehavior unless it affects the mission,” which means they value competence over character. Quadrant IV (yellow) is the real problem in SOF, although remaining cleverly hidden and widely unrecognized. Until one sees and recognizes the reality of Quadrant IV (yellow), it is not at all clear that there is anything other than the other three more obvious quadrants, and in the absence of Quadrant IV (yellow), it is not illogical to or inappropriate to think there is no ethics problem in SOF. However, once Quadrant IV (yellow) is drawn from the shadows and exposed, the realities of the quadrant cannot be forgotten or unseen. This is the quadrant that imbues the SOF culture of "getting away with it," where SOF leaders and operators sanction this behavior if they do not otherwise address it. This is the behavior that is often famously encouraged through the use of common tongue-in-cheek phrases like “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’!”

            However, the data points in Quadrant IV (yellow) will not surprise anyone who understands the essential characteristics of human beings. Though not a complete list, human beings are essentially an unstable mix of animal drives with a varying capacity to discipline those animal drives in ourselves and others. We are self-interested and often selfish on the one hand, while on the other, humans have the capacity to limit ourselves out of regard for others. We can modify our behaviors if we are motivated to do so. We often find that motivation in our respect for others. Finally, we will do wrong, and often what is unethical, whenever we want if we think there is a reasonable chance of not being held accountable.

            With the SOF Ethical Decision-Making Model in mind, the JSOFSEA curriculum explores how behavior might migrate from Quadrant I (blue) to Quadrant III (red), going from best case to worst case. In doing so, senior enlisted leaders can see that the change that makes Quadrant III (red) behavior possible occurs when moral drift shifts from low to high. As such, the path from best-case to worst-case ethical behavior is directly through the “getting away with it” culture of Quadrant IV (yellow). By illuminating this path, SELs and other SOF leaders and operators can better understand the need for exposing and actively preventing Quadrant IV (yellow) behavior since reducing Quadrant IV behavior also reduces Quadrant III (red) outcomes.

            Minimizing or eliminating the culture of "getting away with it" is not impossible. However, changes cannot happen without the active leadership of SOF enlisted leaders because of their combined experience and the accompanying authority that permeates SOF culture writ large. No single variable is more influential as an agent of change, a driving motivation behind JSOFSEA’s update of the leadership curriculum. The SOF Ethical Decision-Making Model also suggests a more profound relevance to leadership at the senior enlisted level. Looking at the model, we cannot forget that unchecked moral drift contributes directly to moral injury, and SOF leaders at every level have a sacred duty to prevent moral injury by understanding and preventing moral drift. In short, lower levels of moral drift will yield fewer cases of moral injury.

Conclusion

            In revising the leadership curriculum, JSOFSEA is focused on understanding the role that guerrilla leadership education plays in preparing SELs for the strategic challenges of the future SOF environment where relational leadership at the micro-level of complex and dangerous environments characterizes the utility of the Joint SOF enterprise to American strategic engagement. As a foundational aspect of this educational paradigm is reimagining the educational needs of the SOF HE2RO, the impact of moral drift on moral injury, and ways that SOF operators and leaders can work collectively to both prevent moral drift and maximize mission effectiveness. The JSOFSEA Leader-Shift program teaches SELs and enlisted team members to be highly effective organizational leaders by capitalizing on their individual leadership experiences and providing advanced, ethically grounded leadership.  JSOFSEA provides an innovative and unparalleled methodology for enhancing students' research and study opportunities while they think, read, and discuss with peers, veterans, and scholars.

As leaders preparing to meet the leadership challenges of the future SOF environment, JSOFSEA provides a unique environment that encourages SOF enlisted leaders to challenge status-quo thinking and ignite their passion for designing and developing team cultures that value shared responsibility and positive ethical behavior. The Leader-Shift program recognizes the changing paradigm of leadership in the modern SOF environment by incorporating SOF-specific academic leadership theory into this innovative and multi-dimensional approach to SOF leader and leadership development.

By combining the relational aspects of guerrilla leadership and the SOF guerrilla-leader identity, JSOFSEA sets the standard for how the Joint SOF enterprise understands SOF utility and SOF leadership moving into the compound security dilemma of the 21st century. Likewise, the common language of the six SOF ethical truths and the SOF ethical decision-making model enable leaders at all levels of SOF and their partner forces to remain mission-focused while recognizing the invisible hazards of moral drift.  The models' language fundamentally reduces subsequent risks to mission and the health of the force while increasing the general trust between SOF formations and the American people.

References:

Junegi, P. (2015). Edgar Schein model of organization culture. Management Study Guide. https://www.managementstudyguide.com/edgar-schein-model.htm

Litz, B. T., Stein, N., Delaney, E., Lebowitz, L., Nash, W. P., Silva, C., & Maguen, S. (2009). Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 695–706. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2009.07.003

Long, J. E. (2017). Framing indigenous leadership. Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 4(6), 248–257. https://doi.org/10.14738/assrj.46.2936

Long, J. E. (2019). The guerrilla leader theory: Maximizing the strategic impact of leading with competence and connectedness in counterinsurgency operations [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Charleston]. https://search.proquest.com/openview/bee80767747d77d7c2018fa6ae6f7866/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

Long, J. E., & Walton, D. (2019). Green Berets: Regaining the guerrilla leader identity. Small Wars Journal. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330913923_Long2019-The_Guerrilla_Leader_Theory

Sternberg, R. J. (2012, Summer). Ethical drift. Association of American Colleges & Universities. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/ethical-drift

Thyne, K., & Long, J. E. (2020). Ethics Quick Look. Joint Special Operations University Press Publications, February, 1–4.

Wilson III, I. (2020). Sharpening the edge of SOF’s advantage: Towards an adapted vision and plan of action for JSOU “Next.” 3.

 

 

About the Author(s)

Wojciech John Labuz is a retired ARSOF CSM and JSOFSEA Academic Chair at the Joint Special Operations University with over 23 years of operational and academic experience.

Sergeant Major Christopher (Chris) Hughes is a JSOFSEA Instructor at the Joint Special Operations University. SGM Hughes is a career Civil Affairs NCO with 26 years of service. His most recent assignments include Command Sergeant Major, 91st CA BN (A) (SO) and G9 Sergeant Major, United States Army Africa (USARAF).

Dr. Kari A. Thyne is a retired Air Force officer and Faculty Member at the Joint Special Operations University’s Center for Ethics and Leadership. Her research interests include ethical decision-making and values education.  

Dr. Joseph E. Long is a retired Green Beret and Faculty Member at the Joint Special Operations University’s Center for Irregular Warfare. His research interests include Irregular Warfare and ethical decision-making in Special Operations.

Comments

Eric.Sutton

Wed, 12/30/2020 - 7:50pm

Gentlemen,

  Excellent article.  It's clearly time have a larger discussion about ethics/morals across the force, and creating an understanding of the operational benefits and consequences of ethical decision-making is a great place to start.  The Army and Joint Force mandated ethics training which, in many cases, results in an hour or so of slides aimed at completing a requirement and less so at shaping thought processes.  Instruction is easy.  Re-learning values, morals and ethics is not.  For example, in 2006 the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department mandated two hours of ethics training.  Leadership's responsibility ended once the instruction requirements were completed, which has done little to stifle the department's decades long internal gang problem which has recently become a source of embarrassment for the county.

Groupthink is a factor in ethics and cannot be ignored.  SoF members often train and fight in small groups, and as the group develops into a cohesive team, groupthink can permeate. Loyalty can trump sound decision-making.  Leadership at all levels are responsible for ensuring loyalty to the U.S. Constitution is understood, and blind loyalty to individuals is perilous and detrimental to mission success. 

The permissive autocratic nature of SoF leadership results in increased levels of responsibility while operating detached from a unit's higher headquarters.  The leaders, both officer and enlisted who normally shoulder that responsibility deserve training to enable ethical, moral and legal decision-making, regardless of their operational environment.  An options could be to integrate ethics training into NCOES and PME via classroom instruction, discussion, lecture and practical application.  Obviously more discussion is required, but this article is a great start point.  

 

http://file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/dhs/1045879_EmployeeMandTrain.pdf

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/l-a-county-sheriffs-department-has-a-gang-problem.html#:~:text=%E2%80%9CVikings%2C%20Reapers%2C%20Regulators%2C,of%20the%20LASD's%20gang%20problem.