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Fixing the Problem: Integrating Virtue Ethics into U.S. Special Operations


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Fixing the Problem: Integrating Virtue Ethics into U.S. Special Operations Forces Selection, Education, and Training

Benjamin Ordiway


“A survey of allegations of serious misconduct across our formations over the last year indicate that [United States Special Operations Command] USSOCOM faces a deeper challenge of a disordered view of the team and the individual in our SOF culture.”
    —General Raymond Thomas, Former Commander of USSOCOM, December 13, 2018

“We have a problem.”

—Rear Admiral Colin Green, Naval Special Warfare Commander July 25, 2019[ii]

“. . . this force does not have a systemic ethics problem.”   

          —General Richard Clarke, Current Commander of USSOCOM January 28, 2020[iii]

In The Story of Civilization, Volume III, philosopher and historian Will Durant warns, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.”[iv] Just as elevation is often associated with a position of tactical advantage in combat, the moral-ethical[v] high ground is key terrain in the defense of our civilization; when internal actors surrender the moral-ethical high ground, our adversary’s work is done for them. Every minute spent dealing with the consequences of moral-ethical breaches cedes a contour-line of respect and creates a widening window of opportunity for those who seek the United States’ capitulation as a global power and leader. Special Operations Forces (SOF), which fall under United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), are the sentries entrusted with guarding this moral-ethical high ground across the continents.

SOF teams, though small in number, are designed to achieve outsized effects in support of strategic political and military objectives while in hostile or politically sensitive environments.[vi] Whether coordinating humanitarian assistance projects in the Balkans, enhancing counter-terrorism capabilities from Burkina Faso to Colombia, or targeting Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Syria, SOF are persistently engaged as frontline emissaries of the United States. To this end, all SOF undergo a multi-week selection process and receive specialized training, which contributes to the development of unique and rich unit cultures.[vii] A sample of SOF unit mottos describe teams that are called to be “quiet professionals”[viii] (Special Forces), “always faithful, always forward”[ix] (Marine Raiders), and “warrior-diplomats”[x] (Civil Affairs).

But what happens when the actions of a few service members are neither quiet nor professional, causing senior political and military leaders to lose faith in the character and abilities of those forward? From war crimes, to drug trafficking, to murdering colleagues, a web-search of special operations moral-ethical issues returns plenty of front-page material. May of 2019 was an especially difficult month for USSOCOM’s reputation. In the span of thirty days, the military sentenced two Green Berets to nine years in prison for drug trafficking,[xi]and a Navy SEAL and a Marine Raider pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in the 2017 death of an Army Special Forces Soldier. Two months later, the Navy convicted a SEAL for posing in a photo with the corpse of an ISIS fighter.[xii]