A year after the release of its ethics review, SOCOM finds itself at a critical juncture in its adolescent history as it is searching for answers on where to go next. Given the numerous ethical missteps over the past several years, Special Operations Forces (SOF) allowed its propensity for employment to outweigh sound judgment. Such wide deviations from military standards are the result of the chronic development, over the last 20 years, of an enterprise-wide special operations culture that prioritizes mission accomplishment at the expense of leadership, discipline, and accountability. A reflection on the 2020 ethics review can provide insights into the future of America’s clandestine force and what can be done to realign its moral compass.

Has the Command Regained the Moral High Ground?

Since 9/11, the U.S. military has relied heavily on its special operations forces to fight the Global War on Terror in all its various forms. Nearly 20 years of continuous combat rotation and public interest have led SOF to believe it’s the Hollywood of the profession at arms — a sensationalized multi-tool force whose sole purpose is mission execution. The renowned circling special operations have caused special operations to become a privilege, rather than a specialty.

Operators should be set apart from their conventional counterparts, not because of entitlement, elitism, or a different set of rules but because of disciplined professionalism. This, in turn, will allow quick assessment and acceptance of risk, well-informed decisions, and independent execution. That small decision loop becomes dangerous, however, if absent or disengaged leaders give way to an unfettered “can do” attitude, or if discipline deteriorates to a comfortable position of operating in the ethical gray. Recent events across the SOF enterprise indicate the organization has reached such an inflection point.

Although leaders were held accountable and moral deviations spurring from lax standards were painted as isolated incidents, no service should dismiss the wide-reaching ethical missteps identified in the SOF ethics review as “the other guys.” It is the duty of each SOF component to accept, rather than deflect, blame by embracing the ethical estrangement of SOF as an opportunity for reflection and improvement.

A culture of readiness for dangerous and demanding missions must be balanced with a propensity to manage risk, set and enforce standards, and practice the presence of leadership in all phases preceding SOF’s uniquely high-risk operations. To correct course, SOF must execute a cultural recalibration, beginning with an understanding of what conditions created today’s culture.

How Did SOF Get Here?

It would be easy to make the assumption that this is on the operating force. That a perpetual demand for mission execution at any cost is the fault of the SOF warriors fostering a culture of employment above all else. But that’s who SOF is and those are the types of men and women brought to SOCOM: self-starters, problem solvers, and pathfinders. SOF was exactly what SOCOM, and ultimately the Nation called them to be. No, this is an institutional problem. SOF leaders, at all echelons, myself included, tolerated an environment that swelled commitments, multiplied requirements, and redlined capacity in order to be gainfully employed. In absence of clear guidance, formal standardizations, and thorough evaluations, we accepted ambiguity and a lack of procedures to safeguard the force. Most SOF joined the military after September 11, 2001, and the War on Terror is all that they know. This is what right looks like to them. Faced with continual combat rotation at a high operations tempo to fight the War on Terror, SOF did what was asked of them: do more with less, get to yes, and get the mission done.

We could have taken on these growing missions without sacrificing the welfare of our people if only resources were infinite, but that’s not the reality we live in. SOCOM has a limited number of people, a small inventory of equipment, and a modest pocketbook within the National Defense budget. Because resources are finite, SOCOM can only support a finite number of missions without exceeding necessary risk to its people. Let me explain. Resources and mission have a tense but corollary relationship with risk. Because resources are fixed, any increase to mission will also increase risk and vice versa. If resources are added, the risk is decreased and more missions can be accomplished safely.

But rarely are resources added.