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.