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.

In fact, resources have become more constrained since the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Because SOCOM has remained committed to its missions during this time, the decreasing resources have caused risk to increase. Slowly but surely, SOF accepted missions beyond capacity because that’s what it does. Thus, the risk to SOF increased as resources remained constant. Over the course of 19 years of war, SOF normalized this behavior and it became the only frame of reference they have known. We failed to protect our forces from themselves by losing sight of the relationship between mission and resources.

Because SOF was so close to the problem, it failed to see it. This phenomenon is called ethical drift. Small insidious deviations, over time, become a large departure from the original direction of the organization. What’s more, the individuals making these deviations may not even recognize that this is happening. One seemingly insignificant shortcut leads to another and another. And eventually, the picture of what was normal isn’t even in sight. It’s been totally left behind. But this doesn’t happen by itself.

Let’s go back to the discussion on mission and resources.

When faced with competition for resources, ethical drift can occur. When people feel they are playing a zero-sum game, ethical drift can occur. When people see no other way out, ethical drift can occur. We lost our sense for safeguarding people because SOF was so preoccupied with meeting the demands of the mission, no matter the actual capacity to do so.  The scale was so far tipped toward the side of risk that unethical behavior was bound to happen. So, if we set all of the conditions for catastrophe, why didn’t we see it coming?

Success Has its Own Problems 

SOF was too caught up in its own success. It became the easy button for solving the world’s problems and as its commitments rose so did its ego. The SOF multi-tool became the center of public attention. SOF bought into the sensationalized image of special operations and lost its compass as quiet professionals. With every raid, strike, and special mission the thirst for the mission became insatiable. SOF began chasing the metrics over the underlying values that had been its guiding principles. The problem with good results is, it’s hard to convince the masses that there is a problem. This perception of institutional well-being masks the indicators showing a departure from normal because the gratification of getting to yes and improving the metrics is steadily reinforcing the drift. To an outsider, the outpacing of SOF’s mission from its resources would have been obvious. The insufficient investment in training enterprises would have raised questions about standards and evaluations. The disruptive force generation model would have highlighted an unsustainable operations tempo. The absence of leaders in garrison would have correlated with lapses in SOF professionalism and accountability. The growing risk to SOF would have been obvious. The ethical drift could have been prevented.

The real reason SOF couldn’t see it is because it didn’t want to. Below its outward expression of technical competence in special operations, SOF has a need to prove that it can get the mission done at any cost. To retain its credibility with joint, coalition, and agency partners, SOF felt compelled to “get to yes” where others couldn’t. The SOCOM Comprehensive Review published in January 2020 labeled SOF as a force too occupied with employment to effectively foster a professional force. To live up to the SOF multi-tool reputation, we were willing to compromise the deliberate development of our people. To embody the Hollywood image, we were willing to inoculate risk tolerance to a level that put our people in a continual state of danger. To maintain a unique position at the forefront of attention and employment, we surged resources to and beyond capacity creating an environment of unceasing operations. To bolster our newfound popularity, SOF drifted away from its parent services to show that it was “special.”

How Organizations Change

Clarke Promoted to General, Ahead of Taking Command of Socom
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Richard D. Clarke is promoted to general, ahead of taking command of U.S. Special Operations Command, Tampa, Florida, March 29, 2019. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., (on stage) presided over the ceremony. (Photo by Lisa Ferdinando/DoD)

For an organization to rapidly change it must face a crisis. For SOF, the ethics review must be that catalyst for a new way of doing business. SOCOM has shown a willingness to change by publishing the ethics review but we must be willing to implement it and show the American people that we accept the blame for drifting from the quiet professional mantra.

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We must make meaningful change personal for each of our people, regardless of service. To gain back the trust of the American public, SOF cannot tolerate another ethical violation. This change requires a fundamental recalibration of its values system. Remember, SOF’s frame of reference is nearly unrecognizable from the point of departure 19 years ago. To regain its moral orientation, the daily assembly of the military uniform is used as a metaphor for the proper order of values. Every member’s values are seated on the principles of the Constitution, so the U.S. flag should be adorned on the shoulder first. Duty to service is embodied by the service patch, so the service name should be attached next. Commitment to integrity is represented by the oath of officers and enlisted, so military rank goes on the uniform next. Excellence to a military craft is shown in the component patch of SOCOM, so the component patch reaches the shoulder next. Finally, the last values SOF owes its allegiance to are the culture of its units and the members’ personal compass, represented when the unit patch and, lastly, nametape are seated. The unit and personal values come last inputting service to the Nation before self. As the late General Fogleman once noted, “We serve as guardians of America’s future. By its very nature, this responsibility requires us to place the needs of our service and our country before personal concerns.”

To become more lethal and capable, SOF must move closer to the joint force by placing the bastard brothers of the word “special,” elitism, egocentrism, and entitlement, outside of its values system. To change culture, you start with the top of the iceberg addressing the visible artifacts. SOCOM has made deliberate changes to its surface culture by policing its ranks for visible issues of discipline and professionalism leading to a decline in ethical malpractice since the ethics review was published. But it must dig further to address the deep cultural artifacts of insufficient leadership development, underinvestment in training, shallow accountability practices, overemployment beyond capacity, and disruptive force generation practices at the root of unethical behavior. In sum, SOCOM is in the throws of recalibrating its culture at this inflection point in its history, but its leaders must look into the mirror and embrace deep cultural change for its moral compass to be recentered.

The Path Ahead for SOF

SOCOM has only taken the first steps toward recalibrating its values but the first steps are the most difficult. People will resist change. They will call it a betrayal and unnecessary. They will call it risk-averse. But at the end of the day, SOF owes it to the Nation, and those privileged to serve honorably with the SOCOM patch on their shoulder, to get this right. Remember, the first response of an organization accused of ethical drift is to rationalize the behavior.  But deep down, behind all of the competing needs to meet the SOF image and uphold its reputation, the core service values will guide SOF to the right path.

When the U.S. flag and service name are placed on the uniform, SOF should remember service before self. SOF has experienced the insidious reordering of its values over 19 years of war and this manifested itself the hard way: through poor judgment and disgrace. But SOF will find the frame of reference for its institution where it was left before 9/11. SOF will find its identity as quiet professionals again respected for their unquestioned discipline to its craft. SOCOM is committed to building capable leaders, fully equipped training units, and a sustainable ops tempo for its people. We must assume our place in supporting the joint force through strong relationships with our parent services. SOF will be soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines first, with expertise in special operations.


This article was written by Major Mike Redding. Major Redding is a U-28A Pilot and Student at the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB Alabama.

Major Redding is a highly decorated and distinguished military pilot with more than 3,100 flight hours in various aircraft, including 1,800 combat hours and 500 instructor hours. His combat experience includes eight deployments supporting SOF teams in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Africa, and West Africa.

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