The Socratic Method: A Solution to U.S. Special Operations Command’s Ethics Dilemma

Left unchecked, an eroded values system threatens to erode the trust of our fellow comrades, our senior leaders, and ultimately the American people.

U.S. Special Operations Command, Gen. Tony Thomas

After recent events of multiple SOF personnel conducting criminal acts, murdering fellow SOF teammates, serving as judge, jury and executioner to kill defenseless detaineessmuggling narcotics, and unethically stealing from the government, American special operators have a problem that needs to be addressed. The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is plagued with an internal bluster of ethical and moral difficulty, a struggle to recruit and retain its best, and to connect with the very public which it serves. A solution to this existing dilemma is to better define and enable personal courage, reinforce personalized purpose, fortify habits of virtue, and increase Socratic discourse.

Courage is hard to define, because it is multifaceted and based on one’s perception of fear, varying in moral, ethical, or physical relevancy. Carl Von Clausewitz described this complexity of courage necessary in war and describes courage as both taking responsibility and acting under physical danger; he also describes the importance of courage beyond impulse. Moral courage is that which we have based on our own individual and familial values, while ethical courage is based on what we’ve accepted, by deliberate choice, in a larger institution, whether it be government, military, or the organization we work with. Physical courage is more easily understood by physical acts which risk endangerment to ours, our comrades’, or any of those people or things we are protecting. Although many of us display acts of courage, there are some in our ranks who are reckless and fail at embracing deeper virtues. An individual may conduct ‘acts of courage’ on the battlefield, but this does not inherently indicate that this individual has a habit of personal moral courage. Current day philosophers try to explore what courage really looks like and how we overcome existing fear and concern. I have met many people who lack moral and ethical forms of courage and it has obviously led to the increase of criminal acts within the special operator community. This personal courage comes in many forms. It could have been Logan Melgar’s courage in reporting concerns of his teammates amidst intimidation of team harassment. It could be in the form of a task force commander not covering up festering negativities within his or her unit. It could also be in the form of knowing when you are risking your own integrities and need to self-report. Personal courage also comes in the form of accepting risk in social criticism by discussing your own faults so that your team can be reaffirmed to embrace humility and have encouragement in reciprocated respect to take active steps toward improved ethical decision-making. Our deliberate choice to develop and uphold our institutional values fosters both ethical and moral courage during difficult times, which our team can relate.

We need to realize our sense of purpose through deliberate self-reflection.  Creeds and mottos, designed after organizational values and collective pride, are chanted during graduations, printed on cards, taught in training environments, and even engraved on unit coins, yet many people do not deliberately relate them to daily actions. This doesn’t truly reflect our culture, which influences our day to day actions both on and off the battlefield. Most creeds and mottos are focused on the deliberate acts of tactical conflict, but our everyday lives are what develop our fundamental habits to influence us in future decision-making. We raised our right hands, spoke an oath, and continue to put on a uniform and answer the call to battle. But how often do we consider this as more than a job? Should you memorize these mottos and creeds or is it more important to ask yourself if you are serving your purpose and serving ethically? Are you loyal to the virtues of your profession which you chose? Perhaps if we put words on paper to define our individual morals and purpose, we will build upon the courage from confidence in what we represent individually. The pen to paper should reflect a facet of our profession and duties, yet remind us of why we serve. Some of us go as far as to create a personal mission statement to remind ourselves, hold ourselves further accountable, and to motivate others in their journey.

Ancient Greek philosophers, the creators of our ideas of democracy and justice, created a framework to enable our daily habits of virtue; and much of it is through writing and positive daily physical habits. These philosophical principles, as further described by individuals like Admiral Stockdale, provide individuals ways of coping, accepting, and fitting within the role of larger military organizations. Our lives on the battlefield are far from what we experience at home. But if we make a conscientious decision every day, on or off the battlefield, to ‘serve our country’ through how we present ourselves, how we place our mission first, and how we will question everything based on ethical principle, we can encourage positive habits and tolerance.  We need to make it direct and deliberate by enabling physical reminders, such as writing down our values, speaking deliberately with others about them, or reminding ourselves as we wake every morning, and allowing others to keep us accountable, specifically with discourse. Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditationsto do just this, to meditate and think deliberately on the values he found most important. He wrote of trivial and complex subjects, yet so much of his ideas were based on higher purpose and humility. 

Communication is challenged more than ever in a highly evolving world; electronic communication veils genuine face to face discussion and more often isolates people and the realities we face. The military solution of power point presentations, web-enabled training, words on a published memorandum, and large-scale auditorium-style presentations on ‘ethics’ related scenarios are impersonal, one-sided, and demonstrate a significant wedge in our ability to foster human relationships at the team, unit, and command levels.  It’s time we encourage more virtuous leaders to have direct engagement, but the force needs encouragement from general officers, battalion leadership, and detachment level commanders beyond the scope of an email. Team leaders around the globe can foster trust among peers and console each other about the concerns within operations. 

The civilian professional community also recognizes the importance of this discourse, in the form of transformative learning, and takes deliberate measures to encourage the integration of open discourse for the discovery of ideas and to enable positive change of thought-processes such as biases, habits of the mind, and emotional receptiveness. Transformative learning increases an individual’s thoughts on relatable dilemmas by encouraging open response and receptive open feedback. Perhaps our force should consider taking roles similar to the philosopher-kings, but shape it into that of philosopher-warriors. Philosopher-warriors can talk to their team members, not just when they get in trouble, but during the good and low times, so they can recognize when something is ‘off.’ We often perceive formal methods of counseling as intimidating or exaggerate, but informal talks reinforce that we are chatting because we want to and not because we have to.  Socrates, warrior and philosopher, is less known for his time as a soldier. Few studies reflect on his combat stress and the fundamental hardship he lived for long periods of time, yet he adapted and epitomized our idea of resilience. Socrates reflected heavily on his ideas and experiences of resilience, paving a positive road of dialogue with students and those around him.

I’ve been there many of times: the easy times when I know someone is truly on my team, and other times when I felt an innate sense of concern and question of a peer’s loyalties. There’s an opportunity to exercise that personal courage, if even in a statement of what you value. This isn’t casting stones, but it draws a line. If the line is crossed again, it’s time to bring in that inner circle of people, philosopher-warriors, you’ve been building. In further philosophical perspective, if a soldier takes positive steps in personal courage, but no one is around to discuss and encourage, is it truly appreciated and upheld? Discourse reconfirms to those who need it in their journey of building habitual moral and ethical courage.

The turning points of lives are not the great moments. The real crises are often concealed in occurrences so trivial in appearance that they pass unobserved.

George Washington, the first President of the United States

The foundation of Socratic discourse can extend beyond the military community. The Special Operations community often urges, for operational security, that its members abstain from engaging the public about their mission and their professional experiences, but the life of a quiet professional does not mean we are to refrain from interacting with our communities. With today’s technology, it is difficult to balance this public engagement with protecting our mission and its force. After over a decade of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other middle east countries with missions publicized, movies released, books published by special operators, our public often has a sense that our silence or avoidance of their questions is driven by negative conspiracy and secrecy. I’ve witnessed this in the common hyperbole of “if you tell me, you’d probably have to kill me.” When we deliberately examine our lives and make it a part of an accountable and encouraging discussion, we build on our society’s understanding of special operations forces. The people with which we connect with in our communities are the same people which hold our government accountable; in each action we take within our profession, we should consider if it’s parallel to the values we reflect as a nation.

Our lack of discourse and interpersonal communication not only impacts our internal military affairs, but also reflects poorly to potential recruits; an improved emphasis on well-rounded discourse on philosophical ideals and ethics can positively attract people to military service. According to the PEW Research Center, over 70% of veterans and civilians agree that the public does not understand the military problems we face. In a 2011 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 33% of 18-29 year old Americans have an immediate family member in the military. The findings show there is a large number of young adults, who do not have family members or opportunity to discover the military way of life. There is an opportunity to connect with this group of young adults to shape their perceptions of the military, to recruit, or for general respect and understanding. Special operators have the chance to build good habits and to embrace their imperfections, their humility, and their experiences to relate to the common people and earn their trust. We can share with our public of how rewarding our ethically driven and service-first special operations careers have been, how we are regular people just like them, and that with proper training, education, dedication, and resiliency, it can be them too. We have in common the daily struggle of life: raising a family, staying healthy, fostering relationships, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and the common goal to be fulfilled. 

The engagement can be in the forms of casual discussions with neighbors and acquaintances, enduring community outreach, such as the Naval Post Graduate School Discover Day , or with youth encouragement and mentorship with organizations like Rancho Cielo. SOCOM’s current form of community outreach is based on internal efforts to support wounded veterans and the families of the fallen. Perhaps it’s time for SOCOM to expand its community outreach to connect philosopher-warriors with local communities to enable public understanding, encourage values-based activities, and to give the force at home a continued mission. Small talks, voluntary and initiated by uniformed philosopher-warriors, could be conducted in short 1-hour episodes within small groups. Life lessons of resiliency, improved decision-making, and wit can be shared and even reaffirmed between servicemembers and children, at risk youth, or less fortunate populations. The aim of these talks would be to discuss hypothetical situations, to share anecdotal insights and experiences aimed to overcome uncomfortable topics, but to foster mutual trust among leaders and comrades and to enable deliberate internal reflection of oneself. These types of discussions create opportunity for growing leaders and soldiers to view the intrepid conversation leaders as models, heroes, and leaders tied to regular life events of resiliency.

Whether our situation is a result of a dishonorable force or a lack of SOCOM’s and subordinate commands’ deliberate engagement, it’s obviously time for change. I plea to my Special Operations brothers and sisters to empower personal courage, personalize your sense of purpose, fortify habits of virtue, and to increase Socratic discourse with those around you. We should wake up every day and not only make our beds, but think about how we are going to deliberately represent our values and calculatingly engage our comrades. 

Major Trisha E. Wyman is an Army special operations officer with over 18 years of enlisted and commissioned service within Special Operations and U.S. Army units. She has deployed around the world and continues to actively serve her communities. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.