Ethics and Insights - Moral Courage: Take Two

By: George Lober

I recently received an email from a student in which he made the following observation: of the ten highest military service awards America bestows, the qualifying criteria for each involves either physical courage and bravery, or extended periods of service with extreme responsibility. Not one, my student observed, is for demonstrating moral courage.

Around this same time, I presented a case study to my class that involved a moderate to serious military indiscretion. A number of my students that day concluded that the best resolution to the dilemma was to keep the matter "in house" (i.e. within the organization), and not to go public with the indiscretion. They cited as reasons the potential damage to the reputation of the military in general, and to the specific branch in particular. When I raised the idea of a possible moral obligation to come forward publicly with the truth regardless of the embarrassment, one student remarked, "Sir, we are not a service of rats!" —in other words, not a service of squealers, stool pigeons, or leakers of secrets. Taken together, the two instances make me wonder: If moral courage isn't recognized and highly rewarded, is there any real incentive to exercise it within the American military or any other military, in government agencies, or in any national or international civic organization entrusted with public care, welfare, and protection? If rather than being admired, people who act with moral courage are often regarded as "rats" because they upset organizational complacency, does that raise a palpable disincentive to do the right thing? The ethicist Rushworth Kidder, in his book Moral Courage (New York: William Morrow and Co., 2005) defines any act of moral courage as consisting of three elements: a moral principle, a danger involved in acting upon the principle, and a willingness, despite clear recognition of the danger, to act upon that principle nonetheless. For Kidder, if there is no moral principle at stake, it's not an act of moral courage.

The dangers of acting upon that principle can run the gamut from social ostracism or loss of employment to blacklisting, or even threats to one's health and safety. If one fully understands both the moral principle in play and the dangers involved, and if one chooses to act upon that principle anyway—recognizing that the dangers may well come to pass—Kidder regards that choice as an act of moral courage. Such an actor would hardly seem worthy of the label "rat."

Yet if, regardless of rank or position, people are not taught, trained, and rewarded for acting with moral courage, can society really expect them to demonstrate it anyway, particularly when the disincentives may be so strong? Can we call people to task for a failure to act with moral courage in the face of organizational and social norms that discourage or even condemn such behavior? Or to put it another way, if we want people to act with moral courage, do we first have an ethical obligation to teach and reward that behavior, even if on occasion the truth that's revealed may hurt?

Resources: Publication Announcements Oman: The Present in the Context of a Fractured Past by Roby C. Barrett

Issue Date: August 2011 (JSOU Report 11-5)
Dr. Roby Barrett's study of some 200 years of the Sultanate of Oman's dynastic history puts into context the last four decades of the Sultanate's history. It answers the question of whether Oman has changed fundamentally from a nation fraught with instability and conflict to one of peace and stability. Barrett's analysis of modern-day Oman will help the reader avoid misinterpreting the country's present condition on the basis of Oman's largely tumultuous past, which often featured conflict and competition for wealth and power. Dr. Barrett's two most recent monographs, this work on Oman and his earlier study "Yemen: A Different Political Paradigm in Context", are bookends that will provide the SOF reader with a deep understanding of the historical context which has resulted in the southern Arabian region of today.

Cultural and Linguistic Skills Acquisition for Special Forces by Russell D. Howard

Issue Date: December 2011 (JSOU Report 11-6)
Brigadier General (Ret) Russ Howard articulates the need for SOF to develop language and cultural skills capabilities that reflect the wider range of locales and ethnic groups in which SOF engage while carrying out their diverse missions. General Howard outlines various definitions of culture and highlights the relationship between cultural understanding and the ability to predict behavior on the ground--an invaluable asset for a SOF operator. Drawing on his experience leading the Special Forces Language School, General Howard explores the relationship between learning a language and culture, highlighting the implications for SOF. As USSOCOM and SOF rebalance the force for long-term deployments in complex operating environments, this monograph is an important contribution to the discussion of how language and cultural skills capabilities should be defined, prioritized, and developed.

WHAM: Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan and Elsewhere by Thomas Henriksen

Issue Date: February 2012 (JSOU Report 12-1)
Dr. Henriksen argues that America needs to get back to the basics of counterinsurgency lest it bankrupts itself in nation-building and reconstruction projects that are driven from the top, not the bottom. Citing tremendously expensive "Winning Hearts and Minds" efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he hypothesizes that "WHAM operations must be waged with much less expenditure of U.S. dollars in the years ahead." He offers Britain's frugal victory in Malaya as one example of a low budget counterinsurgency success that started with protecting the people, over time formed a representative government, and linked the people and their support to that government. Economic development was part of the strategy, but it was a supporting and complementary effort. It wasn't a major effort in and of itself.

"We Will Find a Way": Understanding the Legacy of Canadian Special Operations Forces by Bernd Horn

Issue Date: February 2012 (JSOU Report 12-2)
Colonel Bernd Horn's monograph on the legacy of Canadian Special Operations Forces (SOF) highlights the colorful history and heritage of SOF in a vital partner nation. Horn reaches back to the 17th and 18th centuries with the Canadian Ranger tradition. He recounts Canada's entry into World War II and its SOF experience with the British-led Special Operations Executive. He highlights the First Special Service Force, in which Candians and Americans trained together in Montana and fought alongside each other, earning the moniker "Black Devils" from the Germans. Colonel Horn then brings readers to the present day. This is a brief but exciting recap of Canadian SOF history that not only enriches our understanding of a key ally, but also highlights the historic bonds and military experiences that our two great nations share.

The Sovereignty Solution: A Commonsense Approach to Global Security by Anna Simons, LTC Joe McGraw, and LTC Duane Lauchengco

Naval Institute Press ISBN/SKU: 9781612510507
If terrorists were to strike another major city, what would the United States do? Aside from the dedicated first responders, Americans would cast about for whom to blame. In such a vitriolic atmosphere, what would our national response be? Who would be the target? Given our current national strategy, what type of American response should the rest of the world expect?

The United States has never articulated a clearly stated position on national defense: respect our sovereignty and we will respect yours. In The Sovereignty Solution—a radical yet commonsensical approach to recalibrating global security—an anthropologist and her Special Forces coauthors discuss what the United States could actually do to restore order to the world without having to engage in either global policing or nation building. Anna Simons has a PhD in anthropology from Harvard University and is a Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. LTC Joe McGraw and LTC Duane Lauchengco are both graduates of the United States Military Academy as well as NPS, and are U.S. Army Special Forces officers serving with two different Special Forces groups.

"Counterinsurgency by nation building is concurrently official U.S. doctrine, an evident case of military malpractice, and the imperialism of fools… This book is a valuable contribution because it describes a perfectly sound alternative to the current U.S. military conduct."—EDWARD N. LUTTWAK, military strategist and historian; author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace "Like an unexpected wet mop in the face of tired complacency, The Sovereignty Solution works on the receptive mind as a pry bar works on a tightly sealed box. Written with courage and passion, this is a book whose often counterintuitive clarity shakes entombed assumptions like an earthquake. Whether you end up convinced or not, you will never think about American national security the same way ever again."—Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest "While one can disagree with them, the authors make a strong case for a U.S. strategy that leaves other countries alone to live as they wish unless they attack our sovereignty. The beauty of the strategy is its stark simplicity. As important, the three authors work daily with U.S. military officers, and they cannot mask their frustration and anguish over national leadership that sends young Americans into combat without even having the guts to seek formal declarations of war, and without operationally clear criteria for success. The authors care, and so should we all."—The Honorable James G. Roche, 20th Secretary of the U.S. Air Force


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