SOCOM Review Finds No ‘Systemic Ethics Problem’

SOCOM Review Finds No ‘Systemic Ethics Problem’

Photo by: U.S. Army

A sweeping review of special operations troops, ordered after a series of high-profile cases of misconduct, found the force does not have a “systemic ethics problem,” the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said.

However, almost two decades of sustained combat and not enough emphasis on leader and professional development have “impacted our culture in some troublesome ways,” Army Gen. Richard Clarke wrote in a Jan. 28 letter to the force.

“The bottom line is that we have disproportionately focused on [special operations forces] employment and mission accomplishment at the expense of the training and development of our force,” he wrote. “In some cases, this imbalance has set conditions for unacceptable conduct to occur due to a lack of leadership, discipline, and accountability.”

Clarke’s letter, which was also signed by Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Smith, the command’s senior enlisted leader, and special operations leaders from all the services, was released along with a 69-page report on the review.

“Culture does not tend itself—it must be cultivated by leaders, and only active, consistent engagement from leaders at every level will make us better,” Clarke wrote. 

Clarke ordered the review last August after several incidents of misconduct, including charges against two Navy SEALs and two Marine Raiders in the death of an Army Green Beret in Mali; the murder case against former Army Green Beret Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who has since been pardoned by President Donald Trump; and the expulsion of a Navy SEAL platoon from Iraq after an alcohol-fueled July Fourth party and allegations of other misconduct.

The review team, whose members canvassed more than 2,000 special operations troops, completed its work in December. The report includes 16 recommendations to address the team’s findings.

The high operations tempo many special operators shouldered over the years led to a culture that prizes deployments and boots-on-the ground experience. The high demand also disrupted a force generation model that would have allowed time for professional military education and leader development, the team found.

“Bringing more structure and emphasis back to these areas enables USSOCOM to reinvest in leader development and groom leaders with the required balance of character and competence,” the report says, adding that there’s been insufficient junior leader development.

Because special operations troops often operate in small, self-contained teams in hostile environments, their leaders “must demonstrate and demand exacting standards of leadership, discipline and accountability,” the report says.

But the military also must allow special operators the time to conduct training, develop their leadership skills and reconnect with their families, the report found. Many of them are called away on short-notice, short-term assignments that are separate from their force generation cycle, causing disruptions that “have cascading effects across the SOF enterprise,” the report says.

“Current employment models disrupt purpose-built teams, consume leadership capacity and impact individual predictability,” the report says. “The SOF enterprise support of ad hoc requirements contributes to the slow erosion of leadership, discipline and accountability.”

Moving forward, this effort will take leadership from SOCOM headquarters down to the individual operators on the ground, the report says.

Special operations troops are “dedicated to a life of demanding service and actively engaged in taking responsibility and confronting challenges in difficult circumstances,” the report says. They “thrive on leadership, discipline and accountability. Harnessing and leveraging this highly capable force requires USSOCOM dedication and sustained leadership.”

Read Clarke’s letter here. The full report is available here.