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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-32 – Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff – “Professionalizing Special Operations Forces”

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-32 – Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff – “Professionalizing Special Operations Forces”

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    The special operations community could best address the perceived ethical crisis it faces by professionalizing as an institution. While earlier assessments have attributed special operations forces’ ethical issues to a focus on mission accomplishment that led to a broken force generation process and a high operations tempo, such diagnoses obscure a more comprehensive solution. Using sociologist Andrew Abbott’s work on professions as a framework, this article explores the benefits of building the kinds of institutions that can claim a jurisdiction, develop and certify expert knowledge, and establish and apply a code of ethics that addresses special operations unique concerns so that it builds trust and better serves the American people.

    Read the article:

    Episode Transcript: “Professionalizing Special Operations Forces”

    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    (Prerecorded Decisive Point intro) Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

    The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the podcast guests and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff, author of “Professionalizing Special Operations Forces,” which appeared in the autumn 2022 issue of Parameters. Pfaff is the research professor for strategy, the military profession, and ethics at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and is senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Georgetown University.

    Alright. It’s always nice to chat with you, Tony. Thank you for making time for this today.

    (C. Anthony Pfaff)

    My pleasure. Great to be back.


    Let’s cut to the chase. Your article opens with this sentence: “Special operations forces (SOF) appear to be experiencing an ethical crisis.” Diagnose the problem for us, please.


    Yeah. This article got its start when I was asked by, actually, a couple of members of the special operations community to weigh in on what they were characterizing as a crisis. And if you recall, in 2020, they were in response to a number of very high-profile ethical failures. Congress, on two occasions, asked special operations to do an ethics review.

    I’m not going to be able to tell you the extent of the crisis or what its current status is now. But I will tell you, if Congress—who’s, in some way, your client—is asking for reviews, you have a problem. It’s a professional problem because it’s saying your client—in this case, Congress—doesn’t trust you. At least a little bit. And while it’s never all or nothing, that’s just still not a good thing. So in response, in terms of the diagnosis, you know, special operations did do a comprehensive review, which was a good start. It left much of the blame to external factors like a high (operations tempo or) optempo that was leading to breakdowns in leadership.

    I think it mentioned also training and so on that set conditions for ethical failure. It also pointed out interestingly that . . . and some of the services from there was an emphasis on physical fitness and, I think, specialized skills and, among other things, led to a sense of entitlement among some of the operators that also contributed to ethical failures, which I think is also something important to note.

    Another part of the problem might be—they didn’t connect the dots all the way, but—special operators start off in another service. And it’s that service that trains them to be special operators. Then they move off into the special operations community and (United States) Special Operations Command, and they may or may not continue to get professionalized in their original service. Special operations just doesn’t have that. I think they’ve got some of that infrastructure, but they don’t have a professionalized career path where officers, (noncommissioned officers or) NCOs, and others get certified, you know, as they progress in the same way the other services do.

    And so I thought that was kind of interesting, and it suggested to me that there’s really an opportunity here, which is what this article is really about.

    The idea here is at some level, these problems arise, maybe for the reasons that you’ve said, but there’s a solution to them. If you do the kinds of things that will make special operations more of a profession than what I think it is now, where it is a group of very highly skilled people who basically worked for the other services or the Joint Staff. And so here, it’s important to understand the concept “profession” being applied here. In the vernacular, we use “professions” in a lot of different ways. It can mean I got paid. I’m not using it in that sense. It can mean I’m really good at what I’m doing.

    Here I’m using the sense in which a profession involves an expertise that gives professionals this exercise over jurisdiction that gives professionals the autonomy to use that expertise.

    For example, in the medical profession. In the medical professions, their jurisdiction is the health of the client. Their expertise is being able to see to the health of the client. And as a result, they have the autonomy over that jurisdiction to do things like prescribe drugs or conduct surgery that a nonprofessional would not be allowed to do. So this idea of having a jurisdiction around which you exercise your expertise, that you kind of own. You have the autonomy to decide what the right and wrong thing to do is within that jurisdiction. And another ingredient is a code of ethics that sort of governs how you go about doing that because, ultimately, it’s maintaining the trust of the client is critical for that profession’s status. If you do that, if you start building that and building the institutions that can . . . and not only just build that expertise, certify it and others as well as govern, then you’ve got a profession. And my argument would be you’ll see better results.

    One reason I also thought this was kind of the right way to go was I also looked at what the special operations community themselves were saying about ethics. And that’s when I looked at things like the field guide (A Special Operations Force Ethics Field Guide: 13 Ethical Battle Drills for SOF Leaders). And that’s when I looked at some of the things that I found in blogs and quotes. And you do have a sense where seeing a profession the way I just described it would actually change the way the members would think about things. So, for instance, if you look in the field guide, they frame these dilemmas. The field guide is a set of 13 dilemmas that they navigate, and much of it is very good. Don’t get me wrong. However, from a professional perspective, framing these dilemmas as “right versus right” misses the point. So here’s a good example.

    One of the dilemmas is your special operations (commanding officer or) CO sees a friend of his stealing thermal sights from the arms room, and they say he now has a dilemma. Turning in his friend will do him harm, and he owes him a special obligation because he saved his life at one point. On the other hand, he’s stealing thermal sights. And so what does he do?

    This is actually not a dilemma. A pretty different professional perspective: Professions are stewards. They care for the resources that, in this case, for the military, the American people have given them. You turn in the person stealing thermal sights. As a steward of the profession, you turn them in. If that person had a shred of professional identity left, the thief would understand why.

    Because as a professional, you’re obligated to do these things. So, poof, something that actually may have seemed like a real problem goes away. Now how that impacts behavior, I don’t know. But if you start conceiving yourself as a steward, you’re probably gonna make decisions, and that gets ingrained in your identity because you now have an educating, training, and certification process that builds all that into you. You’re more likely to get people who aren’t going to tolerate these kinds of activities, and that will have good effects down the lane. And the other thing that . . . the kind of thing that came out is this idea that special operators are asked to do something unethical. And then, there’s a confusion when they leave that environment.

    Well, it shouldn’t be, right, because that goes against my point about the concept of professions. Professionals don’t do unethical things; they do things it would be unethical for nonprofessionals to do.

    So reconceiving things that way, I think you’ve got a better way of conceiving of special operations in the community, I think you’ve got a better way of thinking about ethical problems. I’m not gonna call them “dilemmas” because a lot of them aren’t. And also, if we look at the jurisdiction piece, there’s an opportunity here. Where does special operations operate? They were designed to operate below the threshold of war. I will tell you that that is largely ungoverned space. For a lot of the things that we do, there’s not a lot of international law. And there’s not a lot of reciprocity. And, for the most part, there’s no one taking responsibility for that in the way a profession would in terms of creating and implementing a coherent way to respond to the problems within that jurisdiction. That’s not exactly an ethical thing. But, again, if you have that, all this other stuff builds around it, and you’ve got now the institutional resources to A: Do good things, but also resolve a lot of the problems you have now.


    So let’s take it a step further. What are your recommendations then for professionalizing special operations forces?


    So that’s a great question. The first thing to stress is that this isn’t all or nothing. No one’s recommending that, overnight, we stand up special operations as an independent service now competing with the other services for resources, over things the other service is gonna do. Whatever happens, there’s going to have to be an evolution. And so, what I think this framework does is point in what direction that evolution should go.

    So what else can they do? Well, A: Let’s start looking, at an institutional level, what it means to have a jurisdiction. What is that thing (special forces or) SF does? One of the challenges for them is gonna be is SF is a pretty diverse group. You’ve got your special operators on the kinetic side or you got your Green Berets, your (US Navy Sea, Air, and Land teams or) SEALs, et cetera; you’ve got civil affairs; you’ve got information operations; you’ve got a lot of things. All these things are invaluable, are things that, you know, have to be brought together to have a coherent effect in conflict below the threshold of war. So let’s own that jurisdiction first. I don’t think they do. I think they they’re a force provider for other people who do that. But let’s own that jurisdiction and start figuring out what that means. And that will mean changes in curriculum at Joint Special Operations University and other institutions. But start figuring out what it means to own that jurisdiction and build that over time.

    And as you’re doing it, part of building that expertise is understanding how the exercise of your skill within that should be governed. So let’s solve one problem now, which is the concern raised by special operators who have written about this: that they’re being asked to do unethical things. Let’s actually start looking at what SF code of ethics would look like in that environment, under that jurisdiction and start developing that.

    So now you’ve got a professional identity, and now you’ve got an ethic governing the behavior that they previously saw as unethical. So that’s gonna actually help with your transition to other domains.

    So that’s a start. And then you build from there, and where you build—that’s gonna depend on what other folks are doing. One thing about this concept of professions is we’re drawing on Andrew Abbott. He sees professions as in competition. So there’s going to be a little bit of that. We also see that competition is kind of healthy. I would argue that that jurisdiction’s underserved. Sure, it’d be great if somebody kind of picked that up. Yes, there’ll be some competition as the different services sort out how they do things. But the point here isn’t this. To claim a jurisdiction doesn’t mean there’s not a role for other services any more than the fact Army claims Landpower is its jurisdiction doesn’t mean there’s not a role, even in high-intensity conflict, for special operations forces. It’s just who’s building the institutional capacity to operate in that environment and exercise expertise in service of the client. And, right now, I would say that’s not happening in that space.

    And as things evolve, I would work to evolve them in the sense of strengthening the institution to be able to do the things that I discussed earlier regarding governing behavior in that space.


    You note that your recommendations also raise several concerns. Can you talk about those for me?


    Sure! I’ve actually kind of previewed it. One way to interpret it—not the way I wanted to interpret it, necessarily—is do we make special operations a separate service? With all the things that brings on, that will really sharpen the competition that could lead to resources being diverted in ways that they really shouldn’t. It actually may be too big a lift right now for special operations forces to get from here to there. I’m not arguing that . . . like I said, none of this is all or nothing. This is more road map than an end state because no profession’s fully professionalized. No profession’s without its bad actors and ethical issues. In order to be fully professionalized, expertise has to continually evolve. The competition never ends. But I could see someone saying these recommendations entail dedication to resources and formal authorities and so on—which, it might in the future. It may in some ways. That’s not the starting point I think you need in order to get to where you want to go.


    Gotcha. Well, your conclusion kind of sums this up with a statement that I really liked, actually. “Divorced from the calling, individuals will have little reason to take the hard right and avoid the easy wrong and certainly little reason to hold themselves accountable for attaining the professional ideal.” Final thoughts?


    So my point here is simply that having a professional identity, which only happens when you have a profession, is institutionally deep, makes ethical behavior less of an accident. And without it, you’ll see the kinds of things you’re seeing now where, without that professional identity, other factors, other reasons, other rationales for acting and acting badly make sense.

    A strong professional identity would make those reasons and factors, et cetera, not make as much sense as well as create a community of people within that profession who see it the same way, making these bad outcomes less likely.


    Well said. Thank you. This was a good time!


    Alrighty! Bye bye!



    If you’d like to dig deeper into the concept of professionalizing special operations forces, you can find the article at Look for volume 52, issue 3.

    If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, look for us on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and any other major podcast platform.



    Date Taken: 09.20.2022
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:09
    Category: Newscasts
    Audio ID: 74946
    Filename: 2306/DOD_109718199.mp3
    Length: 00:12:04
    Artist US Army War College Press
    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 32
    Year 2022
    Genre Podcast
    Location: US

    Web Views: 25
    Downloads: 2
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