An ethics for the ‘grey zone’ of special operations

“A former special operations officer I spoke to said: ‘The ethics of special forces is to lie, steal and kill.’ That’s partially what struck my interest, you’ve got such a divergent view.”

Dr Deane-Peter Baker from UNSW’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences became interested in the ethics of special operations when he realised that despite its moral complexity, very little research had been done on the topic that could guide the actions of special operations units.

“We’ve seen a huge growth in special operations in the last 10 years… now, certainly for the US and Australia too, in terms of boots on the ground, they are the main effort,” said Dr Baker.

“Through all this, there’s been very little consideration of the ethical constraints of special operations forces, even though what they do is quite different to conventional forces and their environment is quite different a lot of the time.”

Dr Baker said part of the challenge is that special operations can be difficult to define, but units tend to be relatively low-profile, and can do jobs with much smaller footprints than a conventional force, jobs with specific strategic outcomes.

His own work has placed the work of special operations units into four main categories: raids, recoveries (like hostage recovery or downed personnel), reconnaissance, and working with rebels, or ‘surrogates’. This final category has been one of the main focuses of Dr Baker’s research.

“One of the classic missions of special forces is to train, advise and equip irregular forces, often guerrilla, non-state forces,” he said.

“There are all sorts of questions about what our ethical responsibilities are when they do things they’re not supposed to do. Can we bite the bullet on working with bad people in order to get good things done?”

Dr Baker has interviewed US and Australian special operations personnel as part of his research, including the US’s elite Navy SEALs and the Australian Army’s Special Air Service Regiment, better known at the SAS.

The interviews found some wildly divergent views on the ethics of special operations. While some believed it is the same as any other military ethics, others disagreed.

“A former special operations officer I spoke to said: ‘the ethics of special forces is to lie, steal and kill,” that’s partially what struck my interest, you’ve got such a divergent view,” said Dr Baker.

“We’ve also seen special operations forces themselves have struggled to define where they are in this space and so the goal of the work is not just to write something for academics, but to write a useful guide for forces on the ground.”

The ethical principles that come out of this work will not only help policy makers assess the ethics of actions by special operations units, they will help to guide actions before they occur.

Dr Baker works closely with the Special Operations Training and Education Centre based at Holsworthy Barracks in south-western Sydney, where the practical outcomes of his research can be applied. By changing the ways special operations units are trained, personnel will be better able to navigate the complexities of modern conflict.