Ethical Scenario Commentary - The Goat Herders

The Maple Leaf
May 2016

The February Ethics scenario, “The Goat Herders” is based on one relatively well-known and authentic US Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) incident, which was also adapted into a Hollywood movie, “Lone Survivor (2013)”. The three “assumptions” that were provided in the scenario are also intended to be authentic, reflecting the thinking of the SEALs at the time, and based in part on the survivor’s own statements. These assumptions are, of course, critical, since a naïve observer might well want to argue there should have been a viable third option besides kill or release (e.g., temporarily immobilize without inflicting serious injury). In addition, several readers proposed variants of this third option: bring the goat herders along while continuing the mission (while somehow rendering them incapable of running away or giving away the location); or scrub the mission, move with the herders to a spot further from the village, and wait with them there until radio contact is re-established and extraction by helicopter can follow.

Stress Situations

Why did none of these potential third options seem more feasible at the time? We still lack the full context, but the stress level in the encounter could be at least part of the answer. It is vitally relevant to discussions of ethics in warfare (and other high-stress situations) that the ability of the mind to think through options in a rational, orderly fashion is typically impaired by the effects of stress. This is precisely why effective pre-operational training attempts to incorporate stress, as well as repetition of the right response to a challenge. Even theoretical ethics instruction must acknowledge the central role of stress in real-life adversity. As much as possible, the individual needs to be conditioned to have the right responses so they can be intuitively recalled as “muscle memory” when cognitive abilities are seriously weakened. At the same time, practice working under stress can, to a degree, moderate the stress response, potentially sparing a degree of cognitive capacity. But it is of course not possible to train for every scenario or, for that matter, to fit all the equipment into a mission that allows preferred responses to unforeseen events.

When the SEALs deliberated, opinions were divided. At the time of the encounter, the subsequent sole survivor and one other SEAL favoured releasing the goat herders on the grounds that it would be a violation of the laws of war towards non-combatants not to do so. In fact, so would any attempt to incapacitate them, assuming it was necessary to inflict serious harm or risk their lives to achieve this incapacitation (as we are told they believed at the time). In non-conventional operations, discriminating between verified enemy combatants and third parties remains fundamental.

Goat Herders Role

The observer may be tempted to assume that release of the locals resulted in a tipoff to the enemy combatants, thus allowing us to draw a link from the moral self-restraint of the SEALs to their disaster. Even if it were true that sparing the goat herders led directly to the fatalities (which is debated), it would still be ethically right to uphold the laws of armed conflict. As believed at the time, there was a presumption that the goat herders were not enemy combatants or scouts working on their behalf. In the event this presumption was mistaken, then the decision, of course, would look fatally misguided in retrospect, but ethical judgment can never be based on anything except one’s best understanding of the situation at the time.

Knowledge, like the capacity to reason, is finite. To infer from the many ensuing deaths that the decision could not have been right is to prioritize an ethic based only on outcomes, which makes laws of war entirely conditional on their convenience. If such a dilemma were placed in the Canadian context, putting the survival of fellow service members above everything else and in all circumstances would not be congruent with the first principle of Defence Ethics: Respect the Dignity of All Persons. Putting the survival of service members ahead of anyone else’s life would also open the door to endorsing war crimes on any scale imaginable whenever there was a necessary choice between unlimited liability and the taking of innocent lives.

Ethical Goals

A small number of commenting readers stated or implied that it would be right or at least “necessary” (if not ethical) to reliably incapacitate the goat herders at the outset, in whatever way was feasible, and then continue on with the mission. A much larger number supported the decision not to harm them on ethical grounds. This dualism of views reinforces the truth that fundamental principles matter a great deal in day-to-day decisions. There is an ethical and legal duty not to single out for harm those believed to be non-combatants. If this is not evident to everyone in the CAF, education on the fundamentals may not be reaching all of the intended audience. This vignette also illustrates the critical importance of simulation-based operations training with a design strongly informed by ethics goals.

Thank you to those who responded to this dilemma. Suggestions for future scenarios are always welcome.

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