Ethical Scenario - The Goat Herders

The Maple Leaf
February 2016

Simplified from Stephen Coleman, Military Ethics: An Introduction with Case Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 225-227. According to this source, the case summarized below is a true story of a US Navy SEAL operation.

A US Navy Sea Air and Land (SEAL) team of four has been inserted in Afghanistan to conduct undercover observation of a target insurgent believed to be living in a village nearby. They begin their first day by remotely observing the village to try to confirm the presence of their target. That morning, three local goat herders stumble upon them. They insist they are not Taliban even though they are not very friendly towards the SEALs. The team attempts to reach their base by radio requesting immediate exfiltration because their cover may have been blown; they suspect the goat herders will report their presence and location to the villagers if they are released. The radio signal is not working in their current position.

Lacking rope to detain the goat herders, the team believes at the time that the realistic choice is between killing the herders and letting them walk away. The four quickly debate this among themselves and in the end they vote to let the goat herders go free.

They release the goat herders and then change their location as quickly as possible. They continue to attempt to radio their contacts to request they be picked up and removed due to a possible compromised location, but to no avail. Two hours later they are ambushed by insurgents from three sides. A lengthy firefight ensues with well-positioned and greatly superior numbers of enemy insurgents, during which three of the four SEALS are killed. The sole survivor is eventually rescued, but 16 SEALS that formed part of the first backup helicopter sent in response to the battle are killed by an insurgent rocket propelled grenade fired into the open helicopter door, before they could even descend the rope to the ground.

Put yourself in the position of one of the SEALS who is trying to decide what to do once having encountered the goat herders. What is the right thing to do?

Assume the following:

  • You have no way of confidently assessing the probability the goat herders will report your location if you release them. You don’t even have confidence that your presence was known or not known to insurgents before you encountered the goat herders.
  • You and your team members are under considerable stress.
  • You believe that even if you did attempt to temporarily immobilize the goat herders as a third option, they may fall victim to slow dehydration, exposure to the harsh elements, attack by scavenging animals, etc.

Reader feedback is welcome.

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