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A Tactical Ethic: Moral Conduct in the Insurgent Battlespace

A Tactical Ethic: Moral Conduct in the Insurgent Battlespace by Dick Couch. Naval Institute Press, 2010, 160 pp.

Dick Couch, author of A Tactical Ethic: Moral Conduct in the Insurgent Battlespace, is a Naval Academy graduate who served with the Navy Underwater Demolition and SEAL teams for five years. As a platoon leader with SEAL Team One in Vietnam, he led a successful rescue of prisoners of war. He later served with the Central Intelligence Agency and taught ethics at the Naval Academy. Further, Couch is a best-selling author of several books and has frequently appeared as a military expert on syndicated television and radio programs.

In A Tactical Ethic, the author expresses the “belief that wrong things have taken place, are taking place, and are not being adequately addressed” (p. 4) on the battlefield. Couch recognizes that senior military leaders provide guidance on standards of conduct and ethics-related training. However, he believes that much of the value of this guidance and training is severely diminished by conditions in place at tactical units that allow dysfunctional conduct, which can spill over during combat. Furthermore, Couch observes that unethical conduct in combat can prove especially harmful to the nation’s cause during counterinsurgency since keeping the moral high ground is essential to winning the hearts and minds of the populace.

Although a slim book of just six chapters, it is a bit tedious in its explanation of the problem, and the reader may find the first five chapters repetitive. Moreover, some of the author’s arguments lack the scientific rigor expected when one makes conclusions about the effects of modern influences on ethical behavior. Nevertheless, Couch’s experience with the subject, coupled with his anecdotal evidence, lead the reader to accept his assessment. Additionally, he unnecessarily limits the scope of his discussion of tactical ethics to male-only, small ground-combat units in the Army, Marine Corps, and special operations forces. However, during counterinsurgencies, the battle lines aren’t always clear, and the definitions of combat and support units are often blurred, as the nation realized when Pfc Jessica Lynch was captured during a firefight in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hence, A Tactical Ethic applies to a wider audience than initially targeted.

In the last chapter, Couch offers 10 rules of ethics (ROE) designed to create an ethical culture within tactical units and ensure proper behavior during combat. The author intends that junior combat leaders incorporate these rules as part of their daily leadership to instill and reinforce appropriate behavior. The ROEs represent practical, tangible guidance that enables someone to set and communicate clear expectations of right and wrong, provide the right example, eliminate bad behavior, promote communication, and enforce compliance with ethical standards. The last two rules specifically address ways of balancing loyalty and integrity when they compete and of exercising moral will when doing so is most difficult.

Although the Air Force offers values-based training in several topics and many formats, airpower is widely viewed as a technological solution in combat. Consequently, Airmen tend to focus on technical competence rather than discuss ethical behavior during day-to-day operations. Couch’s work addresses this omission head on and delivers realistic recommendations. Thus, every Airman can benefit from this work and should put A Tactical Ethic into practice.

Maj Robert D. Folker Jr., USAF

Nellis AFB, Nevada

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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