A Tactical Ethic: Moral Conduct in the Insurgent Battlespace.
by Dick Couch
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2010, 160 pages
The U.S. military does a good job in preparing its young men and women to act ethically on today's battlefield; however, we are occasionally reminded of our shortcomings when they are splashed on the news headlines within a 24/7 news cycle. Retired Navy CAPT Dick Couch, in his book, A Tactical Ethic: Moral Conduct in the Insurgent Battlespace, makes the case that, while the U.S. military does indeed do a good job at acting ethically, it needs to do better. Couch makes a strong case for the importance of having men and women within the ranks who act morally and the difficulty of this within a fluid and dynamic counterinsurgency. Couch delineates the difference between a top-down hierarchical approach and that of a small unit bottom-up approach. It is this bottom-up approach, Couch argues, that will have the greatest effect on moral action on the insurgent battlespace. As such, the book is intended for that audience, the small unit leader.
Couch has divided A Tactical Ethic into six chapters. He introduces the reader to the nature of the issue and then illustrates the initial training processes alongside the clash of values. Lastly, he purposes practical solutions to alleviate these clashes. The middle of the book slows down somewhat, especially for the seasoned leader. Couch offers some illumining information, albeit mostly anecdotal, as to why there is a clash in culture. The average young American makes a dramatic change in values during initial training; however, contemporary American culture is a powerful thing, leaving a few who cannot get rid of their past baggage. Thus, for Couch, the key issue is not initial training but the small unit culture in which one arrives after initial training. Some choose to revert back to previously held values that are not in line with the military and, when left unchecked, may "pirate" the moral compass of a unit. This in turn explains what Couch sees as the main reason for ethical breakdowns, namely the value of loyalty or, more appropriately, misplaced loyalty.
Couch emphasizes embedding ethics into small unit classroom and training exercises; this is illustrated in his lengthy description of close quarters defense training, which special operations forces (SOF) routinely undergo, that helps internalize an ethical warrior ethos. Couch sees the lack of a formal method in the regular forces (i.e., non-SOF units) as a shortcoming that needs to be remedied. In the last chapter Couch offers the reader his rules of ethics (ROE) as a practical set of guidelines for the small unit leader. The reoccurring theme within his ROE is a familiar one-the need for leaders to know their people and know the ethical climate within their units; to educate, communicate, and reinforce high ethical expectations; to model high ethical standards; to actively deal with substandard behavior; and to properly focusing loyalty on organizational principles and values rather than on individuals (i.e., "pirates").
In the end Couch makes a compelling argument, linking moral conduct on the battlefield with the success of the mission. He gives an accurate, but anecdotal, depiction of contemporary American culture, the baggage youths bring with them to the military and how clashes often occur. The most common clash being misplaced loyalty, especially at the small unit level. He emphasizes weeding out the pirates who have corrupted the moral compass of the unit and embedding ethical training at all levels throughout the training cycle. A Tactical Ethic is not an academic work, and it is not intended to be. It is a practical book written for the small unit leader, the corporal, sergeant, and lieutenant; however, it is a welcome read for a more seasoned leader as well. To that seasoned leader the tools that Couch provides may seem like good old-fashioned leadership principles (and they are), but to the young reader, they are presented in a refreshing modern-day approach that should be appealing to them. The practical advice is not just for the small unit leader who is heading to the chaotic world of the insurgent battlespace; it is just as relevant for those who lead here stateside every day.
The bottom line is that A Tactical Ethic is a must-read for anyone who has young men and women in their charge. The commanding officer of the USMC Officer Basic School agrees as he has placed this book on the reading list for lieutenants at the school.
Reviewed by Major Clinton A. Culp, USMC (Ret) As suggested by MAJ Heriberto Perezrivera, XO, 309th MI Bn, Fort Huachuca, Arizona
Reprinted with permission from the Marine Corps Gazette[C]. Original review published at the Marine Corps Association and Foundation website at https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/bookreview/book-month-tactical-ethic.