Global Ethics Corner: Training SEAL Team 6: The Point of the Sword

May 20, 2011

Could SEAL Team 6 have captured bin Laden alive? Should training for elite military forces prioritize thoughtfulness at the risk of indecision?

Could SEAL Team 6 have captured bin Laden?

Plans for assaulting bin Laden's hideout and for subsequent interrogation suggest that orders were to capture him alive if possible. Let's assume no implicit suggestion to assassinate bin Laden, and put aside the location in Pakistan.

The question then is training.

In training elite military forces, countries make choices. Exaggerating the choice, do you nurture robotic killers, risking thoughtless acts, or philosopher warriors, risking indecision?

Every country effectively trains for physical and combat capabilities. Navy Sea-Air-Land Teams, the SEAL Teams, are often America's elite.

Only about 20 percent of candidates make it through intense training. After years on a regular SEAL Team, members apply to join SEAL Team 6. Only about 50 percent make it. There is little doubt that Team 6 has the skills to be effective killers.

Training to make thoughtful decisions is trickier. The circumstances are often intense, quick, and dangerous. Thinking takes time; extra time creates deadly risks.

Nevertheless, in theory the careful use of deadly force is learned by every police cadet. Similarly, ex-SEAL, Dr. Greitens, states "...we can be thoughtful, disciplined and proportional in our use of force." Regarding bin Laden's death, ex-SEAL, Lalo Roberti says, "For us to take a shot, it must be bad…"

Apparently, SEAL Team 6 was trusted to make thoughtful, on-the-spot, rapid decisions about life or death.

Do you agree? Or, could bin Laden have been captured? What would you emphasize in training? Should thoughtfulness have higher priority, at the risk of indecision?

By William Vocke

For more information see:

Elizabeth Bumiller, "Killing puts a spotlight on a secret elite force," International Herald Tribune, May 6, 2011 p. 1+

Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker, and David E. Sanger, "Commandos were ready to take on Pakistanis," International Herald Tribune, May 11, 2011, p.1+

Michiko Kakutani, "Muscle Memory: The Training of Navy Seals Commandos," The New York Times, May 8, 2011.

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Pete Souza
Sajjad Ali Qureshi
Eddie Harrison/ U.S. Navy
Jayme Pastoric/ U.S. Navy
Ashley Myers/ U.S. Navy
Shauntae Hinkle-Lymas
John Scorza/ U.S. Navy
Keith Williams/ U.S. Navy
Charles McCain
Ashly Myers/ U.S. Navy
Eddie Harrison/ U.S. Navy

You may also like

SEP 29, 2022 Article

Long-termism: An Ethical Trojan Horse

"Long-termism," the idea that the fate of humanity should be our top moral priority, has gained prominence recently in the writings of philosopher William MacAskill ...

SEP 26, 2022 Podcast

C2GTalk: How can countries work together to tackle climate change? with Sunita Narain

Countries need to set aside their differences, recognize their interdependence, and negotiate as equals to tackle the climate crisis, says Sunita Narain, the director general ...

SEP 23, 2022 Article

Autocrats, Oligarchs, and Us: A Moment of Crisis for Responsible Internationalism

As world leaders meet in New York for the UN General Assembly, it is clear that responsible internationalism is in crisis. Carnegie Council President Joel ...