#97 Discretionary Human Judgments

The Army released a white paper on the "Profession of Arms" this week. Its' purpose is to provide the framework for a discussion over the next year that will look at what it means - institutionally and personally - to be a professional American Soldier. What does the title imply? What responsibilities does it confer? What requirements does it make upon its members? After nearly a decade at war, and with the likelihood of continued conflict over the decades ahead, Army leaders recognized that we really needed to look at who we are, how we operate, what the developmental requirements and responsibilities for our members might be in order to maintain the uniquely American vision of the servant warrior.

As I was reading through it, I came across the following paragraphs:

"To understand the Army profession, we need to understand that the actual practice of the Army professional, irrespective of rank or position, is the repetitive exercise of discretionary judgments as they employ their professional skills. The essence of this definition is that true professionals control their own work. Most often no one tells the professional what to do or how to do it. Their actions are discretionary. Think of a leader on patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a senior leader in the Pentagon making policy decisions. Each exercises discretionary judgment—not solved by a formula, rather drawn from years of knowledge and experience. That is the practice of the military professional‘s art. It is what the American people trust us to do.

Second, most of these discretionary judgments have a high degree of moral content, where decisions directly impact the life of other human beings, whether Soldier and family, the enemy, or an innocent on the battlefield. Such judgments must therefore be rendered by Army professionals of well developed moral character and who possess the ability to reason effectively in moral frameworks. As America trusts the Army‘s character and competence, no one tells us what to write in doctrinal manuals. Leaders have wide discretion in setting policies to educate and train Soldiers with that knowledge, and field commanders execute operations with wide discretionary authority. The nature of war requires this, even more so now under increasingly dynamic, decentralized operations."

These two paragraphs form the basis of almost every argument or position I have put forth since beginning my writing and they grew out of what happened to me in Iraq and a series of emails between CR and me regarding responsibility and leadership within my platoon. But in many ways, the conversation has moved well beyond that period. Whereas 4 years ago I was moving from one end of the spectrum - from the incident outward, I have now moved a little more toward the middle and try to look at it from both sides at once. Sometimes looking at the individual and sometimes looking at the institution.

On March 12, 2006, I made a series of judgments and decisions. Those decisions had been preceded by thousands of other judgments and decisions that led me to a particular understanding of my environment. "A series of repetitive discretionary judgments..." The key part of that is discretionary. I made choices. Choice based upon my Orientation, my understanding and experience. Choices that were my responsibility to make. These ideas of choice and responsibility came up in many of the trial proceedings as to why SGT Cortez was selected to go to that TCP over someone else, or why Green ended up down there with the others even though he was not part of that squad. The answers to those questions are deceptively simple, almost random, and yet had devastating consequences. They were - for better or worse - the outcome of my discretionary judgment. Cortez was in charge because that was his role absent his squad leader who was on leave. He was placed at TCP 2 because it was the 'easiest' mission for that time and befit his experience. Green was sent because we needed a certain number of people to meet the requirements of the TCP. All just repetitive discretionary judgments. And yet their impacts would be huge. In the immediate aftermath of the events, many decided that they were failed judgments, but failed or not, they were mine.

The second paragraph from the white paper talks about these repetitive judgments being made within a moral framework. Judgments that must be made by people "with a well developed moral character." Obviously, the decisions made by those Soldiers did not meet fulfill this requirement. They were not people who possessed this critical preliminary requirement.

Where does all this lead?

An individual joins the Army. He or she is developed in the requirements of the community. As they grow they are given more and more opportunities to make discretionary judgments - choices. And the expectation is that those judgments are based upon a solid moral framework. In essence, the framework precedes the judgment. You must begin with that and build outward. You cannot allow the discretion without first knowing the moral and ethical limits of the individual.

So where does that framework generate?

The moral framework required of a professional Soldier is the sum total of that person's life and experiences from the moment they were born. At 18 years old, the Soldier who joins the community does so with millions of moral/ethical inputs that have already formed their personal Orientation. That Orientation is then molded over time by the requirements of the community. It is added to and subtracted from by the profession. But, at it's core, it is never truly changed. The character of the person who enters the Army is not likely to be transformed by the community, only adjusted over time. No matter how long one stays in any profession, the core values that they possessed or did not possess on the day of their arrival are most likely to be the ones that last. They may be reinterpreted by the immersion into the community, but they will not likely fundamentally change. Your moral decision making process becomes almost instinctual. Which is also why we do not spend much time thinking about it. It happens so slowly that it becomes something that our eyes overlook. We assume our ability to make decisions has always been there and never really go back and look at how those skills were developed and what things in our development had the most impact.

And this is the reason that I have written a lot lately about seeing the whole Soldier. Not just the person in uniform but the entirety of their life. The various roles and responsibilities, and titles and uniforms they wear. That is why it matters what gender you are, your age, whether or not you have children, the things that are important to you and those that aren't. All of the tragedies and triumphs of your life. These understandings are what drive the process for knowing your personal moral framework which certainly has an effect on the types of discretionary judgments you will make. As much as people haven't really placed much importance on these things when I have brought them up in earlier posts, it is apparent now, that true self study must become the bedrock foundation for all leader development programs anywhere - social, business, or military. Due to the finality of combat however, they are absolutely essential to the Army. When the potential outcome of a discretionary choice might be the death of another person, you had better really understand how and why and with what Orientation it was made.

Why does all this matter? Why not just set out the requirements of the profession and then develop a standard metric to measure against? Either you make the cut or you don't. Those that pass become leaders, those that don't do not. Well, it might have taken us 10 years to figure this out, but at it's core, war and conflict happen between people. And those people are affected and formed by their Orientation. Without an understanding of that, we cannot call ourselves a profession. We would only be automatons. The American army has never been about creating robots. No army survives that way. To build a servant warrior, you must first develop a person.

I will be a different leader tomorrow than I was last week. Not because of any work related event. As my family struggles to get back on it's feet after a loss this weekend, my Orientation has been changed. I am not exactly the same as I was before and that change, that awareness, that new understanding, will certainly have an impact on the way I do business. It has to. The unfortunate experience my family is going through now will not fundamentally change my moral framework, but it will change my understandings. And those changes will inevitably get passed along to others as I make the decisions that are a requirement of the position I hold. Exactly the same process as 2006.

Four years ago, when confronted by lawyers and investigators, and pundits about what happened in Iraq, people said that I was trying to escape my responsibility or culpability regarding the incident. I argued that I was not escaping from anything. I have always said that I was/am responsible for the decisions I made regarding my platoon. And that responsibility, those decisions, and my actions are more than just the product of 20 years in the Army. They are the product of a lifetime. My lifetime. My morality, my values, and the totality of my existence. If you allow me the discretion to make decisions, if you give me that trust, then you had better damn well know who I am. And after this weekend, I have evolved a little more. My Orientation is slightly different. And I have gained experience. Who I am as a professional Soldier now encompasses a little more than it did last week based upon who I am as a husband and a father. Somewhere down the road, a Soldier will come to me and need my advice, permission, feedback, input, etc. If you think that I will be able to make a black or white decision like an automaton, you are mistaken. The events of this weekend have been yet another instance of learning what it means to lead human beings. I will visit this time again, I'm sure and it will have an impact on the judgments I make.

It is good that the Army take a look at itself to see whether or not it is living up to it's requirements. The question is are its' members willing to do the same?

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. powerful...really well written, reflective, and to the point....you have touched on many of these points before....and they are ALWAYS worth repeating becaue at their core this is what leadership is all about....

    again, at its core, leadership is about leading another human being...that human has values, background, character, thoughts, etc etc...if leaders don't "know" subordinates as well as they can/should, than then leader adds a level of risk to their practice of discretionary judgement.....their orientation is not as complete as it could/should be....

    also, the collective "we" need to raise our level of "moral awareness"....meaning there is a moral component to many more decisions (even mundane decisions...I can give examples if anyone is interested) that we actually realize....and if/when we raise/increase this awareness, we make our orientation more complete.... if thinking "morally" becomes more habitual, by practice, our exercise of discretionary judgment will be more informed....

    what I am proposing can be taught (I was teaching it to new LTs last week)...you teach students to "think about what they are thinking about"....once they master that, they can guide their tihniking to thinking more "morally"....this can be habit forming just like firing a weapon....

    our Army (just like society) has too many people who "do" without really "thinking"....(I have a case study on this).....as part of our leader development programs, we simply need to teach people to think, and to think about what they are thinking about....then move that thinking to "moral" thinking....which will increase moral decision making and thusly moral behavior.....

    can we prevent every crime that Soldiers are going to commit?....nope....but we can lower the number...