The other night, I watched the movie Lone Survivor starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster. The movie came out in 2013 and is about a Navy S.E.A.L. team, lead by LT Michael Murphy, out on a mission to capture or kill the notorious Taliban leader, Ahmad Shah. The movie is based on a true story. At the end of act one, LT Murphy has to make a tough choice. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The question that has been on mind since watching the film is this: how do you choose the harder right over the easier wrong? Once upon a time that was part of my job.
Let me take you back a little. During my Yearling year at West Point we had to take a class on ethical and moral philosophy and one of the thought experiments we had to do involved making a choice between compromising a mission, potentially being killed, or committing a war crime under the Geneva Convention. The situation was this: we were told to imagine we were a young infantry lieutenant leading an assault on an enemy defensive position. During the assault, an enemy soldier throws down his weapon and surrenders. You don’t have time to tie him up because you’re still under heavy fire and you can’t afford to leave two members of your assault team to guard him or take him back to the rear to the prisoner collection point. “What do you do?” our professor asked. And remember 30 seconds ago he was trying to kill you! And every second you delay now, potentially gets one of your soldiers killed.
What would you do?
This was just a classroom exercise for us, but in June 2005, LT Murphy had to make a similar decision for real. After his team was dropped off by helicopter in a remote, mountainous area east of Asadabad in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, they successfully infiltrated a known Taliban stronghold. While in their hiding position, a local goat herder and his two sons (both young boys, according to the movie) stumbled upon their location.
In the movie version of the story, LT Murphy solicits the opinion of his team. Do they:
1. Let the herders go knowing that the herders would most likely alert the nearby 200 man strong Taliban force to their presence.
2. Tie them up.
3. Kill them.
Each choice, of course, has consequences. If they let the herders go, then the team would almost certainly be attacked, and 200 to 4 is not the best of odds, even for Navy S.E.A.Ls. If they tie the herders up, and nobody finds them, the herders would mostly like die a slow death, and if they killed the herders, they would be committing a war crime (it’s unlawful to kill non-combatants).
In this case, the easier wrong would have been really easy. It’s a war zone, there are no witnesses and by killing these three and completing the mission, the team would potentially be saving hundreds of American marines’ lives, and probably their own.
What would you do?
I’ll let you watch the movie to find out what LT Murphy and his team do.
Back to my original question of ‘how do you choose the harder right over the easier wrong?’ In my experience, you do it by having a strong sense of what your values are, both your core values and the values of the institution or company you might be serving. And the values have to be more than just words. I think if you asked a half dozen people right now what their core values are, most of them would probably rattle off some half-hearted list of words that they believe to be their core values.
But until your values are put to the test, you will never know how strong or important those values really are to you. You have to put your values to the test everyday in the little things that you do. If you compromise your values on the little things, when it comes time for the big test, your values are hardly likely to stand up under pressure.
To choose the harder right you must believe so strongly in your values that you’d be willing to die to uphold them. I know that sounds dramatic, but what’s the point of values if they’re easily discarded or conveniently ignored when put to the test?
So what are your core values and how do you exercise them in your daily life?