The Day of My Biggest Moral Compromise

By | July 19, 2020

[July 19, 2020]  Sixteen years ago, I made the biggest moral compromise of my life.  I always thought my character was solid, but on this date, during wartime, I began to think otherwise.  It’s easy to make the right decisions when choices are black and white, where there is no complexity, and no one’s life is in danger.  But reality has a way of sneaking up on us and forcing us to adopt responsibility.

It was still early in the Iraq War and the occupation of a once-proud nation.  The year was 2004 and more than a year after the fall of the capital, Baghdad.  Our Coalition bases provided a haven for daily patrolling to keep the population safe and secure was making progress.  Violence from several disaffected Shia Insurgent groups was killing both civilians and Coalition forces.

Our Engineers were to improve our physical infrastructure to reduce the probability of a successful suicide attack.  Vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs), aka car bombs, was something new and very deadly because a lot of explosives can fit into a car.  Near one of our bases was a major road that ran alongside one of our base outer walls.  A VBIED attack would easily crush the wall and allow insurgents to storm inside with deadly consequences.

My job?  Move the road.  Only by doing so could we ensure that American soldiers would not die.  Time was of the essence.  The problem?  A local Amanat administered the City of Baghdad, similar to a mayor but with city management and engineer responsibilities.  We needed his permission to move the road, and he was not about to give it to the Americans.  Several senior officers had attempted to persuade him, and he agreed to their requests.  He would be taking his time, and it would be several months before a decision.

A senior Iraqi architect worked for me designing buildings, roads, bridges, and other similar structures.  I asked him if he would speak to the Amanat and allow us to move the road.  The engineering to relocate the road was relatively simple, and we could do the work in about a week.  We got a reply that the permission depended upon a $20,000 bribe.  Bribes in Iraqi culture were simply a matter of doing business; U.S. Law and our military codes of justice prohibit bribes.

My dilemma was clear.  Pay the bribe, or possibly get soldiers killed.

I asked my Iraqi employee what he thought of the standoff.  He said that the bribe was the only way to ensure success and have the road moved.  Of course, $20,000 is a massive sum of money, especially in a warzone.  I decided to pay my employee architect a $20,000 “consulting fee” for services rendered.  That money paid the bribe, and I got approval for the project that same day.  My Commander was shocked that I could get approval so quickly.  I never told him how I did it.

This moral compromise still sits on my conscious.  Did I save the lives of soldiers?  Yes, probably.  Did I violate the basis of the law?  Technically, yes, and I did violate both the wording and intent of the law.  What would I do today?  Yes, I would still do the same thing.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

15 thoughts on “The Day of My Biggest Moral Compromise

  1. Roger Yellowmule

    Good article and one that all of us should pay close attention to. I say that because we ALL make moral compromises daily. Let’s just ensure that none of those compromises are too large such that it creates a corruption of our morals. Let’s just work toward being good rather than ‘trying’ to be good. Intentions are okay but action is better.

  2. Benny

    Hi folks. I like the mission that was given “Move the road.” Ghee! Imagine that. Just move the road. Simple task but complex execution. One would think something like this would be easy overall but I guess not.

    1. Tracey Brockman

      Yeah Benny that is the way war is …. Simple but hard.

  3. Doc Blackshear

    Thanks Gen. Satterfield. Excellent article. We all have to make decisions, some really important, every day of our lives. At least those of us who have gained responsibilities that we voluntarily shoulder.

  4. Kenny Foster

    One would think that the city Amanant would have given permission immediately. This is telling. He obviously didn’t care about his citizens and only held up the process to that he could get more money from a bribe that was surely to come (based on past cultural norms). Funny how things work in socialist type societies.

    1. Lady Hawk

      Kenny, good point about socialist societies. Much depends upon the corruption of officials and the bureaucracy.

  5. Max Foster

    “I never told him how I did it.” I would have told your commander if I had been you. It doesn’t matter. I think he would have supported your decision easily and let it go at that. Don’t underrate yourself when a good moral decision is made even if it involves a great moral compromise. But, and this is a big BUT, you must know what is right and morally right. Otherwise you are like the anarchists in the streets who tear down statues and destroy buildings in the name, falsely, of anti-fascism.

    1. Dennis Mathes

      Excellent point about telling his commander. Something I would not have thought to do and I’m sure Gen. Satterfield had in mind that he would be relieved of his duties if he had told. He must have not wanted to take the chance.

      1. Dead Pool Guy

        Such decisions that involve moral compromises are not easy to make nor to justify afterwards. In this case, IMHO, Gen. Satterfield clearly made the right decision. Saving lives is more important that not. The long term impact however would be unknowable.

    2. JT Patterson

      Good comment Max. I too think his commander would have supported his decision. You don’t get to be high in rank with a lot of responsibility without serious high levels of smarts and good judgment.

  6. Army Captain

    Good read on an important subject. Well done. I believe you made the right choice.

    1. Tom Bushmaster

      Yes, and I agree. One’s career is never more important than the lives of people. In this case, the lives of your soldiers. They will, of course, never know what you did anyway and I do believe they would have agreed any way. Thanks. I would like to read more in the future here about moral compromise.

    2. Harry Donner

      I too agree and support what Gen. Satterfield did in combat. The choices are not always obvious.


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