QUANTICO, Va. — Creeping through the hilly, wooded terrain, the squad of Marines spotted something across the river. It looked like three men having a picnic.
As they drew closer, squad members realized that two men were on their knees, hands tied behind their backs, and an armed man was standing over them.
“Help! We’re American aid workers! Help!” the two captives shouted. The gunman warned the squadron not to come any closer.
One squad member aimed his rifle at the gunman and waited for the order to shoot. Instead, the squad leader whispered, “Keep moving.”
As the group moved on, the bound men begged them not to leave. Suddenly, two shots were fired and the captives slumped to the ground. Members of the squadron looked at one another in blame and embarrassment.
“I was focused on the mission,” the squad leader said. “And I wasn’t sure if they were Americans.”
That “encounter” was one scenario that faced corporate executives and business students who volunteered recently to go through three days of ethics training at the Marine Corps Base at Quantico. The gunman and the captives were Marines playing roles in the exercise.
Steven Olson, a professor at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business, and the Marine Corps’ Basic School for new officers designed the course to teach business executives how to execute ethical decision-making skills under extreme pressure. Begun in 2011, the course is offered three to four times a year to about 13 executives each time.
Given basic patrolling techniques, protective gear, unloaded semi-automatic rifles and rules of engagement on the use of deadly force, the volunteers in the squadron spend two days in the middle of the woods in the dead of winter, tasked with missions during which they would face one ethical dilemma after another.
The scenarios are based on the same ones troops in Afghanistan face daily, when there is no clear right or wrong answer and split-second decisions can end in death.
“The course trains people to the challenges of ethical character, and there’s really nobody that does it like the Marine Corps,” said Mr. Olson, director of the university’s Center of Ethics and Corporate Responsibility.
Marine Capt. Matthew Ingold, a course instructor, added: “We operate where things are very unclear, where there’s a lot of pressure and stress, and you have to make a quick decision.”
In a war zone, even junior Marine officers take on tremendous responsibility and are expected to make decisions based on sound judgment, Capt. Ingold said.
“Good decisions and poor decisions can impact the overall strategic mission on a national policy level,” he said.
Marine Capt. Katey Van Dam, another course instructor, said: “We don’t call this problem-solving, because there is no ‘solution.’ These are ethical dilemmas.”