There wasn't a boardroom in sight. The small group of business students stood inside a makeshift "mosque," faced with a man they were told was a local cleric sanctioning a forced marriage. The "groom" was holding his bride-to-be on the ground while she screamed for help. Not wanting to appear intolerant, the students were reluctant to act. Despite her protests and attempts to escape, the ceremony and a simulated "consummation" proceeded, leaving the bride brutalized and almost too weak to tell the students this was all their fault.
The mock ceremony took place in the woods of Quantico, Va., and the actors were U.S. Marines assigned to The Basic School, a 26-week course designed to teach officers how to be combat leaders. The business students from Georgia State University were taking part in a condensed civilian version of the Marines' training. The dramatized scenarios encountered in "Operation Centralian Calm" were part of their corporate ethics studies, meant to demonstrate the kinds of decisions Marines and soldiers face during deployments.
This particular group had just finished the second of four scenarios they had faced that day, and so far all were frustrated with the decisions they had made. Earlier, two "non-governmental organization workers" who claimed to be Americans were shot in their heads at point-blank range by a militant standing on the opposite side of a fictitious border with a hostile country. In an attempt to avoid a diplomatic fallout, the group had done nothing.
See photos from the scenario training below.
Steve Olson, an assistant professor at GSU, first reached out to the Marines about joint training for his business students after learning about what he says is a direct correlation between corporate ethics and the values behind training for today's style of war. "The 'four-block war' format is a lot like the diversity of stakeholders that faces a corporation," Olson says, referring to how the military characterizes the challenges of combat—on one block a Marine may face a pitched battle, on the next a humanitarian mission, on another riot control, and on a fourth he may be training native forces how to fight an insurgency.
"You have to impose ethical meaning on a situation that does not have that ethical meaning yet," Olson added.
The program is so effective for executive business students that other organizations have sent its members to Centralian Calm, including Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and Business Executives for National Security.
Every year, Olson says he takes three to four classes of GSU students and alumni to spend three days in and around the Quantico woods learning the lessons hardened Marines have forged in combat.
His students are often disturbed by how quickly they fail at making ethical decisions in the early portions of his class, he says. "We want some of that disturbance while you're in your training, because we want to avoid Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers," Olson says. "We don't allow people to fail like that in our corporate training. And I don't know any other organization in the world that does it like the Marines."
This week's business students were running on only a few hours of sleep after enduring a simulated artillery attack in the middle of the night where they had to decide if they should cross the same border to rescue wounded victims. They deliberated too long over who they should save, and all the victims died. "You guys have tolerated murder and rape so far," said Marine instructor Capt. Katelyn Van Dam as they began the debrief near the military field tent that served as the makeshift mosque. "You've apologized and said you needed to be more tolerant," said Marine Maj. Steve Clifton, another instructor.
TBS instructors warn students against relying on regulations, such as the rules of engagement, to get them out of a jam. "There's no right choice according to the rules," says Marine Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, commanding officer of TBS. "There's only a right choice according to what's right and what's wrong."