I discovered the History Channel when I was ten years old. My family was traveling and staying in a hotel, where I turned on the television and stumbled upon a channel playing a black-and-white montage of World War II video footage. I saw the monogram H in the bottom right corner of the screen. When my family got cable TV in our home, the History channel connected me to the world. Boundaries of time and distance were removed, as I learned about ancient civilizations on different continents and how geopolitics were shaped by events around the time of my birth like the fall of the Soviet Union. Seeing and understanding how individuals could change the world, I began wondering how I could make a dent on my own. Leaders and warriors were often topics of historians. There were bad ones who seemed motivated by greed or megalomania. There were noble ones who exuded sacrifice, servitude, duty and honor. My conscience urged me to join the latter class.
As I got older, I watched more and more war documentaries and read autobiographies of warriors who navigated treacherous battlefields and the seemingly equally dangerous organizational politics (if not existentially threatening, a misstep could certainly be career threatening). Below I’ve listed some things that drew me toward my desires of a career in military service.
Edge of Human Performance, Thought & Innovation
Physical conditioning has been a tradition in military life for who knows how long, but there was a time before planes, jeeps, even chariots or horses were available modes of transportation. Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of the victory at the battle of Marathon, and dropped dead but either you or your friends are still running marathons to this day just for fun.
Physical fitness is synonymous with military training. In the last 10+ years the fitness industry has coopted the term boot camp to sell rigorous training programs to get civilians in shape. When the docudrama Pumping Iron was released in 1977, weight-training was a hobby for a fringe subculture. Now civilians do CrossFit and post videos of themselves on social media showing their nausea-inducing workouts. Point is, before professional sports was a thing, it was the military that set the standard for physical fitness. (I don’t have much evidence to back this up, this is just what I believed as an impressionable kid.)
The warrior life is not just about brawn, it’s about the finesse of thought. Perhaps the greatest thinkers who ever lived was Socrates, and he also served valiantly as a hoplite during the first Persian invasion of Greece. Around his time Sun Tzu was applying his critical thinking skills to battle strategy and psychological warfare. Warriors know that quick thinking, careful planning, and mental fortitude are equally important. And there is a balance, a yin and yang between battle strategy and one’s own mindfulness. Samurai practiced calligraphy and had regular tea ceremonies to allow their minds to be drawn in completely to art or a moment. Medieval knights would pray and fast in chapels, in fact, a squire would stay up all night at a prayer vigil before the day he would be conferred as a knight. This tradition continues today with living legends like retired US Marine Corps general Jim “Warrior Monk” Mattis, known for devotion to his service and his reading and intellect. Today an awareness of mental health problems in veterans has joined the conversation of mental health in the public at large.
Technological advances have often been made during war time, and in regards to ethics one can find rich and polarizing debates in this area (e.g., “Were more lives saved by the invention of nuclear weapons–or is it a war crime to use a nuclear weapon? Are they too much of an existential threat to humanity?”). As much innovation happened in the twentieth century, there was more death and destruction than anytime in the history of the world. In the West, many wondered how could World Wars I & II have happened after the Age of Enlightenment, and philosophers and theorists would explore this and posit answers like Hannah Arendt did in her seminal work The Banality of Evil.
Two characteristics that are vital to a military unit. They provide the least amount of predictability that can be found on a battlefield. This is so important that it begins long before the battle, when troops are safe and secure from the enemy on base camp. Drills are done on the training grounds, shoulder to shoulder in formations that free people don’t tend to form naturally.
In life we create meaning by careful thought and deliberate action. Even in creative ventures like Fine Art, an individual expresses themself by creating things that are not natural.
Whether a defensive formation on a battlefield to protect a valuable target, or a stroke of an artist’s brush on canvas–these are very human things that gives people purpose.
Being a soldier is one of the world’s oldest professions, and there’s plenty to be learned from studying the evolution of battle and the political causes and endings of war. Long before corporations hired consultants for training on decision-making frameworks like Cynefin with a goal of defining situations into abstractions of the complex, complicated, chaotic, and simple–heck, before corporations were a thing–warriors have published their own wisdom learned from real life experience in documents like Robert Rogers’ 28 Rules of Ranging and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
When you appreciate the people in your life, the place you call home, you want to do one or two things: make it better, or make it secure. When I was young, I decided that since most of my peers didn’t want to go into the service, I would. It seemed like the honorable thing to do.
Humans are social beings. It’s a powerful thing to go through a trial like military training with a group of people–you form a bond that can last a lifetime. That feeling of belongingness is something money can’t buy. Many veterans have said they not first for their country, but for their comrades.
Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down his/her/their life for his/her/their friends. – John 15:13
A different path.
I never did serve in the military. I never got the glory or the camaraderie. My path was different, but that’s a story for next time.