This essay was written in 2012 en route to my second deployment to Afghanistan with a reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition squadron. A family friend and Vietnam veteran recommended I keep a journal to remember my deployments. I used this journal to create “dispatches” that I sent to my family back home.
“The dictionary defines ethos as: The moral character, nature, disposition and customs of a people or culture...The Warrior Ethos is a code of conduct—a conception of right and wrong, of virtues and of vices. No one is born with the Warrior Ethos, though many of its tenets appear naturally in young men and women of all cultures. The Warrior Ethos is taught. On the football field in Topeka, in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, on the lion-infested plains of Kenya and Tanzania. Courage is modeled for the youth by fathers and older brothers, by mentors and elders. It is inculcated, in almost all cultures, by a regimen of training and discipline. This discipline frequently culminates in an ordeal of initiation. The Spartan youth receives his shield, the paratrooper is awarded his wings, the Afghan is handed his AK-47."
—From The Warrior Ethos by Steven Pressfield
As I sat in chilly Manas at 0130 waiting to go to bag drop at 0415, I found myself not wanting to sleep, but to read. In a flurry of last minute purchases, I downloaded a few books onto my Kindle for the trip. I’ve always had a place in my heart for military leadership-type books, because I truly believe (through countless lectures) that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. I, however, subscribe to a different thought in the same vein. That is, leaders learn from their mistakes, great leaders learn from the mistakes of others. My philosophy has been to make those mistakes and learn constantly, but if you can learn from others and avoid some, you’ll set yourself apart from the pack.
I started with The Warrior Ethos, and being a short book, finished it in an hour or so. It has been a while since I have highlighted that much in a book (digitally, of course). It got me thinking about the prototypical question that we, as soldiers, receive all too often: Why do we do it?
The Spartans would argue that we do it for love. Love of one another. The Spartans had a phrase: What is the opposite of fear?
I remember my former squadron commander asking me that question while on patrol in Iraq, because he felt (and I agree) that everyone should read Gates of Fire (by Steven Pressfield as well). What this means, is that you overcome fear by love of your brothers.
That is why the punishment for losing your spear or helmet in Spartan culture was a whipping, but loss of your shield was punishable by death. Your shield protects the man to your left; the rest is for personal protection. This is why when you read interviews with Medal of Honor winners, or talk to them in person, their answer is universal: Why did you do it?
For my comrades.
Or, as Pressfield more eloquently put it: “Courage is inseparable from love and leads to what may arguably be the noblest of all warrior virtues: selflessness.”
But why do I have a platoon with men ranging from 19-42 years old? What causes a kid in our society to up and decide he wants to, willingly, enlist in a time of war?
The Warrior Archetype.
Pressfield wrote, “Archetypes are larger-than-life, mythic scale personifications of the stages we pass through as we mature.” He goes on to say, “Something inside us makes us want to jump out of airplanes and blow stuff up. Something makes us seek out mentors—tough old sergeants to put us through hell, to push us past our limits, to find out what we’re capable of. And we seek out comrades in arms. Brothers who will get our backs and we’ll get theirs, lifelong friends who are just as crazy as we are.”
Each of my guys has a different internal drive to serve; my platoon sergeant has a family history with 1-4 CAV dating back to the Civil War; guys were looking to get their lives on track…or back on track; others did it to support their families during the economic collapse. Regardless of what the motivation to join, they are here, and they are brothers in arms.
The Army has a Warrior Ethos that my soldiers have in spades: “I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit, I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
From a leader’s perspective, I feel this story about Alexander encapsulates what I aspire to emulate in my Ethos:
Once, in India, after years on campaign, Alexander’s men threatened to mutiny. They were worn out and wanted to go home. Alexander called an assembly. When the army had gathered, the young king stepped forth and stripped naked. “These scars on my body,” Alexander declared, “were got for you, my brothers. Every wound, as you see, is in the front. Let that man stand forth from your ranks who has bled more than I, or endured more than I for your sake. Show him to me, and I will yield to your weariness and go home.” Not a man came forward. Instead, a great cheer arose from the army. The men begged their king to forgive them for their want of spirit and pleaded with him only to lead them forward.
The last thing I will leave with is a quote from Starship Troopers. No, not the terrible movie, but the book, which is one of the greatest leadership books you can read.
The main character recalls the following story, a memory of sitting in school being taught by a veteran of the Mobile Infantry: “Suddenly he pointed his stump at me. ‘You. What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?’ ‘The difference,’ I answered carefully, ‘lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.”
Let me not fail them.
Zach Mierva is a U.S. Army armor officer who has served in leadership and staff roles in deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea as part of the "Regionally Aligned Forces" mission. He will report soon to Columbia University to earn a graduate degree in Leadership and Organizational Psychology followed by an assignment at West Point. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: U.S. Army Soldiers carry a bag filled with food and water that will sustain them while on a multi-day mission near Sar Howza in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Sept. 2, 2009. The Soldiers, assigned to 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, will hide the bag until they return to gather and distribute the contents before moving to a different location. (U.S. Army photo)
 “Let me not fail them” is from Sad Sam Damon and “The Soldier’s Prayer” in Once an Eagle. The entire prayer reads: “Help me to be wise and full of courage and sound judgment. Harden my heart to the sights that I must see so soon again, grant me only the power to think clearly, boldly, resolutely, no matter how unnerving the peril. Let me not fail them.”