Years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Spirituality and military service,” wherein I said service in the military is something akin to a religious experience.
Writing then I said, “It is important that this is so.” After all, to be a good soldier one needs to embrace the soldierly virtues (those ‘religious’ intangibles like loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage), because soldiers in combat have to deal with the weighty responsibilities of life and death. Who leads? Who follows? Who lives? Who dies? And why?
This relationship between spirituality and military service has existed as the proverbial heart-and-soul of all combat forces since the beginning of recorded military history – with all belligerents believing God was (or is) on their side, and Napoleon himself once musing that “God is on the side of the biggest battalions.”
What I did not address in that piece was that the relationship between spirituality and military service may also be seen and appreciated in the light of how we – in a very personal, perhaps primal sense – thwart the corrupting influence of man’s fallen nature. In other words how the relationship between spirituality and military service gives us strength to overcome the pitfalls of that particular soldierly drive we know to be ambition.
Make no mistake, a good soldier needs to be ambitious (in a measured degree). Ambition is a reflection of his competitive nature, and without it he has no fire within him to win.
Just as fire is necessary to fuel life, ambition is needed to fuel competition. But like fire, ambition can quickly rage out of control, begin to overwhelm the aforementioned soldierly virtues, and ultimately do more damage than good.
This drive (or ambition) must be tempered.
As a means of tempering this drive this we have a military maxim: The mission first, then the men, lastly me. It is simple albeit perfect formula which, not only ensures the greatest chance of success in a given mission, but it acknowledges the importance of the personal drive, yet keeps it under control.
In my opinion, the mission and the men (both being first) are everything by God’s own design.
Problem is, even though we all understand this, the fallen-nature-of-ourselves tries to sidetrack us into that ugly selfishness – when ambition begins to overheat to the point that the military leader becomes consumed with the desire to be appreciated and recognized. This is not a good thing for a military leader.
The maxim – a tool to be applied in every instance of sound military leadership – protects the military leader from himself. The maxim reminds the military leader that he must always put the mission first, then take care of the men. That does not mean the men are taking a backseat to the mission. In fact, many of us like to say, “The mission first, the men always.”
When we look at the maxim’s “me” element, we understand that “me” does take a backseat to the mission and the men. As Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient, once told me, “The ‘me’ part of the maxim must be far removed from the mission and the men.”
But the military leader must never interpret “me” – being distanced from “the mission and the men” – to mean that he should neglect himself. To neglect “me” would be just as irresponsible as putting it in a status equal to the mission and the men.
The best interpretation of the “The mission first, the men always” should be that leaders eat last, and they put the mission and their people first.
This is not only a perfect maxim for success, it is a simple outline for righteous living. It is – I believe – one of the few articulated expressions of God’s perfect Will.
God wants us to always serve the mission and the men. And the devil himself (yes, I know it is not fashionable today to refer to the devil in serious commentary) tries to disrupt or destroy God’s Will by demanding we give the selfish “me” the same attention we give the mission and the men.
But we know this is wrong.
This is just another reason I so-love the military. Right and wrong stand so clearly in contrast to one another. Just like courage (in its many forms) and cowardice. Sacrifice and selfishness. Truth and untruth. Good and evil.
In the military, we cannot escape these antitheses of one another. Which is why the great Swedish battle captain Gustavas Adolphus said in 1630, “A good Christian will never make a bad soldier.”
Indeed, for here we begin to see God’s perfect Will in a simple military maxim.