The millennial generation often gets a bad rap from people in the military and police communities for stereotypically asking their leaders “why” they are doing something instead of blindly doing what they’re told to do. While there are situations when there simply isn’t time to answer this question and you truly just need to trust the person to perform the task without asking questions, I never completely understood the criticism of people who ask the question, “Why?” Almost all of my training and experience as a Marine Infantry Officer taught me to seek out an understanding or the purpose for what we were doing, as the times when there wasn’t time for an explanation were infrequent. The pursuit of knowing why we were going to conduct any operation is summarized in the Marine Corps’ doctrinal publication, MCDP-1: Warfighting, where we were taught that there are two parts to a mission; there is the task to be conducted and the desired result from that action. The reason for the two parts is because the leader can only assign tasks based on the information currently available to them at the time. Yet, as the situations that police officers and military service members operate in are dynamic, the commander needs to allow for flexibility in how the task will be performed in case the situation has completely changed. By making the intent for the operation explicit and explaining why the task has been assigned, it allows the men and women on the ground to adapt to the situation when the initial task is no longer the best way to accomplish the mission. While tasks may become irrelevant, the intentions for the action don’t. So, for someone operating on the ground, failing to know why you are doing something and not implicitly understanding what the purpose is for an action is incredibly dangerous, as it means you eliminate your ability to adapt to any new conditions you face.

Staying committed to a certain task without understanding what that task is supposed to accomplish is dangerous because it means you are operating in a way that reveals you have been taught “what to do” and “what to think” instead of being taught “how to think” and “why to do.” Being tied to a task without a purpose requires that you get permission or guidance to do something because you are unsure of what your goal is. You become incapable of exhibiting initiative because the task was provided without context. The commander’s intent, which is the explanation of why a task should be done and what end state the commander is looking to accomplish in the operation, is the most important component of the mission because it allows for those on the ground to adapt to the changing circumstances. If this is the case, then why are people who seek that understanding considered insubordinate instead of being recognized as a professional in their field?

In the numerous articles that I’ve read about how to lead millennials, I’ve found that there are two types of people who fill the ranks as commanders in the military and police forces. There are those that embrace the opportunity to explain their intentions for an action (true leaders) and there are those that will always view junior members of their unit who ask why with contempt (dictators). A dictator might answer questions about why something is being done with phrases like “that is the way we have always done it here” for a number of reasons. This might be because they actually don’t know why they are doing something and are simply repeating the actions that they saw the person who had the job before them do. Or, it could be because the ability to step back from a situation and truly explain the purpose for something requires that they step off the path of least resistance and perhaps they are too lazy to put in the mental effort. While it’s frustrating to realize that, in this case, your own chain of command will not be a source of professional development for you, this shouldn’t hinder your pursuit of understanding what the purpose of your tasks are. You should instead focus yours effort on learning how to find these answers for yourself.

While it is perfectly logical that someone who wants to understand why something is being done would turn to the person in their chain of command who assigned the task for that answer, a critical skill for professional warriors is the ability to find the answers to these questions on their own. There are other sources you can turn to as you seek to develop yourself and your ability to define why something is being done that is completely within your control. The most accessible form of that wisdom within your control is in books, which is why many military leaders release recommended reading lists for their unit, as they often times provide the answers that the Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen might have at various points in their career.

As an example, consider the historical fiction book Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which has found a home on many of these recommended reading lists, including the Marine Corps’ Commandant’s Professional Reading List for new Marines, both for new enlisted Marines and new officers. The story is about the 300 Spartan warriors led by Leonidas who stood up to over one million Persians at the battle of Thermopylae. The story is told from the perspective of Xeones, a Greek squire, who is recounting the training of the Spartans to the Persian king Xerxes. While you could read the book solely for the descriptive narrative and the incredibly intense battles, you would be missing out on a lot of the lessons that the book provides. While I can’t speak for the Commandant, one of the reasons why I would assume this book is on his reading list is because it answers two of the biggest questions that Marines often have when they are first exposed to the warrior culture:

  • Why are we training this way?
  • For the new officers, how can I be a better leader to my future platoon?

If you read Gates of Fire with the purpose of answering one or both of these two questions, you can understand what specific preparations and training allowed the Greeks to stand up to the overwhelming number of Persians. Learning how to read a book to pointedly find specific answers to questions will make you more self-reliant when it comes to overcoming the obstacles you will face in your career.

Lessons to Understand the “Why” Behind Military Training

The reason why questions about training are so often asked by people new to the military is because the military uses a number of different training techniques and teaching styles that aren’t commonly seen in America’s schools. These new experiences, which are truly unique to preparing people for the stresses of war, will cause trainees to naturally ask, “What is the purpose of doing this?” As you read Gates of Fire, listen to Xeones as he talks about training at night as an example. Listen to the way he explains that night evolutions weren’t really designed to learn how to fight at night, but that, by training in darkness, the Spartans learned how to fight by feel within the phalanx. They learned how to fight when the dust on the battlefield was kicked up, resulting in them not being able to see in front of them. Training at night was the tool, but the goal for the evolution went much further. This can help you understand the purpose and intent when you find yourself bumbling through the woods in the middle of the night doing land navigation exercises. It isn’t an exercise designed to give you the experience of rolling your ankle as you step on rocks you can’t see or scratching your face on the branches of trees you never saw. It is an exercise that goes beyond the technical skills of how to navigate at night and also teaches self-reliance, composure in stress and problem solving in a setting that you might not have been exposed to before.

As you read Gates of Fire, spend a minute to reflect on the way that Xeones discusses a training technique referred to as arosis, which is where experienced Spartan warriors verbally abuse those still in training. The verbal abuse was never done out of spite and it was never done because the veteran could bully those who couldn’t yet fight back, but was instead one of their training tools to develop the next generation of warriors. The goal of the exercise was to teach their warriors-in-training how to respond to aggression without allowing anger, hatred and other negative emotions to drive their thoughts, as those emotions can be counter-productive and limit the warrior’s ability to think clearly in a fight. The goal was to get the young Spartan to respond to the aggression with humor to prove that they were unaffected by the verbal attacks directed at their character, their courage, or their ability to protect those in the phalanx as was required by each warrior. Getting yelled at, chewed out, and singled out for seemingly small infractions isn’t something unique to the Spartans, but something that you see in today’s military as well. Because this isn’t something often seen in our nation’s high schools, the purpose of getting publically belittled might not be immediately clear to you at the onset of your training, but learning how to respond when attacked is an essential skill when you have chosen a profession where people are going to attack you with the goal of killing you.

The example of why the Spartans would train at night and intentionally try to provoke anger in their youth are just two of many lessons about the why behind military training that can be learned by reading Gates of Fire. To expand on these lessons, here are ten questions that you can use to guide your reading of the book to help you focus on the training aspects of the Greeks and how they relate to your personal development. Each question has two parts to it. The “A” is what you should identify from Gates of Fire, and the “B” is an opportunity for you to reflect on how you are personally preparing yourself for the trials of combat.

  • 1A: What is the purpose of hardening your mind and body in training?
  • 1B: What specifically are you hardening your mind and body against? What are the challenges you can expect in war that you need to be prepared for mentally and physically?
  • 2A: What are the consequences of failing to harden your mind and body in training when you get to war?
  • 2B: What specifically are you doing to harden your mind and body right now to prevent this from happening?
  • 3A: What is the purpose of training at night?
  • 3B: What are other ways that you could build on those skills on your own time?
  • 4A: How does Dienekes explain the goal of the senior warrior who is verbally abusing Alexandros?
  • 4B: How have you responded to this type of development in the past and how should you respond in the future?
  • 5A: Why are anger and hatred counter-productive emotions in war?
  • 5B: What have those in your unit who have already deployed told you about how they have responded emotionally in war (perhaps after being attacked)?
  • 6A: Why would a leader question your actions? What are they hoping to accomplish by doing that?
  • 6B: Think about a time when you were questioned. Were you able to see past the initial questions to see what they were hoping to teach you? What are ways that you could replay that conversation in your head to ensure those lessons are absorbed into your brain?
  • 7A: What is the purpose of doing training that focuses on building shared experiences in a unit where everyone has to overcome extreme hardships?
  • 7B: What are some examples of the hardest training that you have been through and how did that change your relationship with those in your unit?
  • 8A: Why do the Spartans train to fight a “faceless” enemy?
  • 8B: If you consider the potential enemies that you might fight, what is the limitation of thinking about only one of those adversaries as you prepare?
  • 9A: Why is war referred to as the “Mill of Ares” and why should war be thought of as “work?”
  • 9B: What are the fundamental skills needed to be proficient as a member of the modern military and what can you do to ensure that you have put in the work to master those actions?
  • 10A: What role does fear play during combat and how do the Spartans seek to overcome that?
  • 10B: What about combat scares you and how are you working to overcome those fears in your life?

One of the reasons why each of these questions is broken into two parts is because it can often be easier to answer the question about the purpose of a training technique when the student is detached from the lesson being taught. You can answer Part A of the question objectively by only focusing on the Spartans with a degree of separation, as the lesson and explanation have no impact on your life. You can then apply that “truth” to your situation in the military and reflect on it at a much deeper level when thinking about Part B than if you were to jump right into thinking about why you are being yelled at without having first understood the intentions of that particular method. These ten questions can help you think about what you truly are preparing for and how the military is going to prepare you for that challenge, and you will find that you are empowered to and capable of answering the question of “why” on your own.

For new officers entering the military, I recommend that you reflect on how you might apply the answers to the above questions as a platoon commander. Knowing that part of being a leader means you should be prepared to answer the question from someone in your platoon about why a certain training exercise is being conducted, having comprehensive answers that explore each of the ten questions above in depth is an essential starting point to earning the respect of your platoon. Whether it is applied as you design your own training evolutions in the future or when you are developing the leaders within your unit, knowing the purpose behind any action is critical in training. For example, training methods like the verbal abuse discussed in the book can often go too far or deviate from their actual purpose. If your understanding about what the goal is for that method isn’t well defined, then you could be facilitating a culture of bullying in your unit as you allow that technique to be applied incorrectly. While leaders often have the flexibility to determine how they want to apply a method, the intentions for the action must always be clearly defined.

Lessons On Military Leadership

In addition to understanding why we train the way we do as you read Gates of Fire, I recommend that new leaders also focus their reading on the characters of Dienekes and Leonidas. The responsibility that new officers will face in their roles as a platoon commander is likely to be significantly greater than anything they have experienced in previous leadership roles in their life. Learning how to study and observe successful leaders with the purpose of identifying what has made them so influential and considering how their actions could be applied within your personal leadership style is an empowering ability, and these characters can serve as two initial case studies in leadership.

Just as in the reading guide above about how to identify the lessons the book provides about training, the seven questions below have two parts to them. The “A” is what you should identify from Gates of Fire, and “B” is an opportunity for you to reflect on how are you personally preparing yourself for a leadership role.

  • 1A: Dienekes’s role as an officer drove him to continuously set the example. How did he do this throughout the book?
  • 1B: In what actions do you set the example? What could you do to set a higher standard for your unit based solely off of your actions (not words)?
  • 2A: In what ways does Leonidas work alongside his men in the book and what impact did that have on the army?
  • 2B: In what tasks can you work alongside your platoon and how can you do it in a way that doesn’t have you micromanaging subordinate leaders, yet still accomplishing the same goal?
  • 3A: What insight about the way people mentally prepare for battle can be learned by listening to Leonidas’s speech to his men after the battle at Antirhion?
  • 3B: How can you personally prepare to help your platoon and yourself when the impact of battle hits following the fight?
  • 4A: What is the difference between courage and false courage in a unit?
  • 4B: What will you look for to know the difference in your own unit and the people you are fighting? How do you prepare your unit to fight with courage?
  • 5A: From Leonidas’s speech to his commanders and allies in the days before the battle at Thermopylae, what “truths” did he know about his allies as they approached the battle?
  • 5B: What allies are we likely to be fighting alongside in future battles and what can we learn from the allies who have been part of our coalitions from recent fights? How does this change the way you prepare for and fight a war? Additional recommended reading on this is the “Three Buckets of Control.
  • 6A: In Sparta, the army was supported by the perioikoi and helots. Some of those helots were forced into supporting roles, but what led to the mentality of the character Rooster in the book? What actions shaped his perception of Sparta?
  • 6B: How do modern day defense contractors support our wars today? What motivates them to support? What would lead to someone feeling forced to support the military yet not really being loyal to them? Can you put yourself in their shoes?
  • 7A: As an officer, Dienkes was a teacher, and the statement is made in the book that to be a teacher, you have to be a student. What does Dienekes teach throughout the book?
  • 7B: Think about this quote from General Lejuene about the relationship between officers and enlisted Marines as being that of teacher and scholar as you begin to form your own leadership style and philosophy. What are you seeking to learn right now? How does that help you as a leader? What lessons can you learn about the student you will be passing these lessons on to?

For the members of the millennial generation seeking to become professional warriors or police officers, you should always seek to develop your understanding about why something is done. However, you also need to develop your ability to find that answer on your own. If you find yourself lucky enough to have strong leaders who can answer these questions for you and seek out opportunities to mentor you, learn everything that you can, but also recognize that having those leaders consistently is outside of your personal control. When you consider the “Three Buckets of Control,” you can quickly identify that leadership is something that falls into the third bucket, which is the bucket reserved for the things in your life that you simply have no control over and shouldn’t waste your time or energy even thinking about. Learning how to learn, which is one of the most critical skills for people today, is a pursuit that is completely in your control and something that falls into the first bucket. Your pursuit should be focused on learning how to think in a situation so that you can know why you would prefer one course of action over another. This comes from understanding the pros and cons and strengths and weaknesses of each option you have at your disposal when training or operating in the field. By knowing why you are taking an action, you become empowered to choose the approach that is going to get the job done and accomplish the mission. Books like Gates of Fire and other professional reading are great ways to uncover the reasons why different tasks are assigned, but those lessons can only be learned through active reading. Such as with the 17 questions that I highlighted in this article, it’s through focusing your reading to specific questions and problems that you can truly take the time to reflect on the truths that the work offers.

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