“Remember that these our allies have not trained their whole lives for war, as we have. They are farmers and merchants, citizen-soldiers of their cities’ militia.”

The Spartan King, Leonidas, in a speech to his officers before the Battle at Thermopylae[1]


This scene from Gates of Fire, a book written by Steven Pressfield about the 300 Spartan warriors who stood up to over two million Persians, came in the final days leading up the seven-day battle at Thermopylae in 480 BC. As I prepared to join the Marines following the September 11th terrorist attack, reading that quote and imagining Leonidas addressing his officers led to the early formation of what became my quintessential definition of what it means to be a professional warrior. Like many others who have served and are serving in the military today, it led to intense study and the pursuit of mastering the science of tactics, the art of strategy and the history of armed conflict. That quote drove me to develop the mental and physical ability to be able to win battles. There was nothing more important than upholding that single standard.

Today, I read the words spoken by Leonidas and realize how simple being a warrior was 2,500 years ago. Back then, it was a matter of deciding if you were going to be a warrior or a merchant or a farmer. Today, not only do warriors have to commit themselves to being a student of combat, but they also have to be the farmers and merchants that Leonidas contrasts the Spartans against. In the days of the Spartans, defeating your adversaries was a fairly simple task of killing them in combat. Today, defeating our adversaries requires that warriors negotiate contracts with local vendors to complete civil affairs projects and advise local farmers on agricultural processes in addition to fighting battles. As we look to create stability, take away enemy safe havens and make terrorist ideologies irrelevant, the service members who make up our military are used as social workers, advisors, and humanitarian aid workers in addition to fighting our country’s battles. Warriors today have been forced to evolve from the warriors of Leonidas’ time because to win today’s wars requires more than simply killing our enemies in combat.

While there will undoubtedly be some who disagree with the way our military is being employed today and add a political element to this discussion, the many roles that warriors fill on the modern battlefield is a reality. Should many of the additional requirements and missions that our warriors are tasked with executing today be handled by the U.S. State Department or other non-governmental organizations (NGOs)? Perhaps, but consider the capabilities that the Department of Defense has created in order to be able to deploy to any country in the world in under 24 hours. From an organizational perspective, the Department of Defense is uniquely qualified to deploy and sustain operations overseas, making them the best available choice for our nation’s leaders in times of crisis.

With an all-volunteer standing military, there is an existing command hierarchy of self-sustaining and fully formed units prepared to deploy on a moment’s notice.

With an expeditionary logistics capability, the DoD can deploy and sustain troops for months before needing additional resources.

With every unit in the military having not only advanced communication technology, but also existing reporting procedures in place, distributed operations in a country are possible from the first moment that troops arrive, facilitating a fast response.

With entry-level basic training ensuring that every member of the military is able to support their unit’s security (not to mention the on-going professional development that service-members have access to), units can deploy without the support of external organizations.

While non-combat related missions may not be the intended or original use for our military, that short list of what the Department of Defense can do makes it at least understandable why our nation’s leaders would turn to the military instead of a less organizationally qualified agency. That realization however, leads to the understanding that we can’t only train for the war we want; we have to prepare for the wars we are fighting. This problem became even more apparent when former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commented, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish you had at a later time.”[2] While this quote was in reference to the complexity of modern combat logistics, it applies to the education and development of our nation’s service members as well. In Iraq, our military captured Baghdad only 21 days after invading Iraq, and the skills that were needed to pull off that historic and unparalleled feat were ultimately not the skills needed to win the overall war.

Professions evolve, so professionals must evolve as well. But don’t mistake the addition of requirements with the replacement of requirements. A lethal instinct is still absolutely necessary within military units. Should a person or a group choose to engage with our military, they must be ready to embrace the second part of General Mattis’ mandate to his Marines, to be “no better friend, and no worse enemy.” The American military still needs the ability to be the most feared fighting force history has ever seen and make groups regret thinking that they can beat us. But when you put the amount of time spent in high intensity conflict like those seen during the invasion into Iraq, the second battle for Fallujah, or the Battle for Marjah, into context, you realize that more time is actually spent executing non-combat related tasks to accomplish the mission than in actual combat.

Think about what it takes to train our service members to prepare for these additional roles. It requires not only developing the hardware (the body) needed to be lethal under fire, but also requires the software (the mind) to be developed as well. Operating in this new reality requires that our operators can think critically, solve problems and be trusted to make judgment calls in an environment that is anything but black and white. Because there is a difference between what you can do and what you should do, our warriors have to be able to know when the better decision is to not pull the trigger, even if you meet all of the legal requirements for doing so. In a world where missteps by warriors are broadcast around the world within moments on social media and with 24-hour news coverage, operating effectively within the ever-present gray areas is more important than ever.

Empowering warriors to operate effectively on the ground also requires more effort from their leaders than it ever has in the past. Training needs to not only be lethal, but also needs to develop judgment and decision-making capabilities before our “strategic corporals” are in ambiguous situations and being held accountable by people viewing the situation from the comfort of a command post. Relying on training that teaches people “what to do and what to think” is a recipe for failure. Our entire personnel development system needs to become better at educating people “how to think and why to do.” Shortcuts, quick fixes and short-term views on the development of our nation’s warriors can’t happen because it’s the Marines and Soldiers on the ground who will pay the price for poor training.

For the Spartans getting ready to engage the Persians at Thermopylae, victory required taking the will to fight out of the enemy. The only way to do that was by quite literally piling up the enemy’s dead and facing extreme odds to do so. Even though that simplistic and idealistic view of what it means to be a warrior was once the case, we rarely face an enemy in modern times who has placed their armies in the open field of battle where we can leverage our advanced equipment and technology. While we must always be ready to fight that type of war, defeating the criminal, insurgent and terrorist organizations attacking Americans at home and abroad today requires a warrior class that can not only out-fight, but can also out-smart our adversaries at every turn and can distinguish the enemy from the populations they hide amongst.

The only constant in war is change. We can’t predict what the next war will be or how it will be fought. But if you have a professional military that is ready to adapt and can operate at a high level of effectiveness at either end of the spectrum of conflict, no adversary will be able take the initiative away from our nation’s warriors defending us abroad. While the way the American military is currently trained is truly second to none, measuring the effectiveness of our military’s education system can only be judged against a self-imposed standard of whether or not we have ensured our warriors are prepared to win the wars they are tasked with fighting. While military equipment and technology will always have a shelf life, the adaptability and superior intelligence of the warriors operating that hardware will always be a requirement for winning wars.


[1] Pressfield, Gates of fire: an epic novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, 1998, p. 222.

[2] Rumsfeld: You go to war with the army you have. (n.d.). Retrieved January 02, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jPgljRvzQw

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons