Saturday, April 08, 2006

Advice for Soldiers

Who am I to give advice to soldiers? I have only been in the military for four years and am a reservist. I don’t know army regulations, how to fill out paper work, or exactly how to be a model non-commissioned officer. I guess I am learning but I am on the slow track to success.

If I know anything it is how to do my job while on deployment. I have only spent about a year off of active duty so I know more about deployment then anything else. I am a modern day reservist. As one of my friends so duly noted we have a new motto in the reserves: “One weekend off a month, two weeks of leave in the summer.” Granted the reserves are scaling back in Iraq but I am one of the lucky ones who came back for a second tour. There are some reservists who love it over here and are on their third tour but those guys are crazy in my book.

So what is my advice to soldiers then you may be asking yourself? Well I recently read a couple of books that shed light on my day-to-day living in the military. The first book is called Stoic Warriors* by Nancy Sherman, the second is The Abolition of Man** written by C.S. Lewis. Both books provide examples of how to better live as a member of the military albeit in different regards.

In Stoic Warriors Nancy Sherman looks at the writings of the Stoics like Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius among others and discusses how the ancient philosophy of Stoicism acts as a guide for not only those in the military but also for people facing hardships in life. In The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis discusses the importance and the need to retain universal values in the face of opposition. Although Lewis was writing against Communism and Fascism I believe his arguments can still be applied to certain situations in today’s world.

My advice comes in generalities that should be applied by soldiers in a way so as to fit their own situations. In no way is this advice complete but rather, only a few things that I have come across that help me to survive with a sense of purpose and humanity while on deployment. Both books go much further in depth then I do here and I recommend reading both of them but brace yourself before reading Lewis, he can be tough at times.

1. My first and most important piece of advice for soldiers on deployment is about respect and empathy towards others. There have been plenty of times on deployment that I would have been more than happy to strangle a fellow soldier or cuss at a local national. Times tend to get tense when living in confined areas with so many other soldiers and while mixing with the local population. While I am not advocating complacency for soldiers I believe as Nancy Sherman says “we need to actively empathize with people, to try to become attuned to their habits and ways and needs, so that however foreign or different they may be, we come to see them as persons in their own right, worthy of dignitary respect” (171). If one can follow this advice then they will easily be able to function in the military. There are people in the military from all over the country and from all walks of life with different habits and different customs. If a soldier can “imagine those in the farthest orbits of our lives as connected to us in ways that make them more like those closest to the center, namely ourselves, and family, and friends”(171), then their deployment will be much easier and everyday conflicts will be easier to avoid.

Sherman exhorts later that this Stoic ideal “requires cultivating humanity through empathetic identification and respect” (179). She then quotes Seneca as saying in his famous discourse On Anger “Let us cultivate humanity” and continues with her appeal that these “words should be a part of any warrior’s honor code” (179). If soldiers can learn to heed these words then they could go a long way in their treatment of others especially in Iraq and Afghanistan where they are surrounded by those who are much different then they are.

2. My second piece of advice concerns cultivating appropriate military manners. Often times soldiers find themselves frustrated with their chain of command and show disrespect as a result. I have plenty of personal experience on this subject and would like to share my advice in the hopes that it helps soldiers in the future to avoid making the same mistakes that I have.

Stoics have a lot to say on the topic of emotions and hold, in my opinion, some harsh and cold beliefs about them, however, their belief concerning body language strikes me as appropriate for all members of the military. Sherman remarks that “Seneca’s claim is that displays of attitude in body language, facial demeanor, tone of voice, and so on are critical elements of doing what is appropriate, regardless of whether they faithfully represent what is inside”(63). Basically Seneca believes that what we show on the outside does not necessarily have to be what we feel on the inside, but it should reflect the appropriate response required to fit the situation. For a soldier this means saying “Yes Sir” even though they wish to argue with their commander, or standing at ease for a sergeant they don’t necessarily respect. Now however much the soldier may not want to do these things the ancient Stoics believe as Sherman says “it may be important for oneself, as a way of coaxing inner change”(63). Once again in my experience of putting this advice to work I have changed some basic attitudes towards higher-ranking soldiers that I did not necessarily see eye to eye with. By giving them the respect that I was supposed to I in turn was treated well by them and over time changed my general attitude toward them not only as soldiers but also as human beings.

3. My third and last piece of advice comes from C.S. Lewis. In The Abolition of Man he advocates the importance of values that are common to soldiers like courage and honor. He explains, “A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery”(73). Now this advice might be idealistic but I believe if soldiers are to affect change in the Middle East where people are accustomed to tyranny and harsh rule then they need to spread objective values like freedom and liberty. I think that for Iraq to form a government that will ensure the equality and freedom of all of it’s people then they need strong examples of how and why those values have worked in the U.S. and need to see them displayed on a daily basis by American soldiers.

I believe that soldiers do a good job of behaving themselves and acting appropriately but I think a reminder to do so is always helpful. I have no allusions that Iraq will change overnight but I believe it if soldiers can provide a good example then it will only help change the hearts and minds of Iraqis.

So my advice is undoubtedly incomplete but I believe the three points I discussed would be good for all soldiers to hear.

*Sherman, Nancy. Stoic Warriors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
** Lewis, C.S.The Abolition of Man. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001 ed.


Anonymous said...

Boggs, I hate to go first on such a thoughtful blog but I want to say thank you for being such a thinking soldier, one who is willing to learn and develop into a true leader of men. The points you brought out, after thinking about it, are the very ones that I can use myself in my life here at home. You are a good man, Boggs...
And it is so true that the Iraqis will be watching you as you move about them. What a man says means nothing if his actions and attitude don't back up his words. Stay safe and until they all learn what you have over there - -watch your back please!

Melinda said...

Lots to think about in that post! You did a great job of pulling out ideas from your reading and applying it to what you're doing. I know my husband's own experiences/concerns while deployed sound very similar to what you're describing.

Keep writing!

JeffreygeneHK said...

wow, tf, what a fascinating post! really made me think. i agree with annie - the three rules that you have set out apply to anyone doing any job, where you have a boss and people who plain old piss you off.

i especially like the idea of "active empathy" - it takes a conscious decision every day to go out of your way for others. and not many people do it! at the large high school i teach at, students almost always leave their trays on the table. (partially that is because here in hong kong at all fast-food type restaurants there are employees who clean up after everyone.) but it always bothers me, and i am sure that if the students would practice some "active empathy" they wouldn't leave so much behind for the cleaning staff.

tf - do you ever hear any rules or guidelines like what you suggested from within the military? because if not - i think you should be promoted to "officer in charge of common sense and decency towards others". spread the good word!!!

Gypsy said...

t.f., as the others have said I too feel that much of this can also be applied in the civilian world.

Thank you for bringing to light something that, though written for your fellow Soldiers, can and should be applied by all of us.

Keep safe, and as always thank you for everything you are doing.

JohnD said...

Thank you and all the soldiers for being a great example to the Afghan and Iraqi people.
We will always look up to such selfless people who volunteer to do such a hard job.

Anonymous said...

Dear TF Boggs. Just thought I would let your readers know that I spotted your story on Front Line Forum this morning. Great job! Now I hope many more Americans can get to know you and all of our soldiers.

You men are our best sorce of news.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I love C.S. Lewis- he is my favorite author! You did such a great job of elucidating his rich words! You have a lot of wisdom for a twenty three year old and it shines through every post!

When I saw "“Seneca’s claim is that displays of attitude in body language, facial demeanor, tone of voice, and so on are critical elements of doing what is appropriate, regardless of whether they faithfully represent what is inside”(63)" I immediately thought of Band of Brothers when Major Winters corrected Captain Sobel by telling him "You salute the rank, not the man (or something along those lines)" Definitely a highlight of the show!

Keep safe and know that you are in my prayers!

- Courtney

Huntress said...

Congrats to Boggs whose story "Little Things Can Mean Alot" was the first chosen for the new Frontline Forum created by Michael Yon.

MissBirdlegs in AL said...

Thanks, Boggs - Enjoyed both this post and the post at Frontline Forum. I admire someone who reads and then sees ways to apply what is read to the betterment of their own lives/conditions. As Annie said, we can/should all use the info on this post. Thank you so much for all you do!

tanksis said...

Powerful insight-another great read.

I strongly believe in the "Do unto others..." philosophy, akin to active empathy. These beliefs could truly transcend the world if only more people were willing to practice them.

Right now, though, I am certainly glad to know that in you, T.F., we have a soldier who is a well-rounded, level-headed, bright, articulate, insightful and forward thinking. The up and coming young soldiers of the future would certainly benefit greatly by having you stick around. Yet I understand your desire to return to civilian life permanently. In doing so, I am confident that somewhere there will be someone benefitting the gift of your strong character.