An excerpt from Meditations of an Army Ranger: A Warrior Philosophy for Everyone written by LTC (Ret) JC Glick and author, Dr. Alice Atalanta:
“Learn to ask of all actions,
‘Why are they doing that?’
Starting with our own.”
“War is the father of all things.”
Philosophy is in a predicament: years of being used as a pawn in egocentric battles of intellect by academics has led many regular folks to shun philosophy as if it were nothing more than intellectual wordplay and snobbery. “An indulgence of academics and the unemployed,” it is often said. But this is not what western philosophy originated to be.
In an increasingly globalized world of competing belief systems, philosophy can seem like a waste of time to us. We don’t place value on contemplation; we are focused on action. Of this mindset, we look for leaders who seem to represent the survival skillset that we think we need. Seeking after the keys to high performance, we turn our focus to the Special Operations community for guidance. Members of the Special Operations community seem to live their lives like arrows being shot out into the darkness of the unknown: there is no time to ponder; only to act. We think that, if we study and emulate them, we will uncover the keys to becoming our best selves.
In the 1980s, it was Special Forces. In the 90s and 00s, it was the SEALs. We put these teams on a pedestal, because that is what human beings are good at doing. We objectify, worship, and emulate the notion of other human beings whose status we elevate to that of “larger than life.” It’s a phenomenon that can be observed cross-culturally since the dawn of time. It’s not going away. In the United States, we have traditionally reserved this kind of hero worship for movie stars, rock stars, and professional athletes. Now, as the Special Operations community has grown in both visibility and notoriety, we extend it to members of our armed forces.
It is a disconcerting and dangerous phenomenon.
Look around us: we are bombarded by images of these warrior types on every form of media. They are portrayed as strong, fit, square-jawed people of action—not thought. We see them, and we feel compelled to bring some aspect of their identity into our own lives. Buying into the hyper-motivated, superhero-like identity that we are sold, we idolize their example of getting up early to perform over-the-top training regimens, urging ourselves through grueling workouts as we look to emulate what we believe are the secrets to their success. We don our American flag hats and shemaghs in a tribute to them, hoping to touch a piece of what they are all about.
But how well do we truly understand what it takes to be these men and women—and what they truly have to offer beyond the “Special Operations mystique” that we are sold? We look to them to motivate us physically and teach us how to push through challenges, but this is all the leadership and guidance from them that we seek (and, thus, all that we are usually sold). In doing so, we miss the areas where they could be inspiring us as much if not more: in our work and learning pursuits, in the raising of our children, and even in how we look at our relationships, civic duty, and our notions of living a good life.
War, after all, calls upon human capacities above and beyond courage and physical strength. War is perhaps the greatest teacher of human nature; as it affords human beings the opportunity to witness and experience both the highest pinnacles and the deepest nadirs of our existence—often simultaneously. There is violence, hatred, corruption, deception, selfishness, and rage; but there is also discipline, altruism, self-sacrifice, idealism and–above all–love.
But to ask an Army Ranger for advice on raising children? Look to a Green Beret or PJ for insight into the meaning of life? Really?
In a word: maybe. Because our warriors are some of the closest living connections to philosophy that we have. Whether or not they consider themselves students of philosophy or not, the study of the extremes of human nature is both inherent in and critical to their jobs. We can study books of philosophy in dusty university libraries, and that is one way to come to half of the understanding. But to gain a full understanding—and this is where most academic applications of philosophy fall short—we must look for philosophy paired with practical experience. And there is no better witness to the full gamut of human experience than the warrior. There is a reason why the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius have endured the ages with universal poignancy: he was not just a Stoic philosopher, but also a warrior and emperor. A philosopher with profound personal experience of human life in all its complexity.
To bring philosophy to life requires exposure to the human animal in action. And in war, many of the critical features of our human existence are pushed to the forefront. Soldiers in combat are put into situations that force them to ask themselves questions that are central to philosophy: is God there? Why does God allow war? Are my enemies like me, or are they different? Is it possible to kill but not murder? What is the purpose of my life? Am I a good human being? Is evil real?
War pits our rational selves and capacities against our irrational and animal instincts, which are also called upon in combat. How do we reconcile these things? How do we live with ourselves after we have fought and perhaps killed? How do we address the fact that the ethics that govern our national values on the homeland are by necessity not always the same ethics that can govern our conduct on the battlefield?
These are not small questions. They penetrate deeply into the soul of what it means to be a human being. Philosophers choose to ask them; warriors have to ask them.
The authors of this book have both come to this same conclusion, but starting on opposite sides of the coin. One, an academic schooled in philosophy for over a decade, who discovered through the sport of boxing an unexpected resource of insight into human instincts and behavior. The other, a decorated war veteran of over 20 years who, in the aftermath of war, turned like so many others to philosophy for insight into the things he had thought, felt, discovered, and experienced in war.
From ancient times, we have built our human foundations upon the philosophy of warriors. Not on their philosophy of war, but on their philosophy of life. How they saw the world. The ideas of democracy, service, education, and love that evolved from earlier generations of human beings who had seen combat. Aside from Christianity, no other moral, ethical, or philosophical system has so greatly impacted Western culture as the teachings of the Ancient Greeks—and not only were the Greeks some of the greatest philosophers the West has ever known; they are also some of the most storied warriors. This is not coincidental. Philosophy, to these ancient warriors, was not a luxury reserved for the privileged, but rather a tool; a necessity required not only to fight better, but to live better.