“THE [WARFIGHTER’S] HEART, THE SPIRIT, THE SOUL, ARE EVERYTHING. UNLESS THE SOUL SUSTAINS HIM, HE CANNOT BE RELIED ON AND WILL FAIL HIMSELF AND HIS COMMANDER AND HIS COUNTRY IN THE END.”
The quotation above comes from a speech General George C. Marshall gave at Trinity College in June, 1941. War in Europe and in the Pacific had been raging for almost two years. Marshall knew, as did much of the nation, that the United States going to war with Japan and Germany was inevitable. Marshall recognized getting ready for war meant more than laying up a supply of tanks, planes, ships, guns and ammunition. He recognized the importance of getting the warfighter combat ready, that is, completely ready – ready in body, mind (mental and emotional), and spirit.
Being victorious in combat at sea requires having the best ships, weapons and equipment the Navy can provide. It also requires having the best trained and best prepared warfighters; that is, it requires having great warriors who are resilient. Standing watch and performing daily routines have their challenges. Taking a hit, well, that’s a different matter. What is resiliency when applied to combat at sea? It is the ability to take a hit and have the spirit to keep on fighting. It’s the ability to keep going forward into the chaos. Resiliency is key to total warfighter readiness.
Why is resiliency so important to overall warfighter readiness? Looking back at the Pacific campaign of World War II provides many examples of Sailors going beyond themselves in crisis. Their actions in many cases saved their Shipmates, saved the ship, and even turned the battle favorably. Battles at Guadalcanal, Midway, Leyte Gulf and the naval battle off the coast of Japan (USS Franklin), are examples of where warfighter resiliency in combat played a key role. Total readiness and resiliency matter! On Oct. 12, 2000, terrorists blew a 40+ foot hole in the port side of the USS Cole. CDR (ret.) Kirk Lippold, the commanding officer of USS Cole, credits the quick actions of his Sailors for saving the ship from sinking (twice) and for saving the lives of injured Shipmates. Rigorous prior training, muscle memory, high confidence, and the spirit of doing something greater than themselves made all the difference in each of these cases. Training (physical and academic) is the beginning of a warfighter’s mental readiness preparation. Quality training and repetition provide the body with muscle memory (the ability to do a task without conscious thought). When a crisis hits, a warfighter will fall to the level of their training, meaning that a person will perform a task no better than their knowledge and muscle memory. Also, a warfighter will only rise to their level of confidence. This means they may have a high level of training, but they will do no better than what they are confident in doing. Thus, “training” and “confidence” go hand-in-hand to produce resiliency.
Mental readiness also requires the warfighter to consider seriously what combat at sea may be like. Consider these questions: Am I ready for what I may experience and feel in combat? Am I ready to experience the chaos of combat? Am I prepared to face my own fears and my own inhibitions? Am I ready to fight for the ship or fight to save my shipmates even when it means putting myself in mortal danger?
Facing combat is serious business. It takes mental courage and fortitude. Warfighters can and must build this mental strength beforehand through frank discussions within one’s unit. The questions above are a great place to start. Ideally, the warfighter will have considered and decided on actions before the battle starts and burned it into memory. “I will save my shipmate.” “I will fight for the ship to the best of my ability.” Decide ahead of time what to do. This will make reacting to the chaos of combat much easier and help the sailor avoid indecision, which is a normal initial reaction to a crisis.
Emotional readiness means understanding how one acts or reacts to stressors, and then control those reactions. This begins by knowing oneself. People generally have two emotional states or personalities – a primary and a secondary. The primary personality is the one a person has in day-to-day activities. This is the calm self, doing routine activities such as texting a friend, eating a meal, or doing the normal tasks on a job without undue stress, as if time is not an issue. The primary personality runs on reason and rational thinking. One’s heartbeat, breathing, and rhythms are at their normal rate. The person may be thinking about several things at the same time with ease. People are in this state most of the time.
The secondary self is the personality one reverts to in a crisis, and this shift is nearly instantaneous. How a person acts under stress can be radically different than how they act under calm conditions. This is the “flight, freeze, or fight” automatic response to a stressful situation that is hardwired into the human psyche. This secondary personality is driven more by instinct than by reason. Adrenaline kicks in. The heart beats faster, breathing quickens, muscles tense up, and eyes dilate. The mind will focus almost entirely on the threat and react quickly because time (or the lack of) matters.
Because the secondary personality is an instinctive reaction under pressure, a person should focus on training their secondary personality. This requires intentionally thinking about possible scenarios and rehearsing a reaction before the crisis ever occurs. Let me give you a personal example. I trained myself not to swerve (a natural reaction) with my car when an animal run out in front of me. I know that swerving could have much worse consequences, such as hitting another vehicle head on. So, I have rehearsed in my mind to hit the brakes and stiffen my arms and hands on the steering wheel so that I don’t swerve and leave my lane. This actually works! I have had it happen many times. I don’t swerve but still do my best to avoid hitting the animal. Such mental rehearsal will help the warfighter react appropriately in combat. Emotional readiness also has two command-level components. The first one is trust. Warfighters must be able to trust their command and each other. According to General Mattis, trust leads to integrity and commitment to fellow warriors and enables boldness and resolution. Conversely, the lack of trust leads to lackluster execution of tasks. In Sailor terms, trust builds team cohesion and pushes one to give their best effort which in turn gives a ship or a unit the best chance at victory.
The second component is answering the “why” question. People will do extraordinary feats if they understand “why” doing those feats matter. Commands should try to instill an understanding of the strategic “why.” Consider these questions: Why are we fighting this fight? Why is the enemy the enemy? What difference will this fight make? Part of understanding the “why” is understanding the commander’s intent. Consider these questions: What is the overall (strategic level) mission? What is the ship/unit’s mission? What is my part in the mission? For the greatest level of emotional readiness, warfighters need to own the mission. They need to be able to say, “It’s our mission.” They will fight for what they own. Doing so builds morale, will, and determination.
Spiritual readiness is the strength of spirit that enables the warfighter to accomplish the mission with honor. It is the strength of spirit that helps a person get through adversity and stress with the ability to keep on going. This is developed through a personal connection to a Higher Power and through the pursuit of meaning, purpose, values, connections to the sacred, and sacrificial service. In other words, warfighters are spiritually ready when they are connected to a source of meaning and purpose greater than themselves, able to explain why they serve, and are prepared to do their duty in peace and war. It is the epitome of honor, courage, and commitment. Spiritual readiness helps one perform and endure through a crisis.
Spiritual readiness doesn’t require one to be a part of an organized religion. Spiritual readiness may come through studies in philosophy or in a belief in the greater good. Stoicism is a particularly popular philosophy among military leaders in that it is a practical philosophy on how to face life and adversity. Books by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Greek philosopher Epictetus provide great insight into Stoicism. Admiral James Stockdale believed that his practice of Stoicism saved his life during his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Others find spiritual strength through the discipline of meditation (or mindfulness), focusing on character and virtues. Meditation is a concentrated focus on a particular topic or idea. Spiritual readiness, however, often comes through participation in a community of faith. Studies show that participation with a faith community on a regular basis builds spiritual readiness and decreases tendencies toward destructive behavior. For example, Koenig notes that people who are religious are 62% less likely to commit suicide. That number increases to 82% when they belong to a community of faith and to 94% for people who attend religious services at least twice a month. When I was in western Iraq with the Marines in 2005, a time of frequent improvised explosive devices (IEDs) hitting convoys, Marines of 2nd FSSG insisted on their chaplain saying a prayer for them before going on a convoy. They found strength, meaning, and spiritual fortitude in it to conduct the mission.
Some of the benefits of spiritual readiness include lower rates of inner conflict during and after combat, a source of motivation, and a lower likelihood of experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Other benefits are less anxiety about death, higher levels of moral courage and moral action, greater likelihood of embracing military values, a more positive and hopeful outlook when deployed, fewer negative emotions when deployed, and positive coping skills. Spiritually ready families also tend to be more resilient.
Warfighters should ask these questions and seriously consider them. Who or what are my primary spiritual anchor points? How is spiritual resiliency generated in my life? Am I prepared to sacrifice for something bigger than myself? If I die today, am I at peace with my Higher Power? Am I spiritually ready for whatever comes my way?
Warfighter readiness is key in combat at sea. Not only does the Navy need the best equipment, but it also needs the best and most resilient warfighters. The Navy needs warfighters who are totally resilient – resilient in body, mind, and spirit. Just as an athlete doesn’t get physically strong from lifting weights only once, resiliency of mind and spirit also requires diligence and repetition. Commands should take the time to discuss the questions above to prepare their warfighters for the realities of combat.