#42 Selfless Service

"Put the welfare of the Nation, the Army and your subordinates before your own." - FM 6-22

As I have made my way through the Army value system over the last few weeks, I have not always been able to form a concise thesis statement for my thoughts. Words on a page, written in a manual, that appear in form to be very black and white and clear cut, seem to run into vast grey areas as I try to think through them. I get the feeling that today will be no different.

In the Army Field Manual on Leadership, FM 6-22, the section on selfless service is a total of 5 paragraphs long. In the first of those 5 paragraphs you find the following quote:

"While the needs of the Army and the Nation should come first, it does not imply family or self-neglect. To the contrary, such neglect weakens a leader and can cause the Army more harm than good."

That sentence troubles me because it is exactly at the juxtaposition of priorities between organizational and personal requirements that we run into problems. First, while it may be a word game, the Army does not come before the Nation. The Nation is why we exist. We have an Army to serve the needs, values, and requirements of the Nation. Get the order wrong, as I think the manual does, and you set up an incorrect structure. First you selflessly serve the Army, and then we'll get to the Nation. Nope. It must always remain the other way around. First comes the Nation and then comes the Army. In fact, serving the Nation can be done in millions of ways and happens every day. Every doctor, teacher, soup kitchen worker, civil service member, civic or faith based organization member etc provides a service to our nation. The Army is only one possible way to be a selfless servant. We often forget that. Look around your community and you will find those servants everywhere. It is not the special province of those in uniform.

Second, and even more importantly, the quote does not offer any ideas on how to manage the conflict between service to the Army and the familial and personal neglect that does, and will, arise. That puts each Soldier in a constant state of struggle when their personal needs and those of their loved ones must be continually sacrificed for the organization. Especially at a time when many are questioning wether or not the organization really does care about them.

The current war has lasted 8 years. Far longer than was ever expected. Over 4000 service members have been killed. In most cases, we are no longer trying to figure out who has deployed and who hasn't, but rather how many times a service member has deployed. The military has approximately 1.5 million members. Considering the fact that at any one time about 300,000 are deployed across the world, that means that we've almost turned the entire service 3 times since the war began. Units on my post are facing their 4th or 5th year long deployment. How is it possible for me to balance my obligation to the Nation and the Army against the strain and demands that are being placed upon my family? How much service is enough? When have I done my part? When have I lived up to my obligation to the Nation and the Army?

Then we need to look at the portion concerning welfare of subordinates. A subordinate is a person. A human being. Which means that I as a leader am responsible to provide for the welfare of a human being. In an earlier post (# 28) I referenced Army Regulation 600-20 'Army Command Policy' that states that a leader has a requirement to meet the needs of a subordinate across 4 domains, physical, mental, material, and spiritual. Leaders are required to provide for the welfare of their Soldiers in those 4 manners collectively, and yet what skills or education do we provide them to accomplish this? From my experience and schooling, none. I have never been taught how to balance the competing demands of selfless service to the Nation and the Army against the human being requirements of my Soldiers. I have learned how to do it over time, experience and age. It has become what is often called wisdom.

When I was a young man service to the Army was my only imperative. The organization told me what it needed me to do and I did it. And that was ok because, although there was sacrifice involved, I really didn't have any competing demands. And the Nation was not at war. For as much as we thought we were working hard and selflessly serving, we really weren't. For every demand placed upon us we were compensated somehow down the road. Selfless service was easy.

Now I am older. I have a family and some of my priorities have changed. We are involved in a protracted war that is ill-defined and likely will persist on different fronts for decades to come. There will not be an endless series of days for me to make up time lost with my wife and daughter. I have learned that life is fleeting. I have memorialized young men who thought that they too would have an endless series of days. And I am left to wonder, how selfless can my service be? Is the possibility of creating a widow and a fatherless child in order to fulfill my obligation to the Nation worth it?

And while we're at it, Selfless Service implies sacrifice for the individual Soldier. That's a given. But what about the families and children and others who, by extension, are also selflessly serving their country and the Army? Make no mistake, the demands that the Army makes on me are easily exceeded by the demands it places upon my wife. And because she is not under some form of contract to the Army, she truly is serving as a volunteer. No compensation, no promotion, no obligation. Only because she is willing to put the Nation, the Army and me above her dreams and aspirations is she willing to accept this sacrifice for our family. Funny, but the manual doesn't address her at all. The Command Policy regulation does, but the leadership manual does not. I wonder why that is? Shouldn't leadership education include an understanding of those regulations that the Army calls it's bedrock imperatives? As a husband and father I know that I cannot equally meet my obligations to both the Army and my family. The difficulty is finding the balance. Maybe we ought to start looking at issues like that in our leadership schools....

And that is the part of Selfless Service that the 5 paragraphs don't address. That each of us will have to reach these decisions and conclusions for ourselves. As I work my way through the Army Values they should serve to drive me back into my own heart and mind to resolve the conflict that each of them raises. They should serve to remind me to reevaluate every now again what my priorities are and how near or far they are from the institution's stated norms.

I often use quotations to help me crystallize my thoughts. In light of this post, here are some I found today that strike a chord with me:

"You can only govern by serving them. The rule is without exception." - Victor Cousin

"Men grow only in proportion to the service they render to their fellow men and women" - Captain Edward V. Rickenbacher

"If in the last few years you haven't discarded a major opinion, or discovered a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead." - Gelett Burgess

The first quote follows my line of thought regarding servant leadership. We serve down. Those we lead do not exist for us to practice leadership. They exist for us to provide selfless service. The second quote recognizes the individual sense of well being that comes from possessing a servant oriented soul. The last is included because it is the reason for the blog.

To figure out who you are and what you value is the very first - and most important - responsibility of leadership.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Below is an email exchange between me and one of the readers. It is worth including here, but I have omitted the contributors name because I believe they would prefer it this way. It will have to be posted in 3 sections because of the limitations of the blog.

    The contributor said: "This one concerns (bothers, confuses) me. Doesn't your commitment to the Nation, Army,
    American citizens exceed all other obligations as you serve your nation? Otherwise why would anyone risk his/her life in battle while carrying out his/her duty as a soldier. Isn't that what being a soldier is all about - to risk everything in defense of your nation so that non-military citizens might retain their freedom? Isn't that what the military is for - regrettably? If not, why would anyone risk his/her life knowing full well what hardship your death would be for your own family. Teachers teach, salesman sell, soldiers protect their nation through combat so that others, including their families, are protected. Am I missing something?"

  2. I replied:

    "There probably was a time when that 'over riding' obligation was a very true statement, and by extension, a personal feeling. People really did believe that they were going to war for their country. And that their service meant something. That the sacrifices required were necessary to guard their personal and national values. This however requires a national sense that the war itself is worth the sacrifice of their sons/daughters etc. That sense has not existed in this country since WW II. Since Vietnam, there is a sense that 'some' people fight the war, and others do not. And since the country politically divides itself into those for and those against, it is left to those who serve to determine that sense of obligation.

    I go to war and fight (and possibly die) for what? Is this nation truly at war with violent extremism and international terrorism, or is it just the military? Without that national sense of purpose, and with the conflicting thoughts of the war's necessity, it makes the decision to go and fight a very personal one. And with technology and punditry available 24 hours a day, it breeds a perpetual state of questioning.

    While we in the Army speak often of "Selfless Service", I'm not sure that we comprehend the magnitude of the words. As I mentioned in the post, when I was younger, the notion of selfless service was easy because I had nothing of value to compare it against. Now, as I get older, the words carry a different meaning. I've gained an appreciation for the sacrifices Jen goes through when I'm gone. My priorities are different. I am not afraid to fight, but I do worry now about those who would be left behind if I were to be killed. Would they understand that my death was necessary to secure their freedom?

    An example from Iraq. Before my arrival in first platoon, the LT and a Soldier were blown up by an IED while conducting a patrol. Immediately after their deaths, the battalion closed the road where they were killed, deemed it unnecessary for our tactical needs, and never went down it again. What was the purpose of their selfless service? Hard questions that many young Soldiers have seen time and again.

    You are correct. Teachers teach, salesmen sell, and Soldiers fight wars. However, every other profession can measure itself against a mark on the wall and determine whether the demands it makes are worth the efforts to achieve them. The outcome of most wars - and especially this one - often hang in a precarious balance. Is the battle for the soul of Afghanistan important? Is it important enough to sacrifice my life?

    My point in the blog was to try to show how important it is to consider these questions. The Army uses the value system to try and bring all leaders under a common operating system. The problem is that in a 200 page document, they only devote 5 small paragraphs to what is the ultimate reason Soldiers join, lead and fight. To live up the the ideal of Selfless Service.

    Thanks for your thought."

  3. The contributor replied:

    "Well said (in a very short period of time). Who determines whether or not the war is worth fighting (or dieing ) for? Fear for the welfare of the family left behind is a given either way."