Modern battlefield valor for military leaders

  • Published
  • By Lt Col JD Willis
  • 55th Operations Group
Throughout history, military leaders routinely engaged in battlefield combat performing heroic and courageous acts, which served to rally their forces and inspire them to achieve victory. Over time, reputations were earned by such leaders until some reached the point where their mere presence on the battlefield served to inspire courage in their subordinates and fear in their foes. Warrior leaders like Julius Caesar; Hannibal; Alexander the Great; Genghis Khan; Robert E. Lee; Erwin Rommel; and numerous others demonstrated the kind of heroism and valor, which inspired great victories earning them reputations as some of history's greatest leaders.

Warfare has changed over the centuries and the impact of modernity in all its forms--transportation, communications, information technology, scientific development and knowledge--have changed how military forces engage in combat, as well as how military leaders rally and lead their troops. Today, the structure and nature of our military as well as the type of warfare in which we find ourselves engaged, makes it very unlikely to find a senior officer leading forces directly in combat. Instead, today's generals typically lead their forces from headquarters removed from direct combat, though often within combat zones. While most would probably prefer to engage in more "hands-on" leadership of combat actions, it remains unusual to find a senior military leader at the front lines. Even though many visit their troops to check on conditions and morale. The net effect of this modern convention is that it limits senior leader's abilities to inspire their troops and engender the battle-proven followership their predecessors achieved.

Today, I argue that senior leaders must demonstrate heroism and "battlefield" valor in a different form. Instead of risking their lives in direct combat, our military leaders must demonstrate valor by their willingness to risk their reputations with superiors and even their careers to achieve a greater good. Due to the enormous scrutiny under which our senior military leaders must live, they occasionally must maintain a delicate balance between publicly supporting the decisions of their superiors and privately offering personal or professional disagreement with their positions. In the end, all leaders must identify their own personal boundary lines and decide at which point they will step aside if asked to carry out policies or programs which violate their principles. While it is unlikely anyone will ever have to make such a decision, the practice of thinking about what one would be willing to give one's life or career for serves to keep in perspective a leader's principles.

Modern battlefield valor for military leaders is certainly less kinetic and more challenging to discern, but its source remains the same as demonstrated throughout history--selflessness. The same selfless concern for the mission and troops which inspired heroes of old to risk their lives in battle still causes modern leaders to risk their reputations and careers. The result also remains the same--troops come together and are inspired to achieve great victories. The question for each of us to contemplate is how we in our various levels of military leadership will handle the test when called upon to display "modern battlefield valor."