The first time I heard the expression, “Leaders should love
their soldiers,” I dismissed it as corny, soft, and unrealistic. Over the
course of my Army career, however, my understanding of what it means to love
soldiers grew steadily. I now believe that military leadership entails a moral
obligation to love soldiers in ways that are appropriate for senior-subordinate
I initially made sense of the dictum to love my soldiers by
interpreting it strictly in military terms. I embraced the famous adage by
German General Erwin Rommel that “the best form of welfare for the troops is
first-class training, for this saves unnecessary casualties.”
According to this approach, leaders love their soldiers by
being professionally competent. It’s a task-oriented, “they may hate me now,
but they’ll love me later” form of love that focuses on pursuing outcomes that
are unquestionably good for soldiers—victory and survival. However, this
approach can leave some soldiers feeling that they are mere cogs in the military
machine. Even soldiers who win and survive due to great training and well-led
operations can feel used and exploited by their leaders.
I observed a second, more individualized type of love in
units during and after their combat deployments. It is the love of admiration
and appreciation. When leaders witness their soldiers dutifully executing
missions day after day, month after month--despite the fear, exhaustion, and
disillusionment they all are enduring—intense feelings of respect and gratitude
arise within the leaders.
This “Band of Brothers and Sisters” form of love often lasts
for a lifetime and is evident at unit reunions. This love is sublime and
praiseworthy but ultimately insufficient for leaders, for it is a love focused
on the subordinate as a soldier, not necessarily as a person who possesses
other meaningful identities as well. When soldiers are loved by their
leaders because they performed their duties well in very difficult
circumstances, it’s a conditional love that’s best described as camaraderie.
Soldiers may still be left feeling that they were merely brave, honorable cogs
in the machine.
I began to understand a third, even more meaningful approach
to loving my soldiers when a fellow Army leader challenged me with a
penetrating question. “Do you think of your subordinates primarily as soldiers
who happen to have personal lives on the side?” he asked. “Or, instead, do you
think of them primarily as people just like you who happen to be soldiers at
this point in their lives?”
I had to admit to myself that I unconsciously held the
former attitude. I thought of my soldiers primarily as human resources to be
developed, trained, and led to accomplish missions. I did genuinely enjoy their
company and care about their welfare. Nevertheless, I related to them as
soldiers, not as people who had their own life histories and dreams. I
didn’t think about how they had grown up as civilians and would likely live
many more decades as civilians after they’d finished their military
Reflecting on these questions also opened my eyes to how
deeply I wanted my own leaders to appreciate me for who I am, not only for what
I could do for them and the unit. As a soldier, I wanted to believe that
any leaders who might send me on life-threatening missions would at least
recognize that my entire life, not simply the welfare of one of their soldiers,
was at stake.
This “recognition of each soldier’s humanity” form of love
has enormous practical implications in units. Leaders who see the humanity of
their soldiers are able to empathize with them, and empathetic leaders are more
effective and less toxic. They are also more likely to recognize the humanity
of enemy combatants and civilians on the battlefield, and thus be more apt to
lead morally in war.
Through my opportunities to study combat leadership and
moral injury over the past two decades, I came to appreciate a fourth way that
leaders can love their soldiers—by providing them moral leadership.
When soldiers enlist in the Army, they willingly accept risk
not only to their lives but also to their souls. In their Oath of Enlistment,
they vow to obey the orders of the officers appointed over them, knowing full
well that those orders may require them to kill other human beings. Military
enlistments, then, are awe-inspiring, humbling expressions of trust by the
enlistees that their country will provide them with morally trustworthy
leaders. Out of love for their country, soldiers allow their consciences to
become vulnerable to leaders they have not yet met.
Soldiers in war want to do what’s right and honorable, but
war creates conditions that make that difficult. Soldiers deserve leaders who
direct and permit them to do only what is morally right, who help them make
sense of the moral complexities of war, and who have earned the “moral capital”
to steer them through moral dilemmas.
We know that leaders’ moral character and decision making in
war have impacts on their soldiers’ consciences in the years ahead. Soldiers
who had confidence in their leadership’s character and who did not commit
illegal acts are less likely to suffer from post-war psychological and moral
injuries. For the sake of their soldiers’ long-term moral and psychological
well-being, then, leaders can love their soldiers by demanding that their units
always do the right things, for the right reasons, because they value their own
and their soldiers’ moral integrity.
A fifth, most-demanding form of soldierly love is expressed
when leaders put themselves at risk to protect their subordinates. One reason
that combat veterans remember fondly (and even yearn to re-experience) their
combat deployments—despite the risks and horrors of war—is the sacrificial love
that characterizes many small units in war. For the only time in their
lives, soldiers are surrounded by people who literally would die for them and
for whom they would willingly give their own lives.
Leaders have many opportunities to sacrifice for their
soldiers during peacetime operations, too. Unfortunately, when it comes to
protecting their subordinates, many leaders are more willing to risk their own
lives in war than their careers at home station.
I was privileged to witness a situation in which a leader
did sacrifice his career to protect one of his soldiers. A good Army captain
had made a bad error in judgment and faced a career-ending general-officer
memorandum of reprimand (GOMOR). The captain’s rater, a lieutenant colonel,
went to the general officer and took full responsibility for the climate in
which his subordinate made the fateful error. “If someone’s career is going to
end over this, let it be mine,” he reportedly said.
The general obliged him. The lieutenant colonel received the
GOMOR and retired soon after; his once-high likelihood of promotion had been
reduced to zero. The captain went on to achieve a successful career. I continue
to be inspired by that leader’s example of selfless love for his
From my first day as a military professional, I knew that I
had a duty to lead my soldiers. Over the years, I learned that I also have a
duty to love them, due to the unique character of military service. Military
service is more than a job or even a vocation; it is a 24/7/365 relationship
between soldiers and their leaders that involves the highest possible
stakes—life and death, killing and dying.
Out of love for their country, soldiers willingly risk
everything they love. They deserve leaders who love them back.
by Pete Kilner, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired), US