A popular image of the warrior emphasizes his confidence.  While confidence is important, however, humility keeps confidence from becoming bravado, and ultimately keeps the warrior alive.

In mid-2004, I was a “roper,” one of the young Marines running (don’t get caught walking) around 1st Recon Bn with a sling rope and carabiner around their shoulders.  The rope was a symbol of being one of those Marines who aspired to, but had not yet achieved, the coveted title of “Recon Marine.”  The Bn had just returned from Iraq.

One day the Sgt in charge of the training platoon, who already had orders to 1st Force Recon Co, brought all the ropers into the Bn Classroom for a break from the working parties and 2-a-day PT sessions.  He wanted to give a class on Combat Mindset, and that class highlighted a vital characteristic of Recon Marines, and all professional warriors, that I hadn’t really considered before: humility.

Now, this isn’t the sort of bashful, “I’m not worthy” sort of false humility that might immediately come to mind.  As was said in that class, “Humility is truth.”  It is recognizing both your strengths and your weaknesses.  It is acknowledging that you don’t know everything, haven’t experienced everything, and can still learn from anyone.

How is humility an absolute requirement of the warrior mindset?  If one cannot acknowledge his weaknesses, he cannot very well work to eliminate them.  If one doesn’t think he has anything more to learn, he stops learning.  Combat, especially in a small team, is an unforgiving, harsh dose of reality.  There really is no room for ego.  Thus, a warrior has to cultivate that humility, acknowledge what he needs to work on, and when he screws up, so that these things can be fixed in the future.

At the time, most of us got a lot of good training in that humility.  If you screwed up, you got thrashed.  If you mouthed off, you got thrashed.  If you started to get cocky, you got thrashed.  In many ways, this was the whole point of what has since been labeled “hazing” in the military—to beat the ego down so it doesn’t get in the way when it can be most destructive.  Sometimes it backfired, but the majority of the time, it worked very well.  While we had confidence in our abilities, we recognized that there was always room for improvement, and that we weren’t “above” any particular work.

At risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, a lot of that training in humility has been dropped from what younger Marines learn.  Physical corrections have been curbed, and for whatever reason, more and more new Recon Marines are arriving at their units cocky, thinking that because they passed BRC they are now elite.  Many of them don’t progress very far when an attitude problem is identified, but the trend is troubling.  Ego is becoming inviolate, when on the battlefield it can be a killer.

Humility is truth.  Warriors exist in a realm of objective reality that doesn’t care about your ego.  Failure to recognize the truth, i.e., what is real, can have lethal consequences in this line of work.