Academic journal article Military Review

A Good Death: Mortality and Narrative in Army Leadership

Academic journal article Military Review

A Good Death: Mortality and Narrative in Army Leadership

Article excerpt

What does it matter when death comes, since it is inevitable? To the man who told Socrates, "The thirty tyrants have condemned you to death," he replied, "And nature, them."

--Michel de Montaigne

A soldier sees death more vividly than most. Mortality's daily presentation in war has major implications for how leaders induce individuals and organizations to operate under the shadow of stark possibilities. To most leaders, this omnipresent threat of death may seem unremarkable--a benign fact--unless as soldiers we acknowledge just how important immortality is to each of us.

Philosopher Stephen Cave, in his book Immortality, identifies narratives that, in one form or another, all civilizations have used to sate human anxiety over death. (1) Countless soldiers have steeled their minds against battle's peril using four immortality narratives that Cave calls staying alive, resurrection, the soul, and legacy. Army leaders have used them to influence soldiers to carry out dangerous missions and to try to stay alive. However, leaders should use caution when employing these narratives as paths to build hardy, courageous formations. They are not one-size-fits-all and may produce undesired consequences. Leaders need to fully understand their shortcomings, and perhaps find a better approach, to manage the terror of combat in themselves and in others.

To understand why immortality narratives are central to the profession of arms, it is essential to understand what Cave calls humanity's "mortality paradox," a psychological contradiction hardwired into every human:

   Our awareness of ourselves, of the future, and
   of alternative possibilities enables us to adapt
   and make sophisticated plans. But it also gives
   us a perspective on ourselves that is at the
   same time terrifying and baffling. On the one
   hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably
   to the conclusion that we, like all other
   living things around us, must one day die. Yet
   on the other, the one thing that these minds
   cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence;
   it is literally inconceivable. Death
   therefore presents itself as both inevitable
   and impossible. (2)

Immortality narratives try to reconcile this dilemma. Various philosophies have explored the mortality paradox for thousands of years. Sigmund Freud explored the cognitive inability to imagine ones own death and the resulting subconscious conviction of one's immortality. (3) The inborn will to live sharpens as an individual becomes more aware of his or her own mortality. For the soldier, this meeting with imminent death in battle can become a paralyzing confrontation. Australian war hero Peter Ryan describes the experience as leaving him "a shuddering mess of demoralised [sic] terror" (4) As danger and the threat of death approach, the first issue emerging for the soldier is how to stay alive.


The drive for survival is the first and most basic narrative, and it has a single, simple tenet: do not die. Unfortunately, avoiding death is also the most problematic. In his study, Cave illustrates the history of man's obsessive search for a cure for dying through magic, alchemy, and even modern science. (5) However, soldiers in battle have a comparatively simple dilemma--living forever first requires living until tomorrow. Army leaders often approach this narrative using two themes: that obedience leads to survival and that the medical system can save wounded or injured soldiers. When employed to satisfy the mortality paradox, these--like the fabled elixir of life--are false promises.

The first theme proposes that soldiers who are skilled enough in battle, and who listen to and obey their leaders, will come home alive. Hollywood portrays this idea in the film Starship Troopers, when a young lieutenant shouts to a group of soldiers: "Remember your training, and you will make it out alive!" (6) The lieutenant dies almost immediately after giving the advice. …

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