What Stoicism Taught Me About the Royal Marines
By Mark Hardie
When I look back now to my time in the Royal Marines, some my most enduring memories are from my initial training. I spent 15 months with 20 other young men going through the crucible of pressure that is the Commando Training Centre. Just getting selected to start had been a challenge, and at least two people chose to give up after two days. I distinctly remember my Batch officer telling us to ‘Show some steel!’ imploring us to conceal the pain and fatigue that he had personally delivered us unto and he could see in the eyes of many of us.
“Show some steel!’ Others would call this your ‘game face’ – focus, determination, and composure – when the pressure is building. However, steel is not shown on the face, but in the eyes. Others Instructors would encourage us to be more stoic with the challenges we faced, but at this stage in my career that was as much ancient knowledge as I was going to be exposed to.
‘There is no excuse among professional officers for not having a 5000 year old mind.’ – Jay Luvaas
All soldiers are lucky in that if they ever encounter the writings of Xenophon for example, they can relate directly to the lives of those soldiers. The burden of equipment; the importance of social cohesion; the challenge of leadership, all are as valid today as they have ever been. Perhaps reaching back thousands of years is one of the many things that soldiers and philosophers have in common.
With my exposure to stoicism I can look at Generals like William Slim in a new light. Slim led the 14th Army through Burma in World war two. In 1952 he spoke of moral courage as a rare but essential component of leadership. ‘Moral courage means that you do what you think is right without bothering too much about the effect on yourself.’
Stoicism taught me far more about the military than the military taught me about stoicism. It is only after I encountered stoic philosophy that I truly valued my time in the military.
The Royal Marines taught me about the value of the correct mindset then put me into situations where that mindset would be tested. I prepared thoroughly but recognised that my greatest strength during the action would be my ability to adapt. This mindset gave me mental distance as I operated and a well-prepared mind rarely goes blank. I reviewed each decision, thought about how I would do it next time, reflected.
The Royal Marines taught me about emotional self-regulation – recognising that anger can be a positive state, but that rage rarely is. To overcome failure, move on, not ruminate on those two fateful words “If only…” It is not that I did not feel emotions, more that I concealed them, or harnessed them because courage is as infectious as fear. Rational thinking under pressure is difficult. Most people who like to think things through in detail, do so because they are terrified of making a mistake, and what that might mean for them personally and for their career. Thinking quickly and thinking well is good, when there is time, but action should be the outcome and decisive action at the critical moment rarely comes from detailed methodical thought.
Slim simplified this. No regrets – ‘Do not sit in a corner and say “Oh, If I had only gone to the left instead of the right…” You have done the best you could – it hasn’t come off. All right what’s the next problem? Get on with that.’
The Royal Marines taught me to operate in the harshest environments that nature offers. Not to ignore the cold, rain, heat or wind, but to recognise that I had no control over them, yet I would have to continue to function. I am lucky to have seen incredible sunrises and sunsets around the world, stood guard during electrical storms that made the fillings in my teeth buzz and been caught in a flash floods that had me knee deep in water within minutes. I have had ice form on my clothing as I moved and adapted my plans when nature chose to interrupt them. Marveling at nature may well be a human trait, but fighting nature rarely ends in our favour.
The Royal Marines taught me about control. It was an honour to be an Officer and to lead men who would always surprise me with their ingenuity and professionalism, and yet, when mistakes happened, they could be spectacular. I still have my handbook of notes and quotes and as I thumb through it now I find one of many by Robert E Lee which I felt was particularly appropriate for anyone in a position of authority.
“I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.”
It took me a long time to stop worrying about things I could not control, and I learnt the lesson during the most demanding job of my career. What that gave me was greater freedom to cut through the noise of other people and focus on what was important.
I know now that these lessons were available to me before I joined the Royal Marines, and a part of me wishes that I’d been exposed to this way of thinking far sooner. Yet there is another part of me that recognizes that in amongst ancient wisdom and ways of thinking is the fundamental requirement for us all to walk our own path.
Today, as I develop my career as a Resilience coach and read almost daily about grit and character being key components of resilience, I feel my anger surfacing (though of course I conceal this completely). For me, resilience comes from exposure to stress. However, it must be preceded by exposure to the impact of stress on your mindset, your emotions, your environment and your self-control or control of others. It is not enough to challenge people, to force them to endure without giving them skills first. It is not about enduring, but adapting with every step. As you move forward, you are not the person you were even one step before. It is only when you stop before your objective that you fail.
The Royal Marines gave me skills that I can see have their foundations in Stoicism, but Stoicism allowed me to look at the military in a new light, to recognise and value the human element as the critical part of the machine.
Today I am neither a soldier nor a stoic, but I have the skills to be both if I so choose.
Greene, Robert, “The 33 Strategies of War”, Viking Adult, 2006
Mark Hardie MBE: Mark spent 14 years in the Royal Marines and now works as a Resilience Coach and Independent Consultant.