Yesterday I spoke to a younger Marine officer. He was a first lieutenant and a student naval aviator (flight student) who was clearly flustered with his performance on recent flights. I was trying give him a little morale boost while telling him to watch his bearing, as looking flustered and stressed does not inspire confidence in your peers, superiors, or subordinates.

He then confessed to me why he joined the Marines: To become a pilot. I told him not to say that ever again. I cannot answer to the purity of his motivations, save for the fact that in the Marines, and especially in the officer corps, it is “not about you.” The second you start thinking that it is about you is the second you start to fail in your obligations to the Constitution, to the mission, and to your Marines.

His self-motivation is somewhat dangerous: There are countless avenues by which on can become a pilot, and becoming a Marine to become a pilot is perhaps one of the toughest routes to wings that one can undertake. Yet he’s willing to go that distance for himself, and himself alone. This speaks to incredible selfishness. He needs to be watched.

Hopefully, when the pressure is on, at night, with dogshit visibility, and assholes shooting, and he’s flying a casualty evacuation mission, he will have the fortitude to deny his selfishness and continue the mission, even though it might cost him his life. The Marine Corps, after all, is not always great for self preservation, but we will look after each other.

15 Responses to Motivations

  1. kotare says:

    You’d hope that the Marines’ officer selection and training processes would’ve identified out the egotists.

    That said, this young man’s attitude is commonplace these days. I strike this all the time in the workplace – young people in their 20s who consider that the world owes them a living.

  2. smitteneagle says:

    Correct on both counts, Kotare.

    My chief critique of the Marine officer selection process is that it often fails to eliminate the selfish candidates, so long as they are in great physical shape and have enough integrity to not lie outright. If you can suck up enough physical pain, you can make it through regardless of motivation, intelligence, aptitude, and general military ability.

    Such a system as the USMC has now works fine so long as the moral fiber of the nation is of sufficient quality, but with the decline of morals and ethical behavior is so apparent in the non-military parts of the population, it is little wonder that such selfish men are able to acquire commissions for their own agendas and designs.

    These officers must be watched and mentored. If they can be reformed, we’ll keep them. If they cannot be, they must be removed from service at once.

  3. kotare says:

    Pistols at dawn?

    But seriously, the problem with bureaucracies, military or otherwise, is that once incompetent or selfish people are enscounced, they are damned difficult to remove. The processes you have to go through are mind-boggling.

  4. A.E. says:

    “There are countless avenues by which on can become a pilot, and becoming a Marine to become a pilot is perhaps one of the toughest routes to wings that one can undertake.”

    Indeed—routes that one can take without being shot at, for one. I agree with your assessment.

  5. SE,

    Wasn`t it the Duke of Wellington who said “People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children — some for minor offences — many more for drink.”

    I note he was talking about enlisted men here but if the only bio I have read about the Duke (by Christopher Hibbert)is correct, many officers in the Dukes day were just as ambitious, self – centered and arrogant as many of today`s people in all professions are.

    As to the decline you mention I wd accept the theory that in many western countries we are dumbing down. However, I only have to listen to my father talking about his days as a young Army officer in the 50s or – rather worse – a child in the 30s and 40s to realise that men´s morals have always been what they are today.

    As a leader you will have to live with imperfections in yr subordinates, equals and superiors all the time and not just for the pragmatic reason mentioned by Kotare.

  6. smitteneagle says:


    The Wellington quote is a red herring. There are certainly many unselfish warriors who have served who were quite friendly with the bottle, and who have had minor run-ins with the law. That is an issue of conduct, not necessarily motivation.

    Selfishness is contrary to the very concept of service. Service is a pillar of professionalism. As far as the selfishness of “all professions,” as you say, I can only disagree. It is certainly true that there are military men who are not professionals, but that does not mean that the idea of a professional military ethic doesn’t exist. Likewise, there is certainly such a thing as the profession of law, and the existence of unprofessional, selfish lawyers doesn’t negate that.

    In my post “On Professionalism” I listed one of the tenants of a Profession as being willing to correct the faults of other practitioners. This student pilot has a caustic type of motivation toward military matters. I called him out, and was correct in doing so.

    Finally, you are correct in that all people in all ages have been of subpar moral fiber. However, the nature of the amorality of previous generations need not be the same as today. Corruption was certainly rampant in Roman times. It is less acceptable today in Western countries. At the same time, sexual promiscuity is a common deviation today that was certainly less acceptable generations ago. Selfishness, today, I think is on the rise.

    Just because moral failings are omnipresent does not mean I must tolerate such failings.

  7. SE

    The Wellington quote was bit facetious but to the point as he said “enlisting from”.

    I actually agree with yr solution of talking to the pilot in the way you did it as well as with yr conclusion about him personally.

    But, very frankly, it did seem to seem that you took the young man`s problem too personally or too much to heart. That incidentially was the reason for the slightly facetious choice of quote. Not taking other people`s faults to heart does not mean not doing anything about them btw.

    I did not state that moral failings of its members negate the ethics of a profession. As I said there is selfishness in all professions and – an important point IMO – there has always been. That does not change the professional obligations of the members of the profession.

    “However, the nature of the amorality of previous generations need not be the same as today. ” Good point but I would argue that the basic flaws in human nature have always been there. They just take different forms at different times.

    Finally, and partly also in response to Kotare: When I compare my mates and myself as we then were to today`s young people I find them rather more superficial but also more pragmatic and professionally active than we were.
    There was less “indoctrination” with consumerist pseudo ideals of coolness and self fulfilment and more parental control in my time (early 80s) though. The effects of this developement certainly are a challenge to parents and – later in life – to educators and leaders.

  8. Schwabbeau says:

    I would say that your discussion thus far has been spot on – for an infantry officer. As an aviator myself I can only tell you that pilots eat their own, and you have to be personally motivated to achieve your wings. This young man may have all the love for country that is possible, but it probably won’t be enough to keep him going in his aviation training. Being a pilot is not like being an infantry officer. All judgement of performance is placed squarely on you; there are no subordinates to manage (for most young pilots, anyway) there is only the next mission, the next checkride. This is especially true for fighter pilots, as the only person who pays for a pilots incompetence is, in the end, the pilot. Please don’t castigate me, I simply wanted to give a different viewpoint to the discussion. You were right about one thing, though. There are many other ways to become a pilot, and the fact that this young man went through Marine training to earn his commission, and then worked to be selected for flight training, when he could have just gone to college, recieved a degree in aviation, and worked for an airline, speaks volumes to me on his dedication to his country. He may be personally motivated to be an aviator, but I would bet that if you pressed him he would admit to other motivation (love of country, family history of serving, etc) for his decision to join the Marines.

  9. My gut response was similar to Schwabbeau’s.

    I don’t know if people these days are morally inferior to our predecessors. Nor do I know how dumbed-down, on average, we really are.

    I am sure, however, that we are less articulate. I am also sure that people lack a vocabulary to speak about the moral dimensions of their lives, and they are embarrassed to admit to the call of higher things in their lives, since the culture denies the value or even the existence of the “mystic dimension of service”.

    Perhaps this young man has not articulated to himself, in words he could say to SE, what he really meant by “being a pilot”. He may have meant a Marine pilot, and he may have an unarticulated desire for the kind of things that SE is willing and able to write about.

    Or not.

    But it does not sound like bedrock has necessarily yet been struck with this young man.

    Also, the point about demeanor is critical in any profession. Projecting confidence and authority at all times, especially when it is hard to do so, is critical, in fact it is often a duty. Doing so is simply a matter of developing a certain habit, being aware of yourself, and not giving in to an ultimately selfish “look at me, feel sorry for me” attitude.

  10. smitteneagle says:


    I must strongly disagree with your point that morals and ethics are essentially task-oriented with respect to military specialty. Note that pilots and infantrymen are both considered combat arms, and both specialties have a warrior archetype as their ideal. Among other combat arms, like artillery and engineers, we don’t expect lesser moral, ethical, and service-oriented qualities. So why do pilots get a pass?

    I think that for far too long pilots have been given a pass to be selfish, and perhaps this is part of the reason the fighter-pilot-rich Air Force has had such dire command climate issues of late. [1]

    As far as the “next mission, next checkride” mindset goes…yes, that mentality does exist. Such a mentality is a symptom of the moral myopia/self-orientation of many pilots. Pilots should instead be duty-focused. With such a focus, pilots can place their checkrides into the appropriate context of serving their peers and the Constitution, rather than themselves.

    Indeed, such a duty-orientation can, I think, improve motivation. Devotion to fellow Marines can motivate many to go much further than devotion to self can ever do.


    You are certainly correct that people today lack the vocabulary of morals and ethics, and because of the lack of vocabulary, they lack they ability to think in moral and ethical terms that rise beyond the ego.

    Do you have any ideas to address our small moral/ethical lexicon?


  11. “…ideas to address our small moral/ethical lexicon…”

    A tough challenge. These things are usually taught, primarily by example, often by default, to children as they grow up. If no one talks about any of these issues in a serious way, the default setting is derived from popular culture, from the observed school and work culture with some vague notion that there is moral seriousness somewhere “out there”, but not part of tangible reality.

    The other thing is that the way to teach these things in an effective and reflective and articulate way to children and young people is in the framework of religion. There is no consensus on religion in America. So, to keep the peace, people try to avoid these types of questions.

    But that is all just further elucidation of the problem.

    The impoverished vocabulary can be fixed by education of children, and the self-education of adults, in relevant books, including literary treatments. Starting by examples, historical or literary, for children and young people, then deriving principles from those narratives. The source of this blog’s name is one such source.

    The depiction and discussion of exemplary personalities is probably the quickest and simplest way to at least start these conversations. Catholic writers talk about the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ, and taught people to look at the life of Christ and the life of the saints as exemplars.

    For people in military service, on a less exalted level, the focus could be on several significant individuals who faced moral and ethical challenges and how they dealt with them, with questions to be reflected on, such as, why do we respect Warrior X for his decision? What does that tell us about what is expected of us? Is this just some sentiment, or is it an insight into the larger truth of our calling, what we really are supposed to do?

    Somewhat more formal discussion of moral virtues could follow, based on the Four Cardinal virtues, and how they are to be lived in a practical way.

    These are just thoughts off the cuff.

  12. glennanderson says:

    “Selfishness, today, I think is on the rise.”

    Quite to the contraire SE, after doing an intense study of the Peloponnesian War I’m convinced we haven’t really changed. There are good people and bad people. We merely hold most people to a certain standard, usually implicitly. The world as a whole is better. Need I show examples?

    If anything we have gotten smarter as a whole but dumber individually. Anybody can learn to read and write, but to combine these two to critically think is something of a challenge.

    “young people in their 20s who consider that the world owes them a living.”

    Kotare, I’ll be the first admit(as a 19 year old) that we are arrogant, lazy, and like to blame others, speaking in general terms, of course. Realize that these twenty year olds aren’t going to deal with the bullsh** or incompetence that you did. Most aren’t going to sit at the bottom and slowly work themselves to the top. Instant gratification, I say. For better of for worse they consider themselves smarter and better than you. As for “owes them a living” just give them a copy of Atlas Shrugged and walk away 😉

    This Marine in the post above most certainly chose the wrong profession for personal ambitions. For anybody can be trained to be a blunt instrument. The difference between you a some self-serving brute is you hold the Constitution, the mission, and your duty to your fellow Marines as the strict moral line.

  13. Schwabbeau says:

    While I agree that professional and moral standards should apply across the board, I will also stand by my original assessment. You can’t take the average person (in this case, Marine officer), put them in pilot training and expect to produce a superior product. Personal ambition to be a pilot must be a sufficient condition to be a superior pilot. I would like to say that this is the case for every superior professional, but I fear I lack the experience to make that logical leap.

    But I think the one thing that has been over looked is one’s ability to have personal ambition and meld it with professional standards and morals. I highly doubt that this young Marine will be backstabbing his classmates to get that superhornet. However, he can meld his personal ambition to be a Marine aviator with his desire to serve home and hearth quite admirably, I have no doubt.

    As to the charge of poor Air Force leadership, I plead no contest. From what I have read it seams feasible that the fighter attitude of “if everyone looks out for themselves then the mission will get the best pilots” would lead us to the current leadership problem. What I mean is that leaders who have always looked out for themselves, while spouting off AF leadership doctrine statements, will be rotten from the inside, and the AF will then rot as well.

    Personally I am a KC-135R Tanker driver. I think the crew management that we practice in our airframe would lend itself to proper leaders, as we overcome attitude conflict and ‘bad days’ daily to complete the mission. No one kicks ass without tanker gas.

  14. smitteneagle says:


    Send me an email: smitteneagle[at]

    Very good point on the melding of personal ambition to professional standards. I cannot claim to be a paragon of virtue, but I personally have, with time, grown into my oaths and obligations.

    As apprentices to the craft of war, less experienced troops can expect become more aware of the weight of their responsibilities with time and leadership.

    I hope the said Marine does the same…he certainly has the potential to. And to go back to Lex’s take on this, he might have just been speaking from his limited ethical vocabulary, or perhaps he was speaking from habit without giving thought to the meaning of what he was saying.

    Lastly, I can only hope that the science of Crew Resource Management makes it out of the ready rooms & cockpits into the rest of the military. I have a feeling that there would be a lot fewer pissing contests within ground commands if they practiced the CRM principles.

    Semper Fidelis.

  15. andrewdb says:

    Late to this, but today’s post by Wretchard, after McCain’s discussions last night seemed on point. W wrote –

    “John McCain’s convention speech had its own “walk through Harvard Yard” moment in the other direction: the instant when he stopped being an attack pilot and became a naval officer.

    They broke me. When they brought me back to my cell, I was hurt and ashamed, and I didn’t know how I could face my fellow prisoners. The good man in the cell next door, my friend, Bob Craner, saved me. Through taps on a wall he told me I had fought as hard as I could. No man can always stand alone. …

    I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even feed myself. They did it for me. I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish independence … and I missed everything about America. But I turned it down.

    You are never too good for those you truly love.

    [end quote]

    I thought there was a very spiritual componant to McCain’s speech last night – about how he discovered (well after becoming a pilot) that one cannot just rely on onself – there really is a “higher power” that one has to draw on. He certainly can speak from experience on that subject.

    Wretchard’s last line in the quote above also reminded me of the line in Pressman’s Gates of Fire about the opposite of fear being love.

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