Row Well and Die

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

You’ve seen him before. He’s so common you might not even notice the guy: Always humbly bragging about how full his Inbox is. Always subtly focusing on a Calendar invite. Always meticulously cultivating the next Spreadsheet. The Army supply system has warehouses full of these Office Warrior Foot Soldiers, led by General David Petraeus’s semi-serious remark about his “inalienable right to have PowerPoint slides.” With leadership and ground forces, this less-than-desirable culture has secured a foothold in the Army, one that must be rooted out and rolled back. First up for execution, their slogan: Row Well and Live.

This motto traces its origin to 1959’s 11-Academy Award-winning film, Ben-Hur, in which Charlton Heston depicts a slave. During one famous scene, Heston finds himself on a galley ship, led by a Roman captor that advises Heston and his fellow slaves to “Row well, and live.” This film even has martial origins: the screenplay was adapted from the book written by Major General (Retired) Lew Wallace of the American Civil War’s Union Army. At least the saying has an interesting genesis.

Yet the phrase remains an insult to modern military professionals. Today, if a high percentage of your work is routine, repetitive – then your job is on the way to destruction or non-existence. This trend has been documented and decreed many times over by technologists, economists, social scientists, journalists, and amongst airpower enthusiasts. So every time you simply take a document off the shelf, change the date and use it again, you are hammering a ten penny nail into your own work coffin. Such redundant efforts are as unimpressive as yanking on two oars, and as such will be farmed out to machines in the near future.

To row – to apply a single, stationary, monotonous, repeated solution (pulling and heaving) to the same problem (water travel) regardless of condition – is laughably inappropriate as guidance for contemporary military professionals and practitioners.

Second, military professionals apply expert judgment to novel scenarios. Like bloody snowflakes, every war is unique. Conflicts change over time, as Iraq did from 2003 to 2006; and old conflicts (think: Korea) have new dimensions (nuclear and cyber weapons). And we are living in a period of dynamic transformation, which extends beyond the military. Indeed, this revolution can be seen in all other professions, described by Professors Richard and Daniel Susskind: the ways we produce and deliver expert knowledge to society are in the midst of unprecedented change. To row – to apply a single, stationary, monotonous, repeated solution (pulling and heaving) to the same problem (water travel) regardless of condition – is laughably inappropriate as guidance for contemporary military professionals and practitioners.

The more accurate turn of phrase is Row Well and Die. Show up and apply yesterday’s solution to today’s problem and you’re Darwin’s next customer. If you think rowing is the right metaphor for the modern military professional, then bring a floatation device along with your oars and mistaken ideas, because the next storm you encounter is as certain to overwhelm as the Titanic was to sink.

So tomorrow, when you see that Office Warrior Foot Soldier, help him out, tell him to Row Well and Die.

 

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

5 thoughts on “Row Well and Die”

  1. Very good article Major. This is why I believe that every soldier and officer in the U.S. military should get as many additional skills as possible, and also always look for ways and means to “bring something new to the table.”

    On the website I write for, we offer pre-developed forms and other time saving materials for Officers to make their job easier, but when I read your post, they may be rowing well and dying. But, if they have additional skills, they don’t have to die, they can just grab the lifeboat and move to the next ship.

    So, it can be: know one skill and Row Well and Die, or know several skills, and Row Well and Live.

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  2. As posted on Facebook as well:

    I think you misapply the metaphor. It’s not about merely dusting off previous solutions in an attempt to solve different problems. It’s about being willing to do the dirty, monotonous, inglorious work required to solve problems. Similarly, it’s about being willing to be just one of the many working for the good of the organization. Too often intelligent, well-educated, thoughtful officers feel entitled to be put on special projects or to be appreciated for all their gifts when what the command really needs is someone to work on rather routine, mildly complex problems. It’s important to remember the line accompanying the one that you cited, “We keep you alive to serve the ship.” Strategists (and officers in general) do not exist for their own benefit but rather for the good of the organization.

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  3. Consider Wellington’s watchword of ‘duty’ with this quote:

    “I am nimmukwallah, as we say in the East; that is, I have eaten of the King’s salt, and, therefore, I conceive it to be my duty to serve with unhesitating zeal and cheerfulness, when and wherever the King or his Government may think to employ me.”

    (Wellington, Letter to a friend 1806, Despatches, II, p616 footnote)

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  4. Sir, I think this is spot on. It seems as if here at the academy, all too often we are told to do things because they were done that way in the past, although it doesn’t make much sense now to do so. The army needs to shift and adapt alongside the norms of our own society, and learn from the issues in our current situations to build a more innovative organization. Innovation- Leaders must empower their soldiers to think outside the box and should encourage them to be more analytical in training. The ARMY want’s innovative leaders and I believe that there should be less jurisdiction over the regulations and more oversight on creating a logical open-minded atmosphere that deals with adversities in unique ways.

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