Fear…and the Warrior

This essay appears in the current issue (Issue 23)  of Naval Special Warfare’s ETHOS magazine. It was inspired by a story a journalist friend of mine shared with me about a panel he moderated with a group of military veterans.  When he brought up the subject of fear in combat, there was a reluctance to talk about it, and he was chastised by one of their wives, who believed that even asking the question dishonored these heroes.
As you’ll read in the essay below, I see it differently.   I use the masculine pronoun only because it avoids the awkward ‘he/she’ and ‘his/her.’  I know many courageous female warriors – in and out of uniform.

We often talk about a warrior’s courage; we admire him for it and we celebrate it. But how does one talk about courage—how does one examine its potential and its limits—without also talking about fear? For what is courage, but doing what needs to be done, in spite of one’s fears? This essay considers the complex relationship between the elite and experienced warrior, and his fear.

Young, bold, and audacious warriors often try to deny their fear as a form of weakness. They often idealize themselves and other bold warriors as knowing no fear. They see fear only as incapacitating, a weakness to be overcome in order to be great. I fell into that trap when I was younger, but I see things differently now.

I’ve come to realize that elite warriors have an intimate relationship with fear. They don’t deny their fear; rather they seek it out as a catalyst to make themselves stronger, wiser, more resilient. They push themselves beyond the edge of their comfort zones in search of that next challenge, the next higher mountain, the next opportunity to see what they’re made of.  Each new challenge invariably involves confronting new anxieties and fears, which they must listen to, get to know and become intimate with, in order to survive, succeed, and perform at their best. Elite warriors are always developing and shaping their relationship with fear.

Elite warriors are wary of the audacious, the bold, the reckless who claim to know no fear, and brazenly attack every obstacle. These bold, usually young warriors need experienced warriors to guide them and help them to survive until they too can become ‘experienced’ and perhaps eventually ‘elite.’ Elite warriors are ready to act when bold and dangerous action is required, but they also know that discretion is often the better part of valor.

SEALs and SWCCs are among those elite warriors whose missions require that they confront, learn to live with, and manage fear, anxiety, and apprehension. To train for and succeed in the most challenging and unforgiving environments, they must make fear work FOR them, rather than hinder their performance.

Fear can be the warrior’s friend. Properly managed and applied, it can inspire focused attention to detailed and thorough preparation before a stressful event. Whether it be public speaking, a night parachute jump, or going into combat, all elite warriors have stories of success and even survival in unforgiving environments, after paying attention to that knot in the stomach that inspired them to take extra precautions, and prepare, prepare, prepare to perform at their best. Experienced warriors see “red flags” when there is no fear or anxiety before what should clearly be a stressful event.

Warriors, and especially elite warriors, have a relationship with fear that those who seek only safety, security, and comfort will never know. The more ‘elite’ the warrior, the more intimate and familiar he is with fear. Experience, self-knowledge and common sense help the elite warrior talk to and listen to his fear, and thereby to perform at his best. And this fear is not merely personal – the warrior is most often part of a team. Within a team, within a military unit, the elite warrior’s greatest fear is letting down his teammates and his team.

Within elite warrior cultures, fear of shame or dishonor has always been stronger than fear of injury or death.

A warrior’s fear often masquerades as performance anxiety. Will I meet the expectations and standards of my team and team mates? Will I be able to do my share or more, if/when the “kaka” hits the fan? Have I done all that I can do to be as ready as I can be, or have I missed something? Might a mistake, a bad decision, or a momentary lapse in focus get one of my buddies killed or injured, or result in mission failure? Will I dishonor myself, and be ashamed in front of my teammates? These are the fears that confront a warrior in his quiet moments, especially at the early stages of his development, while he is still accumulating experience, gaining self-confidence, and getting comfortable with his fear.

This intimate relationship to fear is not unique to elite military units; one finds it in any culture of men and women who individually or in teams work in challenging and unforgiving environments, to include rock climbers, mountaineers, big wave surfers, extreme skiers, competitive athletes, and even the best entrepreneurs and business leaders. Jim Collins, devotes a whole section of his most recent book, Great by Choice, to what he calls “productive paranoia,” explaining how the most successful business leaders are always on edge in anticipation of chaos or bad luck. “Productive paranoia” keeps them focused on keeping themselves and their businesses as alert and ready as they can be.

Elite warriors are not afraid to acknowledge their fear. Their relationship with their fear is like a good marriage – the warrior and his fear are indeed intimate and familiar with each other, and it is a very private relationship. Together they are more than the sum of their parts, and they each make the other better: the elite warrior’s experience, judgment, and wisdom temper and manage his primal fears, while the warrior’s fears focus his mind and energies, and tell him when to be careful, and when to pay very close attention. The warrior’s fear of failure, shame and dishonor, his fear of letting down his teammates helps inform good decisions that appropriately manage risk and achieve outcomes that serve the long term best interest of himself, his team and his nation.

14 thoughts on “Fear…and the Warrior

  1. Dear Bob,

    I identify with the fear of letting others down. It might be part of my inexperience and need of mentoring from more seasoned warriors, but my fears usually stem from disappointing others. It might be because I am too bold, young, dumb, and full of %&^… I don’t know. I am not afraid of hurting myself or enduring personal strife or pain, but I am very afraid of inflicting it upon the people I care about and care about me.


    I also thought about your article in the context of golf… very interesting…. very applicable. I am going to read it again before the next time I play and try to apply the same principles of boldness balanced by discretion.


    • Mike – I think that the fear of letting people down is very healthy, which only needs to be complemented with an even greater fear of letting yourself down. Ultimately that is more important – since other people may have expectations of you that don’t fit who YOU are. If you are religious, letting God down would be/should be the greatest fear. Trying to figure out what God wants -now that’s a challenge!
      And in the end, it all comes down to golf, right? The great teacher – I can find an analogy in golf for almost anything! Bob


  2. I have always been of the opinion that people who “know no fear” aren’t necessarily brave and that those who undertake to do things but are aware of the dangers and fearful of the possible consequences are the real brave ones. Being a devout coward myself, I admire these people beyond words whether they are movers and shakers in the business world, military personnel or whatever – I salute them all!


  3. You raise many good points here, Bob, but one sticks out as particularly salient (or at least timely): fear of failure. FOF may push us to great things, but I think, generally speaking, it’s an unproductive fear. I suspect that FOF is a fundamental cause of many (most?) ethical failures. For example, the recent cheating scandals at Air Force and Navy nuclear weapons facilities resulted from lapses in integrity, yes, but those lapses were prompted by a profound and systematic FOF.

    SecDef has ordered more ethics training, and that’s good. But “do the right thing” power point ethics briefings are insufficient. They miss the point and may even do more harm than good. The services need to ask the basic questions. What caused otherwise decent young people to compromise their honor? Put another way: why did these otherwise decent young people fear failure so badly that they decided to compromise their honor?

    These are the types of questions I tried to address in “Ethics of Failure,” the talk I gave at the USCGA last year (the talk that you helped me with). I suspect FOF is huge at all our service academies and elite universities. These young people have been told all their lives how awesome they are…and when you think about it, that’s a pretty heavy ruck sack to have to carry around. “What if someone finds out that I’m really not as awesome as everyone tells me I am?” There are clear incentives to do whatever it takes to avoid failure. And that’s dangerous.

    FOF is an important and under-theorized ethical topic. I’m glad you raised it.

    Again, Bob, well done…and thanks.


    • Bob, your article is spot on in a lot of ways and I believe it can serve as a jumping off point for many discussions.

      To piggy back off of Robert Herbert’s commentary, I think that the young adult generations of our present culture definitely have some unique hurdles to overcome with the massive saturation of social media and the delusions associated with it; but that’s certainly no excuse for repeatedly making the same ethical mistakes.

      The fear of failure seems to lead some people into action paralysis and others to hasty decisions; but either way, it’s forgotten that failure can be a very useful tool.

      When working with young kids in Team Development activities, our instructors will often incorporate the phrase “Failing Forward”. With every failure you gain an additional step forward towards the solution because you can rule out what doesnt work…which is almost as useful as knowing what does work. Granted the context of school kids in a learning environment is very different from the training of our military elite, the challenge of convincing both parties that failure and fear are learning tools is still very much present.


    • Roger – I think Fear of Failure has both good and dark sides – kind of like loyalty. Fear of Failure is part of what drives most of us to succeed. Frankly, I recall being terrified of the prospect of failure, but not being tempted to lie, cheat, or steal, or seek any unfair advantage in order to Not Fail. If Fear of Failure is greater than Fear of Dishonor or personal sense of shame, then obviously people will do anything to avoid failure in the eyes of their friends or the community. Similarly loyalty is a good thing, unless loyalty to a person or organization or cause supersedes loyalty to honor or principle or a ‘higher value.’
      I know you are also a fan of Aristotle, and I think this is why Aristotle made proper pride one of the central virtues – because “proper” pride would never accept success achieved at the expense of one’s honor. Those who don’t have the sense of pride and honor that can withstand not succeeding after one’s best efforts, and for whom fear of failure is greater than the fear of personal shame, will experience a different kind of hell – the fear of being found out, of having one’s cover blown – as in the cases of Stolen Valor.


  4. One of my favorite quotes that I can’t recall where I first heard it:
    “Life begins on the other side of comfort. Live or wonder.”

    I like it because it seems to succinctly pass the message that if you let FoF excessively inhibit you, you may die with regrets. That to me would be hell.


    • Joe – I’d say that the interesting life, the life with excitement, challenge, failure, success, and the three dimensions of wonder, begins on the other side of comfort. There are many who simply choose to live as comfortably as possible. They miss the point, I think. Thanks.


  5. Bob,

    Inspiring as always. FOF is something we look for when hiring engineers,sales men, accountants you name it. I have seem my fair share of individuals seasoned and rookies blame everyone but themselves for their failures. A natural reaction I suppose but in the end if you cannot admit failure you will never succeed. When you do find that certain individual in the business world that truly wants to succeed and is afraid of failure you hone in on those values and make sure you never put to much in the ruck sack. Let them know they are great at what they do but make sure that they don’t take on more then what they can be successful at. A true balancing act for both parties.

    FOF on the golf course is every-time I see water or sand. I usually concur that fear as I am fishing out my ball from the water hazard or looking for my sand wedge 🙂


    • Frank, as I commented above, FoF canbe a positive motivator, or it can inhibit taking any risk, or it can inspire cheating or other unethical activity out of fear of being perceive a failure, or wanting too badly to win.
      With golf, I love Phil Mickelson’s line: The smart shot is the one you make when you don’t have the courage to go for the great shot. Sometimes that FoF inspires the smart shot! Bob


  6. Bob,

    I loved this piece, and the additional discussion about FOF. On the flip side of FOF (and its concomitant effect on decisionmaking prospectively), I’ve always thought there is too little respect afforded the value of failure. Not to the extent, of course, that anyone would seek out failure. But to recognize that failure delivers lessons that cannot be learned in any other way, and that the absent of exposure to failure cultivates both the fear of failure and the audacity of ignorance.


    • I agree Mark – embracing failure is a whole lot harder than embracing success. But I agree that it is as important to (ultimate) success and success in life as those great and sometimes rare occasions when it all goes our way. Michael Jordan has a great quote about failure: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Obviously, the key is mental resilience – not an easy thing to develop – except by being willing to try, again and again, and believing that success (in one form or another) is out there waiting for us. Or is that a type of faith – because it isn’t there for everyone. Thanks Bob


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