Building Readiness through the Stoic Philosophy
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look” -Marcus Aurelius
The era of Great Power Competition requires Soldiers to have the grit, determination, and endurance of our forefathers; combined with the technical expertise of the 21st Century. This is critical in order to engage in the decisive conduct of hybrid warfare from low-intensity to high-intensity conflict. The Army does recognize this need. Field Manual 7-22, “Holistic Health and Fitness” addresses this with its focus on elements of personal readiness.
FM 7-22 defines mental readiness as “the capacity to adapt successfully in the presence of risk and adversity…under extreme duress…the ability to create a sense of total control and confidence” and spiritual readiness as “the ability to endure and overcome times of stress, hardship, and tragedy by making meaning of life experiences.”
To ensure their formations are ready to win in the current operational environment, leaders must incorporate training events to address our Soldiers’ mental and spiritual readiness. They must deliberately increase our Soldiers’ grit, determination, and endurance. An excellent place for leaders to find inspiration for this endeavor is in the Stoic Philosophy.
The Stoic Philosophy comes from Greeks such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Stoicism asks the question, “What do I want out of life?” and answers with, “I want enduring happiness and tranquility of mind, which comes from being a virtuous person.” This philosophy focuses on identifying what is in your control and what is not and using this to develop mental resilience. One of the main ways the Stoics would train in their philosophy was through physical exercise. As Epictetus says, “…neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once; he must undertake hard winter training and prepare himself.” 
Leaders can build mental, spiritual, and physical readiness in the troops they lead through what I call “stoic PT.” Stoic PT is a simple concept: do something difficult longer than you think possible. Or, as David Goggins would say, “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” This can be as simple as having everyone grab a water can (filled!) and carry it for 30 minutes – never placing it on the ground.
Stoic PT is not a smoke session or a chance to beat-down Soldiers. Instead, this is a well-developed training session built with a solid understanding of a formation’s physical capabilities. After tailored planning, the leader takes their formation and pushes the Soldiers to just outside of their comfort zone – helping build the physical, mental, and spiritual readiness of those who participate.
An example Stoic PT session, on or about the end of building phase two might look like this:
Drills and Exercises (Uniform OCPs)
· Event In-Brief
· 10 Rounds of Box Breathing
· 5 minutes of visualization
· 40-60lbs sandbag over undulating terrain for 45 minutes. Soldiers must not put sandbag down during the event
· Recapitulatization drill
· 10 Rounds of Box Breathing
· Recovery Drills – 10 Reps
When planning this session, identify where to conduct the sandbag carry. I recommend undulating terrain, allowing the land itself to make the PT harder or easier for everyone. Next, identify how many sandbags you will need at various weight levels based on each Soldier’s fitness and terrain.
Essential to successful Stoic PT is mental fitness integration. This is completed through a thorough event in-brief. You must provide enough detail of the event that the Soldiers can visualize during the visualization portion of the preparation. The box breathing helps reduce a Soldier’s heart rate before conducting strenuous exercise. Breath, or arousal, control is key to mental readiness. Several variations can help individuals reduce stress and gain control and clarity of a situation through arousal control. This is a crucial skill to develop for combat, but also for everyday use.
Visualization allows your Soldiers to conduct the Stoic PT session and prepare the mantras that will assist them in pushing through the tough times of the session. Recapitalization is a personal After-Action Review, where the Soldiers visualize the session and where they did well, and where they can improve during the next session.
If done correctly, stoic PT can help increase not only the physical, mental, and spiritual readiness of our Soldiers, but it can also increase cohesion – which positively impacts readiness. In a Center for Junior Officers article titled, “16 Ways Effective Leaders Build Cohesive Teams in the Army,” LTC Swain and Dr. Wong detail different ways in which a Leader can build cohesion. Stoic PT accomplishes points 12-15 as outlined by LTC Swain and Dr. Wong:
12. Create opportunities for and highlight success
13. Conduct tough training
14. Foster friendly competition
15. Foster a sense of group identity
My 1SG and I have learned lessons we think may help in the successful implementation of a similar program in your formations
- Make it simple and fun
- Be present as a leader during the session – invite higher to join
- Make it competitive
- Build-in Army knowledge questions to increase mental agility
- Conduct during the end of your sustaining or peak mesocycles as described in FM 7-22
The critical difference between Stoic PT and combat PT is a deliberate, prioritized focus on building mental readiness through physical exercise.
As the Army focuses on People First, leaders at all levels must focus on building their formation’s health and wellness. FM 7-22 provides an excellent template for moving the Army in the right direction towards integrated, holistic readiness. While our senior leaders work to resource and provide guidance on the full implementation of the policies, we can start making an impact now as company-grade leaders.
Download, study and understand the principles outlined in FM 7-22. Ensure your Soldiers are educated and have the tools and knowledge to make the right decisions on their sleep, nutritional, mental, spiritual, and physical readiness. One way to do this is by conducting Stoic PT. If you do, let us know what your experiences are.
The team-centric rewards of Stoic PT are worth the effort, but America and your Soldiers will reap the dividends on the battlefields of Great Power Competition. Our Soldiers will face austere conditions during extended operations. Regardless of who we meet, our Soldiers must be prepared to execute extended, degraded operations in a complex and rapidly changing operational environment. Our enemy is tough and determined. We must strive to be the same.
CPT Chris Slininger is a Company Commander in the 902d Military Intelligence Group and a former Field Artillery Officer with the First Infantry Division.
SFC Benedict Mendoza is a First Sergeant in the 902d Military Intelligence Group.
1. Article Photo: https://www.defense.gov/observe/photo-gallery/igphoto/2001546608/
2. Erickson, P. (2021, June 21). TACTICS IN AN ERA OF GREAT POWER COMPETITION [White paper]. Modern War Institute. Retrieved September 1, 2021, from https://mwi.usma.edu/tactics-in-an-era-of-great-power-competition/ 3. FM 7-22, Holistic Health and Fitness (2020).
3. Erickson, P
4. FM 7-22, Holistic Health and Fitness (2020), p. 3-3 para 3-9 and 3-10; p. 3-5, para 3-21