The 11th Infantry Battalion was the first Army unit many of us were a part of. You won’t find it on the Order of Battle though. It’s not the 11th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), so those of us that have been in the battalion don’t wear the RAR badge. In fact, despite its name, it’s not even a part of the Royal Australian Infantry. Most of the battalion is drawn from across Army, with all corps represented. I would guess that it was the first infantry unit to have female personnel on the roll, and I’d stake money on the fact that it was the first infantry unit to have a female commanding officer. Despite these notable achievements, this unit will never collectively force generate or operational generate, and it will never deploy.

For those with a wry grin as they remember their own time in Army’s officer training system, you probably know what I’m talking about – the Royal Military College uses the 11th Infantry Battalion as the fictional construct to frame training. This gives every junior officer a taste of soldiering – being a part of a section and a platoon, performing the duties of forward scout and platoon sergeant, and seeing the regimental system in action before they graduate and take their place within broader Army. The question needs to be posed now: what effect does this initial training framework have on junior officers? And is it appropriate for an Army in Motion?

The Australian Army has existed for much of its history as a light infantry organisation. Our national history places special emphasis on the high casualty counts from the two world wars; we fought from the front, always in contact with the enemy. Digger stories are about time in the trenches of the Western Front, the tunnels of Tobruk, or the plantations of Vietnam – these are predominantly infantry stories. It’s not often included in the explanation of these stories that Australia provided combat forces for a coalition effort – the logistic and administrative backbone was provided by our allies. This meant that proportionally, Australians were more likely to be involved in combat operations, and as a result, more likely to take casualties. The legacy of Australian soldiering is built on a legacy of combat operations, mostly as infantry.

As training evolved for Army, it made sense to use an infantry battalion as the training framework. For starters, it’s a neat system for organising trainees – they can be divided into sections, platoons, and companies. A rank system gives trainees exposure to leadership, with staff providing the command appointments as they would in a unit. And it teaches the mindset of Australian soldiering. Regardless of corps, specialisation or trade, anyone with the Rising Sun on their shoulder is expected to be a soldier first, specialist second. If we scratch that saying a little, we uncover an assumption that has long lived in our organisation – the base trade of soldiering is infantry, and all other skills are secondary to that. So, what’s the second-order effect of this assumption?

The role of the infantry is “to seek out and close with the enemy, to kill or capture him, to seize and hold ground and to repel attack by day or night, regardless of season, weather or terrain”. In other words, no matter the external pressures, infantry soldiers complete their given mission. This is the mindset we demand that infantry soldiers and officers develop and stick to. And there is a lot to be said for it. A mission must be achieved despite adversity – this is the mindset of an organisation that fights and wins on the battlefield. It is not, however, the mindset of an organisation that necessarily achieves guaranteed success off the battlefield.

Success at any price means every win has a cost. Inculcating a mindset from day one that every task is a mission, and mission failure is not an option, requires soldiers and officers to throw themselves with equal passion at any task that comes their way, even when that task is banal. It is a simple fact that most tasks given to our men and women on a daily basis are not operational tasks. Some are, and they must be executed accordingly. But most are not. And as a result, the external conditions in the life of the person undertaking that task do, in fact, have to be considered when completing a given task.

The 11th Infantry Battalion teaches its members to always prioritise the task. A well-used tool to shape the mindset of young officer is the section attack – a mission that requires hard work and determination to complete. It is utterly unacceptable to decide halfway through an attack that it’s late, the enemy will be there tomorrow, and my spouse will be upset if I am home late again; therefore, I’ll hold off completing this attack until tomorrow. After graduation, however, the urgency and importance of tasks changes. The enemy disappears, replaced with spreadsheets and PowerPoint. But the ‘must finish task at all costs’ mentality persists, and all too often, is reinforced throughout our entire careers.

It is entirely possible that this mindset is a net positive for Army. A culture of self-sacrifice to achieve required outcomes makes us reliable for the nation and sets us apart from other organisations. Arguably though, this mindset is but one way of approaching our work, not the way things must be done. It can be reinforced through PT, through adventurous training, and through realistic training. It need not be reinforced daily through habit or inertia. It’s silly to suggest we will forget to push ourselves when needed; like marksmanship, regular – not constant – practice can keep us current. And when we find ourselves on operations, we don’t need to re-develop the correct frame – it’s already there, pushing us to achieve and to operate at the highest level.

Operational deployments are not the normal daily working environment for the majority of Army. And while we must train the way we fight, many of the tasks we do each day aren’t training for combat, they are mundane routine tasks. We have, in many respects, lost the ability to delineate between training for war and the repetitive tasks that occupy an Army during peace. Not every spreadsheet is a section attack. Not every PowerPoint is an obstacle breach. You can’t pause a company assault to pick up the kids, but you sure can pause an email.

Like drill, using win-or-die scenarios for training teaches us to respond unthinkingly to stimuli. But there’s a good chance it is also teaching us not to think at all, just to respond. To look for the spoon-fed solution and follow an ingrained pattern of behaviour. As leaders, we need to be able to pause, to think, and to rationally decide when to press on through the metaphorical fight, or to take the tactical pause. Leaders need to choose to retain the mission-first mindset so they can consciously apply it, not instinctively obey it.

There’s a good chance we’ve gone too far in inculcating the combat infantry mindset. It’s crept into our daily lives and shaped us to see every aspect of our lives – our social calendar, our civilian sporting teams, and our families – as season, weather, or terrain. Too many performance appraisals pay lip service to work/life balance, and instead laud those who put the task first and foremost and relegate their personal lives to being a distant second. And too many transfers to the reserves are underpinned by a desire to no longer treat our families as external inconveniences impeding our ability to achieve a mission. Especially when there’s no real mission at the time.

The second order effect of training every solder and officer to never stop in the attack, and to accept every task as a no-fail mission, is to train a workforce that struggles to prioritise their lives beyond the job. The 11th Infantry Battalion is a good vehicle for teaching the mechanics of soldiering, and to ensure that a proactive attitude prevails in all situations. But the implied messages are less valuable for people without an enemy to seek out and close with.

As leaders, it is incumbent on us to notice when our subordinates and teammates have lost the ability to prioritise. When they are dedicating themselves too much to work, and too little to life. When they treat every task as a mission and refuse to pause. And it’s just as important to notice this in ourselves, and to seek out the advice of others. We draw boundaries on a map and use them to control the movement of forces in combat. Combat formations don’t blindly cross boundaries, even in contact – the risks outweigh the potential gains. Boundaries require us to make an appreciation of the terrain, and the effect we might have on our flanking units. We would do well to draw boundaries in our lives, know when we’re approaching them, and use them to control our attention on a daily basis.

None of the above should be taken to demean the infantry, the training system, or the mission-first mindset. As stated earlier, this contributes to a force who provides a huge benefit to our nation. Rather, this is an argument that soldiers and officers need to objectively examine their default mental approach to what are, in reality, routine tasks. Based on that examination, we can make the deliberate decision to commit to a task when required, or to rationally step back when it’s more appropriate to preserve capability in order to ensure there is capacity for the next operation – the next no-fail mission.

Burning ourselves out in peacetime because we never learned how to set personal boundaries is a failure of rational thinking. Army needs us to be ready now and future ready; to know when to press the attack, and when to impose an operational tempo that sustains us for the long haul. Most importantly, leaders must look past the temptation to draw the most from every person, every day, and ensure that the team can prioritise. You can’t have multiple ‘priority one’ tasks; after all, if you have more than one main effort, you have no main effort.

The role of the infantry in war is “to seek out and close with the enemy, to kill or capture him, to seize and hold ground and to repel attack by day or night, regardless of season, weather or terrain”. The daily role of a soldier in peace is different to this, even if it is the base trade requirement of soldiering. We prepare for war – we don’t blindly submit ourselves to its requirements. If we toil too hard now, our preparations will see the force arrive for war burnt out by the peace. The role of the army leader is to seek out and close with unnecessary tasks, to delegate and prioritise, to role model the balance of work and play, and to establish boundaries for themselves and others regardless of mindset, bureaucracy, or command. If we can lead this way, we will be better prepared to adopt and enforce our mission-first mentality in combat.