I was once a student at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas. A few weeks in, I heard about a small program within the school. It was called the Art of War, and it was very prestigious. I wanted to be part of it. Indeed, I set my heart on getting in. So, I studied diligently every night.  I polished every paper. I volunteered for every extracurricular program I came across. The program director even personally encouraged me to persevere through the selection process, which I did. Finally, the day came to turn in my application. Walking to the professor’s office, I allowed a smile to cross my face. I had a feeling that my efforts would pay off. I would be an Art of War scholar.

And I was wrong. Two weeks later, I opened my mailbox to that unmistakable cordiality found only in rejection letters. I felt a deep sense of shame, most of all at my unwarranted confidence. While I had intellectually known that every applicant’s chances of admittance were slim, I had arrogantly begun to think of myself as already in. I felt like a fraud—and a failure.

Worst of all, I had to learn to live with it. I thought for a long time about what to do. I was already busy, so I had little time to mope, but even my studies themselves were painful reminders of my insufficiency. I needed a way to get past it.

So, I began to put my thoughts down on paper. I kept a small blog, really only for my friends and family, and posted an update every other week. Then, I wrote a piece on Korea, my duty station for three years. Taking a chance, I submitted it to a journal, and it got published. Encouraged, I wrote about Saudi Arabia—and a publisher printed that one, too. I was jubilant. What had at first been a merely cathartic act had now become a passion. 

It was thrilling to have another person think enough of my work to attach their organisation’s name to it. In a fit of conceit, I read my own articles first whenever they came out. Then, coming to my senses, I read everyone else’s, and I was astounded. How polished and pertinent was their prose, how timely and knowledgeable their research. How humbled I felt when I realised much greater writers than me were being published on both of my flanks, authors who were changing the lives of people every day. And here I was reveling in my two obscure articles.

I began to read their work regularly. The biggest names were the first to catch my eye, of course: the general and flag officers, the senior military officials, the nationally bestselling authors. Then I read some more. In the very same editions were articles from brand new second lieutenants, naval petty officers, and college students. Some days, I could barely tell the difference between the two groups; some days, I could not tell the difference at all.

I began to realise then just the phenomenon I had stumbled upon. People were listening to these authors, really listening. And the audience was not just an esoteric society of military pundits, but people from all walks of life, many in positions of authority.  Secretaries of staff, commanders, and politicians, and here were these writers of every rank in dialogue with them! 

In a profession so hierarchical we wear our rank on our very bodies, the egalitarianism of this seemed almost surreal. Who was I, who were any of us, to presume to have an opinion on anything? Indeed, many of these writers would go on to be be angrily told as much at work (I was). But, the strength of these men and women’s writing spoke for itself. People were reading them not because they had position, but because they had a point.

And, how professional I found their very act of writing itself. The military is already notorious for taking lunches, nights, and weekends, and here these authors were giving up what free time they had…for you and me. For the hope that maybe it would do us some good somewhere. If they were lucky, maybe some task would get done just a little more efficiently. Maybe some young warrior would be a little more likely to come home. Or maybe, just maybe, there would be a war they could help prevent from happening at all.

And that is why we write. Not for ourselves, the least honorable reason to do anything, but because we care about the purpose behind our service. Because we want the world to be a better place. In the ranks, the number of people we can influence is limited by our grade and position. On paper, though, we can touch the world. Writing levels the playing field a little bit, affording everyone with a good idea and the willingness to work hard the opportunity to change a life.

It is why I encourage you to write as often as you are able. Do your absolute best at your job. Be committed to your faith, your family, and your community. And then, when you have a spare moment, put your experiences down on paper. Regardless of rank, position, or whether you ever became an Art of War scholar, what you know is valuable—and it might just change the world.


Why We Write by L. Burton Brender is reprinted from Small Wars Journal per the Creative Commons license granted upon its original publication