by M. Caleb Bloom
The first time I heard the phrase, “Row well, and live,” I did not know what it meant. I was a First Lieutenant on a Battalion-level staff after finishing my time as a Platoon Leader. The Battalion was only a few months into a 9-month rotation to Kuwait. Up to that point, I had been generally happy in my career since commissioning. However, that assignment and that particular rotation were breaking me.
I felt forgotten by my leadership. The previous battalion commander told me, “We forgot we had you for so long.” I found no enjoyment as I adjusted the size of cell blocks on the Excel document holding the battalion’s long-range training calendar. The relatively new battalion operations officer noticed the decline in my morale and general demeanor. He decided to offer some advice: “Row well, and live.”
When he noticed my bewildered look, he told me it was a quote from a movie. The quote comes from a scene in the 1959 film “Ben-Hur.” Upon finding the scene on YouTube, I gained an understanding of the context and meaning of the phrase. The titular character finds himself in the galley of a Roman warship as a rower. A Roman guard or officer explains the plight of all the rowers to motivate them. “You are all condemned men,” the Roman says. “We keep you alive to serve the ship. So, row well, and live.”
Since that first encounter with this quote, I have heard it referenced many other times. I now understand it is common to call a maneuver officer’s time on a staff “rowing.” However, I find it peculiar that in an all-volunteer force, we equate any duty position with involuntary and forced labor. In a military that professes itself to be the guardians of freedom, and a country that regards itself “The Land of the Free,” perhaps we should find better ways to motivate our officers as they fulfill the less desirable, yet necessary roles within the military.