A closer look at the beliefs and habits of Major Richard Winters

Major Richard Winters, U.S. Army Airborne
Major Richard Winters, U.S. Army Airborne

This post came to me from Brian, and it’s from the Art of Manliness blog. I blogged about Winters on D-Day and here is that post.

Let’s find out what made Dick Winters tick.


Growing up, Dick Winters was by temperament and intention a self-described loner. In high school and college, he was content to focus less on his social life and more on his personal development. Sports, work, and especially his studies took priority over “running around.” Simplifying his life in this way allowed him “time to spend with my inner thoughts and ideas stimulated by reading.”

Winters took a similar approach to serving in the Army, eschewing social pursuits in favor of studying military manuals and critically thinking through life and leadership. While training stateside, he “preferred a quiet evening in the barracks to the nightlife” of cities close to camp, and he abstained from joining “in the parties and social gatherings in which most officers participated.”

After their paratrooper training was complete, Easy Company deployed to the quaint English village of Aldbourne for nine months of preparation preceding the invasion of Normandy. On his first Sunday there, Winters attended a church service and then visited a small adjoining cemetery, where he “sat on a bench and took time for personal reflection and simply to enjoy some solitude.” It was there he met Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, who proved crucial in extending such opportunities for private contemplation.

The Barneses, who had already lost a son in the war, took an immediate liking to Dick, and when the Army asked who among the natives of Aldbourne might be willing to billet pairs of its officers, they volunteered their home — as long as Winters was one of the two.

Winters preferred planning to passion and spontaneity, because he believed that preparing in advanced trained him to make better decisions on the fly:

The Barneses adopted Dick as one of their own, and provided him with a quiet refuge in which to hone his martial monasticism. While other officers and troops hung out at the village pub, and enjoyed the social life in neighboring towns, Winters rarely left Aldbourne, choosing instead to pore over tactical manuals and plan for D-Day. In preparing to lead men in combat, he felt his time to be extremely precious and thus devoted as much of it as possible to becoming “totally proficient in tactics and technology” and developing his own “personal perspective on command.”

Major Winters ultimately found that his “intense study paid huge dividends in Normandy.” Not only did he have ready solutions to the challenges he and his men faced in combat, but his hours of quiet reflection proved invaluable in another way.

As the famous saying goes, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” and Major Winters encountered many scenarios to which there was no textbook answer as to how to proceed. In such situations he proved able to deftly improvise. The months of stillness to which Winters had exposed his mind left it keenly responsive to insights and intuitions — giving him what he termed a true “sixth sense” when it came to making decisions.

Winters was careful to not let women interfere with his mission:

Most monks take a lifetime vow of chastity; Dick Winters didn’t extend it that far, but he did put the pursuit of women on hold for a season.

To Winters, romantic relationships were another distracting entanglement that would prevent him from fully developing himself and following the way of the monastic warrior. As is true of many eminent men, in his youth he made going after girls a low priority, and went on “only a handful of dates.”

When Winters went off to war, he and a female acquaintance became pen pals. She developed romantic feelings for the strapping officer, but he steadfastly kept her at arm’s length. In observing the men of Easy Company, he had found that those with romantic attachments were more susceptible to combat fatigue and shell shock.

[…]Bachelors have less to lose and are therefore able to more fearlessly throw themselves into the fight. Thus, desiring to detach himself from anything that would inhibit his focus on the task at hand, Winters was committed to remaining in full-on monk mode for the duration…

Winters writes:

“under fire in combat, whether it’s rifle fire or artillery, the men who seemed to have their eyes glazed over quickest and put their heads down and kept their heads down, were those who were married. Either they were married or in love or had a fiancée back home. They were the first to show fear. Those who hadn’t fallen in love or who weren’t engaged seemed to be able to hold on longer.”

[…]“As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t even kiss a girl’s hand, for as a soldier, I don’t want any more people than necessary to even know me. It’s no good. If a soldier lives, O.K., get out of the army and forget it. If he doesn’t, O.K., there are just that fewer people who feel the toll of the war.”

Isn’t it amazing that in today’s society, it’s just the opposite. The “best” men are the ones who are able to get the largest number of attractive women to have recreational sex with them before marriage. It didn’t used to be that way.

The article talks about how Winters was very serious about physical fitness. He felt that his mental ability and his moral courage was based on being physically fit.

But I want to focus on his moral character:

Winters believed that the cornerstone of character was honesty, and that from there you worked to develop a moral compass that was guided by the virtues of courage, fairness, consistency, selflessness, and respect for your fellow men. He felt that integrity was paramount as well, noting that “it is easier to do the right thing when everyone is looking,” but “more difficult to do what you should do when you are alone.”

To these core values, Winters added his own ascetic precepts, choosing to abstain from canoodling with women, drinking alcohol (he was a lifelong teetotaler), and, as we shall see, swearing.

Winters says that the most important part of being a leader is sharing the burden of risk and danger with his men:

“The intensity of a fire, or a heavy concentration, to be a leader, you have to be able to concentrate on that fire and move just as soon as it stops or the last round hits. Move. Get up. Start circulating among your men. Is everybody okay? Let’s get up. Let’s move. Keep your eye open for an attack. Get their attention. Move among your men as quickly as possible. And moving among them—the fact that they see you and they’re talking to you—they know that you are there and you are talking to them, and it makes all the difference in the world to know that you are not in this thing by yourself. That’s what officers must do—break the cycle of fear. If a soldier is concentrating on his own feelings and on his own fear, and he sees you moving around, he realizes that you’re sharing the burden with him. That’s why he can then move.”

His morality was rationally grounded in a Christian worldview:

For Major Winters, his spirit-maintaining ritual was church attendance. Very few soldiers attended religious services while overseas, even in the anxious days leading up to the invasion of Normandy. But for Winters, going to church “became the bedrock of [his] character” and he only missed 3 services in the 9 months he lived in Aldbourne. As he explained to his pen pal, “The way I feel about it, it is a very special privilege to be able to go at all and I don’t want to miss a chance.”

The article is definitely worth a read. We are surrounded by so many celebrities and athletes with low moral character that it is nice to go back in time and learn what Americans used to be like. You could do much worse than learning from Richard Winters.

Previously, I blogged about Winters’ heroism at Brecourt Manor and Nijmegen, as well as another famous airborne officer, Ronald Speirs, at the Battle of Foy.

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