Wars Change, Warriors Don’t
Today we launch a new series on the site. It’s called The Warrior Ethos. Here’s a short intro, in case you missed it. The series is intended for our young men and women in uniform, but I hope that other warriors in other walks of life will give it a chance too. Posts will appear every Monday. After this week, Writing Wednesdays will resume.
Let’s plunge right in. Here’s the introduction to The Warrior Ethos and the first two chapters. (The photo above is from Khalidiyah, Iraq, 2008—the men of Company F, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines. Thanks to Lance Corporal Albert F. Hunt.)
THE WARRIOR ETHOS
Part One: Academies of War
“The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy, but where are they.”
Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans
Writing About War
I am a writer. I write about war—external wars and internal wars, wars ancient and modern, real wars out of history and imagined wars that exist only in speculation. Why? I don’t even know myself.
My newest book is called The Profession. It’s set a generation into the future. The Profession posits a world in which combatants, serving for hire, have been cut loose from the traditional rules of war and are no longer bound by the standards of honor that have governed Western armies since Troy and before. This was new territory for me. Questions of right and wrong arose that I had never considered. The subject forced me to do some hard thinking.
Does a fighting man require a flag or a cause to claim a code of honor? Or does a warrior ethos arise spontaneously, called forth by necessity and the needs of the human heart? Is honor encoded into our genes? What does honor consist of—in an age when the concept seems almost abandoned by society at large, at least in the West?
What is the Warrior Ethos? Where did it come from? What form does it take today?
This volume is my attempt to address these questions. The book makes no claim to provide an ultimate, definitive answer. It’s just one man’s thoughts and observations on the subject.
The Warrior Ethos was written for our men and women in uniform, but its utility, I hope, will not be limited to the sphere of literal armed conflict. We all fight wars—in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.
We are all warriors. Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?
CHAPTER 1: TOUGH MOTHERS
Three stories from ancient Sparta:
A messenger returned to Sparta from a battle. The women clustered around. To one, the messenger said, “Mother, I bring sad news: your son was killed facing the enemy.” The mother said, “He is my son.” “Your other son is alive and unhurt,” said the messenger. “He fled from the enemy.” The mother said, “He is not my son.”
A different messenger returned from a battle and was hailed by a Spartan mother: “How fares our country, herald?” The messenger burst into tears. “Mother, I pity you,” he said. “All five of your sons have been killed facing the enemy.” “You fool!” said the woman. “I did not ask of my sons. I asked whether Sparta was victorious!” “Indeed, Mother, our warriors have prevailed.” “Then I am happy,” said the mother, and she turned and walked home.
Two warriors, brothers, were fleeing from the enemy back toward the city. Their mother happened to be on the road and saw them running toward her. She lifted her skirts above her waist. “Where do you two think you’re running? Back here from whence you came?”
The most famous Spartan mother story is also the shortest:
A Spartan mother handed her son his shield as he prepared to march off to battle. She said, “Come back with this or on it.”
That’s a warrior culture. That’s the Warrior Ethos.
A Spartan colonel, a man in his fifties, was accused of accepting bribes in an overseas command. When his mother back home learned of this, she wrote him the following letter: “Either quit your thieving or quit breathing.”
The Warrior Ethos embodies certain virtues—courage, honor, loyalty, integrity, selflessness and others—that most warrior societies believe must be inculcated from birth. In Sparta, every newborn boy was brought before the magistrates to be examined for physical hardiness. If a child was judged unfit, he was taken to a wild gorge on Mount Taygetos, the mountain overlooking the city, and left for the wolves.
We have no reports of a mother weeping or protesting.
CHAPTER 2: WOMEN FIRST
One scene in my book Gates of Fire has elicited more passionate feedback than any other. It’s the one where the Spartan king Leonidas explains what criteria he employed to select the specific 300 warriors that he chose to march off with him and die defending the pass at Thermopylae. The scene is fiction. There’s no evidence that anything like it happened in real life. But something about the moment seems to ring so true that it has produced a torrent of letters and e-mails.
Leonidas picked the men he did, he explains, not for their warrior prowess as individuals or collectively. He could as easily have selected 300 others, or twenty groups of 300 others, and they all would have fought bravely and to the death. That was what Spartans were raised to do. Such an act was the apex, to them, of warrior honor.
But the king didn’t pick his 300 champions for that quality. He picked them instead, he says, for the courage of their women. He chose these specific warriors for the strength of their wives and mothers to bear up under their loss.
Leonidas knew that to defend Thermopylae was certain death. No force could stand against the overwhelming numbers of the Persian invaders. Leonidas also knew that ultimate victory would be brought about (if indeed it could be brought about) in subsequent battles, fought not by this initial band of defenders but by the united armies of the Greek city-states in the coming months and years.
What would inspire these latter warriors? What would steel their will to resist—and prevent them from offering the tokens of surrender that the Persian king Xerxes demanded of them?
Leonidas knew that the 300 Spartans would die. The bigger question was, How would Sparta herself react to their deaths? If Sparta fell apart, all of Greece would collapse with her. But who would the Spartans themselves look to in the decisive hour? They would look to the women—to the wives and mothers of the fallen.
If these women gave way, if they fell to weeping and despair, then all the women of Sparta would give way too. Sparta herself would buckle and, with her, all of Greece.
But the Spartan women didn’t break, and they didn’t give way. The year after Thermopylae, the Greek fleet and army threw back the Persian multitudes at Salamis and Plataea. The West survived then, in no small measure because of her women.
The lioness hunts. The alpha female defends the wolf pack. The Warrior Ethos is not, at bottom, a manifestation only of male aggression or of the masculine will to dominance. Its foundation is society-wide. It rests on the will and resolve of mothers and wives and daughters—and, in no few instances, of female warriors as well—to defend their children, their home soil and the values of their culture.
[To be continued next Monday.]
The warrior ethos is a recipe for severe mental illness.
This project seems to me an empty attempt to valorize and mythologize violence in ways that are largely irrelevant to the experience of modern soldiers.
Applying tropes of narrative and fantasy to all areas of life takes us away from reality and prolongs the destructive addiction to murder and destruction that is central in North American culture (as well as many others).
The focus on sending the warrior “within” to obsess over his own state and code of ethics allows a dissociation from external reality where murder etc of becomes to rationalise, freeing the warrior-hero from concerns about who/what they are fighting for and why.
“The warrior ethos is a recipe for severe mental illness.
This project seems to me an empty attempt to valorize and mythologize violence in ways that are largely irrelevant to the experience of modern soldiers.”
Spoken like someone who has basement Manichean view of the world.
You do a great disservice to the concept of the warrior-ethos by only physically defining the concept. There are many in the world who intrinsically embody the notion and employ it daily withoutever having served in a combat roll or ever seeing war.
Defending the weak does not always have to be done with the business end of a gun. Social workers, first responders, teachers, and anyone else who, by choice, stands up to defend the bereft agains percieved injustices emulate this mode of thinking.
I suggest you revisit the world around you with more of an open mind. You might find that people who surround you possess this wonderful trait and they aren’t in the military.
I don’t see how a war metaphor is useful outside of war. How specifically is a warrior ethos specifically helpful to ‘social workers, first responders, teachers’?
Look at how well “The War on Drugs” / “The War on Terror” went.
Surely any competent warrior must have a clear view of who is “us” and who is “them” in order to be able identify and kill enemies. Is that not what a warrior does? Or I am not meant to take SP’s words at face value? And If warrior values can be utilised without violence, why bother including the warrior metaphor at all?
I am a huge fan of the 3 SP novels I have read, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence he has had to set his war books in the past or future — a present-day setting would expose how nutty and destructive warrior-codes tend to be.
For example, this sounds kinda cool:
But imagine a mother saying something similar now to her son as he headed off to Afghanistan as a marine. She’d be locked up and he’d go on Oprah and be in therapy for years.
Why ignore the negative aspects of this inculcation ? Why are so many Vets from the US, Russian and Israeli armies so dysfunctional and traumatised upon discharge? Having lived in Belfast, my view is that warrior-cultures create a self-destructive spiral that is v. difficult to get off of.
The direction of global society shows that, given a choice, fewer and fewer of us want anything to do with warrior cultures.
“Why are so many Vets from the US, Russian and Israeli armies so dysfunctional and traumatised upon discharge?”
Perhaps it’s because they’ve exposed themselves to the hell of war before adequately addressing the ethos of why they were there. If this column spurs ONE of those warriors to properly answer that question for themselves, then they will spare themselves that dysfunction.
Recall the pentagon studied DTSD during World WAr II and concluded that soldiers should bnot be in combat for more than 90 days or they would suffer psycologically. Still the tour of duty remain at one year.
mentally preparing oneself for the horrors of war is part of being a warrior in the military. i have the greatest respect for those who choose to defend our country and those who can not defend themselves. i hold them in highest reguard. here is a quote for you to think about “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” Edmund Burke. take the second world war for example. If none of the nations did anything to stop hitler he would have succeed in his quest to dominate the world. the men of the second world war, some to most of them i think had singed up voluntarily. in my books every single individual who fought and died in this war and the ones who lived had immense courage amoungst other great qualitites that allowed them to endure what they need to to defeat hitler. The German army was better equiped, battle hardened and yet the warriors of the second world war (From U.S., Canada and Britain that i know of) managed to defeat them, i can only dream of having that much courage!the Warrior code is more than just physical toughness but also of mental toughness. i have not had to endure the horrors of war. to see your friends die beside you, to have to see the bodies all over the battlefield, the emotional suffering because of that, but i do know one thing they have my undying respect and gratitude for what they do. the warrior creed is one of certain values that are upheld.
police have guns
As I write this, there are 16 Comments to today’s post. I’m delighted and gratified that the subject has elicited such passionate, lengthy and thoughtful responses. But I want to get back to you specifically, JT’s Mum, because your point is really serious and well-taken.
If I hear what you’re saying correctly, you fear that a “warrior within” mentality will and does lead to actual warriors becoming capable of acting out destructively to any and all perceived enemies–and gives them an internal moral justification for violence, thus perpetuating war. I’m probably not being articulate enough, but I think that’s the gist of it. And there’s something to what you say, no doubt.
There’s a “Warrior Ethos” chapter coming up in a few weeks called “Purity of the Weapon.” Here are a couple of paragraphs from it:
I think you may be underestimating the real-world warrior’s capacity for self-restraint. This is a huge part of the warrior ethos. By any chance, have you read Nate Fick’s terrific memoir, One Bullet Away (or Generation Kill or the HBO series of that title? All three followed a battalion of Recon Marines in the initial assault into Iraq. What struck me most reading and watching these was the incredible care taken by these Marines NOT to inflict casualties and always to be sensitive to the fact that their mission was to affect “regime change,” not conquer a sovereign country. Their commanding general, James N. Mattis, had given the 1st Marine Division an identity to guide their actions: “No better friend, no worse enemy.” A case could be made that these Marines were too sensitive and bent over too far backward.
Have you read Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor or Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero? Both tell stories of elite units inserted behind enemy lines, whose missions became compromised when they were discovered by innocent civilians–shepherds and goat herders who stumbled upon their hideouts. Both units found themselves in excruciating ethical dilemmas. Should they silence these innocents, meaning capture or kill them–or let them go, at the risk of jeopardizing their own men? In both cases, the commandos let the shepherds go. The shepherds promptly alerted nearby military units to the proximity of allied forces. Men died because of this restraint. Others were captured and tortured. This sort of thing happens all the time.
The point I’m getting at (above and beyond the metaphor of “warrior” as opposed to the literal interpretation of “warrior”) is that today’s Western soldiers and special operations men are excruciatingly aware of the moral and ethical limits on their actions and take these with deadly seriousness. Self-restraint and “purity of the weapon” is not an empty catchphrase, but really is at the heart of the warrior ethos.
Thanks for your post. Please keep reading. We’re only up to chapter two.
The problem here seems to be the same I find in forums that talk about religion. The atheists point out the horrible abuses of religion, the religious point to the great good done by same. Both sides are correct. For every instance of professional restraint you can point to, we can point to the opposite. Embrace the paradox, and make your best judgment on a case by case basis. Violence is not always the answer, but it is sometimes. As a subject of literature it gives the writer a heightened sense of risk, conflict and meaning which are good things.
There is a phrase I came across relating to the religious beliefs of the Japanese. Ambiguity tolerance is what allows them to believe in two, or more, sometimes mutually exclusive things at once. That’s what we need here, some ambiguity tolerance.
Dear Mr. Pressfield,
I have read many of your books and find them to answer many questions I have in my own mind when dealing with the different questions on combat and killing. I am currently in the Kunar province in afghanistan at the mouth of the Korengol valley. The fighting here is intense and unlike anything I experienced in both tours I served in Iraq. MY main comment or question, however you would view it, is that I still have a feeling of emptiness in regards to feeling as a true warrior should. I mean this in no braggart form, but throughout this tour we have endured the hardest fighting known throughout the world. I had always wondered if I were able to lead my squad through these hard times and have succesfully by the grace of God. But as I have said before I still feel that something is not right with me. As if there is still something I have not done to solidify my status to myself as a true warrior. The warrior ethos defined by the military, to me, is very transperant and does not apply to the “True” warriors on the front line. It feels as if it were dictated to us from higher by those whoe have never endured the rigors of combat. When I read gates of fire on my previous tour it motivated me simply by how you accuratly put into perspective with words the feelings deep down we feel and do not speak. I hope you may shed some light on my question. My question is two part. 1. What is it that im seeking out here to make me “feel” as a true warrior should? 2. Does the attitude of a soldier who views fighting as something fun or something to test him self against his enemies selfish of him if he has a family depending on him back home? I pray you can help me with these questions that plague me constantly.
SSG Soldier in Afghanistan
Perhaps you feel empty because you haven’t a true cause to fight for. I did 13 years in the navy when it dawned on me that I was nothing more than a “Pinkerton”. I got out soon after that little epiphany. Before that point I was red, white, and blue. Perhaps you need to find meaning outside the corps.
Sadly, I disagree, in some small part. What you’re describing isn’t the warrior ethos. It isn’t even the soldier’s ethos. It’s an artificial and self-destructive construct of western liberal _sentiment_, fed by unwillingness to see the world as it is, neatly tied up in colorful ribbons of decrepit, self-centered, usually hypocritical, and frankly unintelligent intellectualism. (No, that doesn’t mean I’m calling you unintelligent.)
The warrior’s ethos can be summed up in the single word: “Win.” If restraint helps you win, fine. If it causes you to lose, or to pay a higher price than neccesary to win, that is nothing of the warrior, and everything of the pacifist and/or humanitarian intellectual, to whom the warrior is nothing. (Which sentiment is, of course, cordially returned.) Honor matters because it helps you win. Courage is indispensible…to win. Loyalty, selflessness, all of that helps you win. Following the law of war, among western foes who generally adhere to it, reduces the price of winning. Following its niceties with those to whom it is meaningless, however, is simply stupid or, rather, criminally stupid, as it is criminally stupid for our society not to have realized this and reprised . written our ROE accordingly.
You are absolutely right about something; it depends on the women. It’s their collective decision; they can either raise their sons to be warriors or they can become the slaves of women who do.
Interesting point of view.
My view is about the warrior ethos has to do more with honor and bravery for the men you fight beside. That is what warrior ethos is about.
As to your example about the Israeli military. The primary, and only real ethos is to win. If the Israeli military committed a holocaust they would lose our support and they would lose their war.
If we supported the Palestinians instead of the Israelis, it would be the Palestinians showing restraint and it would be the Israelis using car bombs (as it was before with the Brits).
Because the goal is to win.
You go to war if the cost of winning is less than the cost of not fighting.
We are magnanimous in our fighting now. And we take much care to not harm civilians. If we were in danger of losing, of losing our freedoms, of losing what is ours, we wouldn’t care so much about civilian casualties, as we didn’t care in WW2.
The warrior ethos is a recipe for severe mental illness.
This project seems to me an empty attempt to valorize and mythologize violence in ways that are largely irrelevant to the experience of modern soldiers.
Applying tropes of narrative and fantasy to all areas of life takes us away from reality and prolongs the destructive addiction to murder and destruction that is central in North American culture (as well as many others).
The focus on sending the warrior “within” to obsess over his own state and code of ethics allows a dissociation from external reality where murder etc of becomes to rationalise, freeing the warrior-hero from concerns about who/what they are fighting for and why.
Words could not express my profound pity and disgust at the, arrogance, ignorance and condescension of the person who wrote the above missive. The ivory tower you live in is so far in the clouds!!
I don’t think chapter 2 follows from chapter 1, although it might be nice to think so in our modern, equality-focused, ‘caring’ societies.
If “we have no reports of a mother weeping or protesting” and by all accounts Spartan mothers preferred dead warrior sons to live cowards, it wouldn’t have mattered which Spartan warriors were chosen: all of the mothers would have reacted in the same way.
If you’d have said in chapter 1 that 50% of Spartan women were steely-eyed warrior mums and the other 50% were delicate, teary-eyed maidens who took fright at the sight of a worm, then I might believe he chose the 300 borne of warrior women.
Mr. Pressfield, nice to see you coming back to these themes. I’ve been keeping track since the “Tribes” series wound up, just haven’t had anything to say.
I think John Terry’s Mum brings up some good points, but it’s only one half of a very complicated discussion, which is only one small part of a much larger concern in America today. PTSD, American society’s relationship with its military, morality in war and the individual warrior’s burden are all issues we’ve struggled with throughout the last decade, and though progress has been made we’re not really any closer to definitive answers.
With that said, I’ll try to restrict my remarks only to what you’ve written on here, specifically the importance of the relationship between society and the warrior. To begin with, I think it’s interesting just how controversial the term “warrior” itself can be. Tom Ricks has featured guest writings from several people on his blog “The Best Defense” which attack and defend the concept with equal fervor. Some military members see it as a profound overarching ideal that unifies the different branches under the concept of a universal code. Detractors see it as a hackneyed catch phrase that arose as a consequence of the “Wounded Warrior” units meant to help injured combat vets rejoin society. They claim that if there is such a grand unifying honor code for these warriors, no one has specifically enumerated its points the way the American army has the Soldier’s Creed or the the Samurai of Japan wrote in the Bushido Shohinshu.
I believe you’ll find that the presentation of these arguments in the Spartan paradigm will exacerbate the challenges in real discourse on these topics. The Spartan model is popular within the modern American ranks, but it is often highly romanticized and poorly understood. What was a very matter-of-fact and methodically indoctrinated stoicism is today thought of as the melodramatic (and, it should be noted, sometimes misogynistic) bravado of Hollywood’s “300.” Neither the typical soldier nor the citizen differ in this view– it’s just that one hails it as an ideal while the other scorns it as vice.
I don’t think that should particularly surprise anyone when you consider that each one occupies an entirely different environment. One lives in a world of deprivation, violence and death. The other dwells in a place full of drive-through windows and cable-on-demand. This is the foundation of the argument that a “warrior culture,” and thus its ethos, exists. Some military members simply state that it’s a de facto consequence of an Army spent so long away from America at war. Others go so far as to argue that, beyond the constant training and deployments, society has gradually placed the military at arm’s length. The military went to go slay dragons, and returned home as dragon slayers. Society has learned that it fears the slayer almost as much as the dragon.
However, if there is one salient point we should take away from the anecdotes of Spartan mothers, it is this– there was no distinction between the warrior and the citizen in Spartan society. Indeed, had the enemy come to the city’s gates, the women would have willingly taken up arms, and most likely acquitted themselves admirably. But no one in Sparta would have dared thought of themselves as less obligated to defending their society than a soldier, and no soldier would have thought of themselves as the better of a citizen by virtue of their profession. I don’t believe, even in Gates of Fire, that your Spartans ever refer to themselves as “warriors.” For the most part, they consider themselves Spartans. It is enough to be a Spartan.
Antiquity isn’t so antiquated on this matter, either. Whether in the strict social codes of feudal Japan, the sieges of Medieval Europe, or the civilian targets of modern terrorism, women and civilians at large remain accountable for the conduct and defense of their civilization, and are held to account by their enemies. I believe women’s involvement in the war effort in WWII, especially in Great Britain, demonstrates that victory necessiates that “all give some.” This is an element that’s missing in our modern society at war– less than one percent of the population is conducting the combat operations, while the vast majority of the country is afforded the luxury of going about their daily lives without any requirement of acknowledging or hearing about the war. In this regard, there is an existential disconnect between society and the military that the Spartans didn’t have. Whatever arguments you develop for and against these ideas, I look forward to seeing the reactions of others and a thoughtful debate on the very proposition of a “warrior culture and ethos.”
Steve – Of course anyone who’s actually read all of your work understands exactly where you’re coming from. Interesting so far. I look forward to reading on.
This is a response to Jim Gourley’s comment above.
Jim, the reason that there is such a huge disconnect between the larger part of American society and its military in the current ‘war on terror’ is pretty clear. Most Americans did not/do not want this war. It’s as simple as that. How can people support something they do not want in the first place? The small percentage of people who support the war are misrepresented in the US media as being a larger element of American society than they actually are… All you need to do is look back at World War II to see the difference in the overall support for the war cause by the American populace.
In ancient societies, war was serious business and everyone understood that the very existence of their nation/tribe/city was at stake in any given conflict, so the stakes were higher and everyone knew it. Thus, even when wars were not desired by a given populace, there was still a strong sense of solidarity in the face of the enemy. Today, the USA is not facing an existential threat from “terrorists” or the Taliban, and everyone (or most people) know it, so the support for this war effort is largely an optional matter. Not surprising then that most people opt out…
After reading your comments to Jim’s post, I feel sorry for you and other like you who think that there is no “existential threat” to their comfortable lives. I wish for a moment that you could spend a day in my boots and “interact” with some of the “existential threats” that are present in our world today.
Fortunately for you and I, the fighting IS occuring away from our homes and families, communities, country clubs, and McDonald’s drive-thru windows. Unfortunately for me and others like me, we spend many long days and nights, weeks, months, and years ensuring that you never have to seriously worry about whether the car sitting next to yours in rush hour traffic is full of high explosives ready to detonate.
There are people around the world who live with that reality ever single day, and the reason it is them and not us who worry is because warriors from around the free world have have come to their country to fight to the extremists, the suicide bombers, the radical clerics, and the people whose intolerance of what you and I consider to be inalienable rights and freedoms drives them to commit some of the most horrible and deranged things that you can imagine.
If only I could show you and everyone else (or most people who “know” that there is no threat) my reality. Not the evil Taliban, but the real threat, you might have a little more appreciation for the decisions (whether flawed or not) to send warriors into harm’s way. Someday, when everything you doubt comes to light I hope that you will find a new appreciation for one of my favorite quotes by George Orwell.
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” (Although, I have been told that the actual quote is this: “Those who “abjure” violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.”)
Either way, you are welcome…
– One who appreciates your support
One of those soldiers,
One of those soldiers,
As a Marine vet, I must respectfully disagree. Most of the suicide bombers I encountered and learned anything about were hostages (or their families were).
Moreover, many videos are created as proof of attack to collect payment– that is, attacks conducted by poor impoverished people trying to feed their families.
If you have been there– and I believe you have– then you know that rarely do their best equal our average, except for foreign mercenaries like Chechneyans or those devout “holy warriors” fresh from other wars.
When it came down to it, them or me, it was them;after all, I am writing you this message. But the only comfort I had was that they too had volunteered in some way or another, just as I had. War was our duty; we both accepted the consequences.
But I refuse to hate them, or to let the fear I felt there be sublimated into politics. That I fought people in a faraway foreign country, and that those people tried seriously to kill me, does not mean they are an existential threat to America.
There are truly bad people in this war; people who deserve their two in the chest and one in the head, in my opinion. Like those who held a female suicide bomber’s children hostage to force her hand– and then killed them anyway. (According to the former FBI guy who investigated it on scene.) But not all of the combatants are those people.
Terrorism will never die. Technology means that one twisted person, or a small group of them, can change the face and psychology of a nation. We can invade anywhere, parley away our constitutional liberties, and we still would not be safe.
Rather than America being grateful to us for our protection, I would rather they be strong . I would rather they accept that the price of liberty is blood– theirs, ours, all Americans. The only way the terrorists actually win is to terrify us out of our own freedom. They cannot kill us all.
I hope you have made it back safely, brother.
Just a Jarhead
If you can prove to me that any “terrorist” in the world wouldnt give their own life, (as many did on 9-11) to strike America another significant blow, at any single point in time I will agree with your jabber. So, while you conjure that up, I will stay vigilant and forward looking. That is not to say I cement my doors and bunker down, that is to say I take the fight to the enemy which I am given information about by honest people who have the same goal, the protection of red white and blue soil. We have a pampered and protected society. (Afghanistan is home to a real live warrior society) those people work for food every day, work for heat every day, and know what it means to fight to survive. This concept is so distant to our people because we are so well protected and able to go on with our business as per-expected. I have not gone native, I just understand and respect the day to day lives of the natives of that country. God forbid we let our guard down and show vulnerability and allow an enemy on our soil again to do worse damage. Would your family survive without power and running water and a grocery store?
There’s another story about the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, one of the boys lay dying after being shot, and his mother scornfully tells him to quit crying and die like a man, like his brother. Is this as commendable?
This warrior ethos is complex and grey, too often it takes a saint to pull off the tightrope walk it requires. How many revolutions have risen against tyranny to become just as tyrannical as the people they replaced?
The warrior virtues can be useful, but can also be misused as easily. I prefer to think of it as survivor ethos. A survivor endures, even thrives, in circumstances that would kill others. Yet there is no innate violence in the word survivor as there is in the word and historical reality of the warrior.
See Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival.
I would also say that the primitive hunter gatherers were not warriors, they were egalitarian hunters, and the ethos is very different from that found in a hierarchical society in which the individual is used by the state to further ends not necessarily his or her own. Which is why propaganda exists,to convince people, through lies, that they are the same.
Actually, these “Hunters and Gatherers” were ONLY “Egalitarian” in the Tribal sense, there were not the same toward other tribes or Outsiders. Inter Tribal egalitarianism is the norm in Human phsycology, as is being hard wired to be Tribal. Tribes, though wihout a “Government”, still had a natural Hierarchy, as well as an elder group who made descisions, most of which didnt include women in this process. People who think the ultimate human society is without hierarchy and are egalitarian to everyone are only fooling themselves with their modern brainwashed perspective.
A lot of this has already been discussed on several other forums. I’ll go over the items in brief and leave readers to find their own sources. To begin with, and only worth the slight mention, is that your perception of American solidarity in the wake of December 7th, 1941 is a bit romanticized. Political opinion on the war was quite divided throughout.
To say that “most Americans” don’t support the war today is to forget the context of the decade. Support for the Afghan invasion was nearly unanimous. Things only turned when we invaded Iraq. Politics aside, the truly necessary question to ask is “how can a country get into a war to which its populace objects, and what is it that causes a population to turn ‘against’ any war it initially wills?”
The argument that several observers make is that these incidents occur when the citizens don’t have any “skin in the game.” This is our current situation. To a large extent, the war in Afghanistan was an immaterial issue to Americans even in the beginning. There no threat that the draft would be reinstituted. Our “all volunteer force” of “professional warriors” would take care of it, or, in less appetizing terms, bear all the consequences. So while many in our country moan about how the war goes on despite the change in public opinion, many a soldier scratches his or her head and wonders how the country could be so fickle as to change its mind like this.
I think your final remark that “most people opt out” is a great characterization of American public opinion– “I don’t have to go fight if I don’t want to, and I perceive the personal risk of not taking part either in the military action or the national political dialogue as minimal, so I will opt out.” While the Spartan saw no difference between the soldier and the citizen in terms of fulfilling vital obligations to the community, the American sees no difference in terms of how little personal gain there is in either. I generalize here, but the two societies were of undoubtedly distinct mindsets.
Again, this discussion takes place fully outside the political spectrum. Our volunteer-force model and the Spartan “every citizen a soldier” model are each bred of cultural paradigms. The Spartan was willing to die in battle or sacrifice her son to the state. The modern American feels less connection to their local community, state or country, and consequently doesn’t feel the same obligation to give service to them of any kind. George Washington himself told his troops to remember that “when we assumed the soldier, we did not give up the citizen.” Perhaps what should have been more clearly defined, and what Mr. Pressfield touches on here, is the meaning and importance of that citizenship.
I like how you brought in the concept of being a citizen. I am a National Guard Soldier, a Citizen Soldier, tracing my heritage back to the Colonial Militia, also citizen-soldiers. I have seen how we have now brought this “Warrior” term into our rhetoric, and have started to abandon the “Soldier” in our literature. A Soldier is speical. A Soldier is trained and disciplined, living and dieing for the ideals of the country, the corps, the team. And while a Soldier is a warrior, a warrior is not necessarily a Soldier. Any being willing to withstand the hardship of confrontation can be considered to be a warrior.
Steven’s overall premise is simple and completely applicable (and greatly appreciated). If you’re reading his posts literally and as a fundamentalist, you’re really going to miss the point. There isn’t a person alive who can’t identify with the larger concept of war (whether they be personal battles or literal warfare). Taking the truths of past warriors and the real or imagined creeds and applying them in a modern context is a worthwhile pursuit for all walks of like.
Looking forward to next Monday’s post!
But if you don’t take into account the warts, you risk going down the same paths. I take your larger point though, that in our secular, material society it is hard to approach anything, religion, art, literature as metaphor, as poetry, and not take it at it’s surface meaning. Given that difficulty that people have, you don’t want to send people off to emulate the Spartans leaving their ‘imperfect’ infants out to die. As a metaphor for an interior state, useful. As an actual historical practice, not so much. (that’s irony, what it is, is evil, right?)
Yeah, I hear that Ken.
One of the very books I’ve ever read was Gates of Fire. I hoped it would never end. Great work. That said, I can tell that not too many people posting comments have ever served nor have been to war. I’ve done both. The US Military has been all volunteer since 1973. Milton Friedman believed a person would be better soldier if they chose to be so. I believe he was correct in his thinking. The low number combat death over the war on terror and even the 1st Gulf war backs up this statement. Another thing people maybe missing is the military does choose who to defend or when to be part of a war. That is done by civilians, the elected ones that You choose. the military executes Their (Yours) policy. If people are disconnected from that, then they disconnected from many other things as well. Sparta was special because everyone was trained to think and believe the same way. Every one was a warrior because that was needed to survive. Remember that if America becomes like Egypt.
I’ve almost finished a novel based in ancient Sparta where the main character is a young Spartan woman, so this post seems particularly relevant to me, and I’ve thought about these issues quite a bit over the time I’ve been working on this story.
I heartily agree with, and actually demonstrate several times in my story, the importance of a strong woman behind the warrior. No question in my mind that for many warriors, that woman provides a true comfort on the battlefield, something he can look forward to, a safe haven in his mind, an escape in his dreams, something that bodily illustrates what he is protecting and so can justify the pain he experiences for a greater good, someone whose support and encouragement allows the soldier to be the best he can be. And of course that woman can provide much healing when he returns home.
What I find much harder to do, is fully and without reservation, accept those stories of Spartan mothers as simplistically as they have been represented to us in modern times – both for their warrior sons (and presumably husbands) as well as for the euthanasia of their infants. As a wife and mother myself, I find those stories of Spartan mothers a horrible romantic notion, true as it may have been in some instances. And though it might have been held up as the ideal in the society of Lycurgus, I also find it hard to believe that every woman felt that way. Or course, Plutarch romanticized Sparta. Would he really want to illustrate different stories? And would these women truly feel that way in their hearts? Or would they just show that outwardly? And would the pride that they feel and show outwardly also be competing with the deepest of sorrow? It’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t. Yet in a society where there was NO OTHER CHOICE for the men but to be brave soldiers, of course there is a strong societal pressure for these women to show support and to revel in the only thing they could revel in – their men doing what they had to do to the best of their ability, the glory of battlefield victory and demonstration of courage. And of course in a society where there was NO OTHER CHOICE for their men, the best way the women could help their men was to stand tall with them and push them to strive for courage and victory.
The bottom line for me is that there is a HUGE difference between the brave face the women of warriors may wear, and the complexity of feelings roiling inside their hearts. It’s what we do in spite of those feelings that is meaningful.
You are so very right! And in more ways than one. In fact all these anonymous sayings attributed to Spartan women are probably NOT authentic, but rather propaganda inventions of Sparta’s enemies designed to make Spartan women seem alien and unnatural – and incidentally make Spartan men appear cowardly! (Note there ia almost always a cowardly son that Spartan mothers are rejecting in these stories!)
Spartans buried their dead on the field of honor – they did not bring the bodies home. Hence the most famous of all sayings attributed to Spartan mothers: “with your shield, or upon it” cannot be Spartan in origin!
I have posted to this site a longer comment on the propaganda nature of these alleged sayings, but since you are writing a novel you might be even more interested in my website http://elysiumgates.com/~helena (google under: “Sparta Reconsidered”) which provides a number of essays on Spartan women, marriage and sexuality along with a list of sources. As the author of four published novels set in ancient Sparta, I’d welcome hearing from you and exchanging ideas.
From a certain point of view, we are all warriors for something and martyrs for something.
For some, that may just be the sofa and the football game and the nachos, for others it may be a philosophy or an ideal or a nation or something else outside our own day-to-day concerns. We all choose what we devote our attention to, and since attention is life itself, we choose the target of our warrior-nature and the focus of our martyrdom.
all of us are warriors. we either embrace that fact or shy from it. but, those who shy depend on we who chose to embrace. and it is we who embrace who truly feel the bliss of peace.
This looks to becoming a very interesting discussion and I look forward to following the rest of it.
I’ll just toss out one fannish note early on. I still love Gates of Fire after over a decade and now three read throughs. I also love the scene regarding the women of Sparta, though my actual favourite lines are the metaphorical ones describing the final fall of arrows on the last defenders. Worthy of haiku, or at least that was the imagery I took from it. My actual favourite scenes would have to be the Persian officers turning Xeones’ body over to the street toughs in Athens, or even more the description of the Spartan delegation’s visit to the site and erection of the ancient monument years after the battle. The line “her face was obscured by a veil” just wraps up Xeones’ life story so perfectly. It is one of the most elementally human and sad moments in modern writing.
On the major themes of this series, I have had a few thoughts which I have seen touched on here but not quite elaborated.
One is the whole idea of the “warrior” ethos. I have not served in uniform nor been in combat, and I am just as happy with that on most levels. I am with John Keegan, who began The Face of Battle by elaborating that not only had he never been in battle, he had never seen nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath of one. I feel it is worth making that confession however much I might claim to practice some tiny part of this ethos in regular life. My knowledge of war is all historical, social scientific and otherwise academic.
I have a notion I understand the use of “warrior ethos” in a context like this. It captures some essence of an idea that might be lost without the word warrior. But the emphasis on “warrior” in modern American military speak does concern me. I grew up with the idea that there is a critical distinction or set of distinctions between a warrior and a soldier. There must be some academic root to it, but I was probably also drawing it from the writings of Jerry Pournelle. It has stuck with me.
The two concepts have much in common, some for ill but much for good. I would venture to say that most that is good about a “warrior” is also true of a “soldier”. Perhaps the term warrior does capture some deeper spiritual element that is worth preserving, that is not as embedded in the more workmanlike ideal of the soldier. Perhaps it is worth capturing and integrating. There is a strong case that the Samurai, the Knight, or the Spartan were more purely warriors than soldiers.
I might even suggest that from a certain point of view the warrior is the higher concept, his great positive feature the profound idealistic code that can come with being a warrior, compared with the workaday virtues of soldiering.
Each also has a dark side. The warrior’s code, in some of its forms, can devalue anyone who is not a warrior, any other mode of living or thinking, or can consider violence and death spiritual acts of such purity as to exclude all others. Or it can just lead to the plunder and murder of all who are not themselves valuable warriors. This is contrast between the noble Samurai or Christian Knight and the robber samurai/knight who preys on the poor.
I apologize that I am not going to make this as coherent as I would like, but to stick to a major point….
I am concerned that in any modern emphasis on the warrior, we lose the virtues of the soldier. The way I have internalized it, the warrior is everything from the superbly perfected samurai or knight to the barbarian chieftain. He may have an exquisite religious and philosophical grounding or a rude tribal code, but militarily he is not thinking of himself first and foremost as part of a military instrument for collective victory, and socially he is not thinking of himself as a citizen.
So when the US military started pumping up the references to warriors rather than soldiers, I understood something of the positives they wanted to achieve but wondered if some key ideas were being lost. I still wonder. Nor is this just a delayed consequence of the AVF. It is not necessary, entirely, for a volunteer professional force to become warriors and cease to be soldiers and citizens, certainly not in so short a time.
The emphasis on the warrior idea also, as some have suggested, raises the question of the relationship between the warrior and his moral justification, if any is needed. The classic example here is the story of Arjuna and Krishna in the Mahabharata. Arjuna is a warrior and effectively demigod. He must fight a battle against an enemy that includes his kin, and he must fight without limit and destroy them if he is to fulfill his duty as a warrior and to his god Krishna.
This is a situation of greater moral extremism than the warfare of pagan Greece or Rome on a bad day, and one not tempered by their classical period civic militarism or military professionalism, and it is a situation similarly unwilling to come up with Christian or modern legal rules of war. There are many ways to interpret it. One of my superiors in the recent past was studying up to go to India and interpreted the commandments of Krishna rather bluntly. In this reductionist view, Krishna basically told Arjuna he was a warrior, Krishna his god, and for both reasons he’d better just “get righteous” and kill all the enemy.
In a less reductionist vein, one can actually explore the elaborate philosophical justifications Krishna offered for both warrior purity [defined here as the antithesis of what the Israelis mean, as the pure focus on skill and ferocity with arms] and unquestioning obedience as the essence of duty. The text, the Bhagavad Gita, can be interpreted more generously as an injunction to pursue moral duty whatever the cost, but the ways in which moral duty is defined and what is excluded from it are troubling. They are not the whole of the Hindu or latterly also Buddhist take on war, but they are valid extrapolations of both and take us to dark places by most Western standards. There is a fun essay on the web called “Zen and the art of dive-bombing” which offers this as part of the explanation of the darker side of samurai culture in Japan. Not without drawbacks, but useful.
To boil it all down a bit too much — Achilles was a warrior. Hector was too, but closer to a soldier. Odysseus had the good and bad of both, a true archetype. Greek hoplites were soldiers, militia at that. Roman legionaries were soldiers, whether militia or professional. Spartans probably straddle the line most perfectly.
In modern times, one might argue that a certain kind of Confederate officer was a soldier with some of a warrior’s virtues and flaws. Lee had more of the virtues, Stuart about equal of both. William T Sherman and US Grant were soldiers, with the good and the bad that can go with that type.
One other matter that really struck me was the way everyone has come back to the mothers. There is a lot to explore on that theme in history, even if most of that experience in the human past is lost to us. It has been said that every dying warrior/soldier is more likely to call for his mother than his wife or sweetheart, at that last moment. Most of us will never know if that is true, but perhaps most men, who had any of the many possible kinds of good mother, will recognize some deep truth in that idea.
So we are left with the question of what makes a good mother to a soldier, or a man in general? There can have been few mothers who really relished the death of their sons. Perhaps none. Nobody actually says that of the Spartan mothers, and I doubt it was true of them. That they must have loved their sons is the real meaning of those famous harsh phrases, and why the rest of Greece recounted and repeated them with awe and veneration.
I don’t know about that Hatfield/McCoy mother, telling her son to die like a man in one of many pointless skirmishes over nonsense. But then, as someone pointed out, the nature of the stakes in play is always a factor. Many glorified ancient battles would look like pointless, small, dusty squabbles to us, and between combatants of similar small and parochial character over similarly meaningless arguments. But it is for the participants to judge the stakes according to their own lights. Like the Pashtuns do, as it happens.
On the general level, there may be no general standard of motherhood that can be applied. A mother should love her sons. She should also be a part of his strength as he learns his way into manhood and a reserve in time of deepest emotional need. If the stakes are high enough, and they most likely agree on whether or not that is true, then perhaps it is for a mother to tell her son to keep his place in line. Or to put the stars in her window.
I am just glad my mother never had to try on that role.
So many of these comments are so smart and so thoughtful–and they come from all points of the compass, which is great. Thanks to everybody. Graham, hold on for a few more weeks and we’ll get to a chapter (two actually), all about Arjuna and Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita. Quick bottom line: I side with the second interpretation.
One point you bring up that I think is extremely pertinent in the wars that Americans have been involved in recently is the distinction between the Warrior and the Soldier or, an even finer distinction, the Citizen-Soldier. My own opinion is that a democracy must keep, as the backbone of its fighting force, the citizen-soldier (as the Greeks, other than the Spartans, did) because a democracy, if it’s going to remain true to its values, must have defenders whose primary identity is citizen–and who remember even in the midst of combat that they will returning to civil life and must live with the consequences of their actions. “The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit” was a terrific expression of this. I worry sometimes about the idea of the all-volunteer army. Though I hated being drafted myself, I think that political “third rail” should be very strongly reconsidered, for the reasons stated above.
That being said, I think that for conflicts such as the U.S. is engaged in now in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Warrior is a better and more effective combatant. (The citizen-soldier was preferable in WWII.) The reason, in my view, is that so much of today’s conflict involves establishing bonds of trust with native populations, particularly tribes. A tribal elder in the Konar or in Ramadi will be able to connect more, from everything I’ve heard and read, with a combatant whose self-view is that of a Warrior — because the tribal elder is a warrior himself and understands that code and that world-view. This is a short comment on a very deep subject, but I wanted to respond, at least in an abbreviated form, to your very pertinent and important point. Thanks for writing.
On the citizen-soldier: I think in America we have come to about as good a compromise as can be reached in an imperfect world, avoiding on the one hand what Heinlein called a “slave-army,” a conscript army – his thesis was that a society which requires coercion to defend itself is too diseased to merit survival – and a full-blown professional military, a real knightly or Samurai warrior caste. We have done so by establishing a relatively brief three- or four- or five-year voluntary enlistment, extendable by choice, as opposed to the old long-service professional armies where enlistment was something approaching for life, twenty or twenty-five years.
In America the number of serving members of the Armed Forces is not nearly as great as the number of ex-servicemen in the civilian world, and this is true even if we confine ourselves to the generations too young for the draft.
“A nation that makes a great distinction between its soldiers and its scholars will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” Thucydides
Some of these posts seem to incompass the idea soldiers are dinosaurs who simply like mindless violence. In my experience,nothing could be further from the truth. My husband was in the military for twenty-nine years and now teaches American history to college freshmen. He is a gentle patriot who expects his wife to be the same. No, I did not tell my son to carry his shield or come home on it. I did try to instill love of country, belief in God, a sure goal of duty, and the knowledge of his own worth. If you read about the Spartan mothers with an open mind and heart, you will see that’s what they did, too.
I love this kind of exploration and the call to face the hard reality of what it means to be human and part of a tribe/society. Regarding Spartan stories, it might be a good idea to explore why those stories were created and who carried the oral tradition from one generation to the next. I see no reason to argue the morality of the Spartan ethos, only to recognize it’s role in the history of these people and what parts we choose to adopt for ourselves.
With all due respect to the various well-meaning comments, and to Steve’s insightful blog : this discussion is taking place strictly within the very narrow political spectrum of US debate about these things. Steve exemplifies it perfectly with his deification of the IDF “warriors”. The IDF warriors of all branches, while undeniably skilful soldiers, have repeatedly and wilfully targeted civilians; unless you choose to disregard investigations by the UN, Human Rights Watch and all the other usual suspects from humanitarian organizations – and those ex-IDF who are leaving the IDF in protest. These facts are well-documented and well-forgotten in US mainstream consciousness. Pointing them out is reflexively rejected as anti-semitism, another fact well documented, if the limits of the political spectrum would allow anyone to acknowledge that, which they won’t. Terrorists blow up babies with car bombs or homemade missiles, and it is called murder; the West blows up babies with 1000-pound bombs or cruise missiles, and it is called collateral damage. The “warriors” of the West fight with total air and heavy-weapon superiority, total overall technological superiority and, in their own Orwellian self-image, total ethical superiority. Why do they hate us? It’s the arrogance, stupid. We are as arrogant as the Taliban are medieval.
Some of the US closest allies in the ME (exhibit A : Egypt) are totalitarian states chosen as US allies not for their adherence to “what you and I consider to be inalienable rights and freedoms “, but for their enforced stability. The state of Israel is currently doing to illegally occupied territories what the US bombed the Serbs for doing to Kosovo. The spartans’ primary motivation for being a garrison society was that they were like the pre-civil war South in the US : totally dependent on enslaved serfs that outnumbered the Spartans by orders of magnitude. Some of the most splendid warriors in recent times were the Waffen-SS, whose fighting spirit was acknowledged by friend and foe alike, and their cause was nevertheless despicable. Jochen Peiper, of Malmedy massacre in-fame, reportedly asked the war crimes court to put full blame for the massacre on him and execute him – and then spare his men. A true hero and warrior; for a system that perpetrated the Holocaust.
I could go on, but I know from experience it is pointless. That I even try to speak up must be chalked up to what little sliver of warrior ethos must have been misplaced somewhere in me while my back was turned.
Okay, most of what you wrote is the same old thing we’ve heard a million times, even the nonsensical equation of accidental civilian deaths with sdeliberate, premeditated massacres; but
“The state of Israel is currently doing to illegally occupied territories what the US bombed the Serbs for doing to Kosovo.”
Is way over the line of mendacious false equiovalency; the notion that Israel is carrying out a Milosovic-like policy of genocide/ethnic cleansing is utterly absurd, so counterfactual as to be believable by no-one save entrenched Israel-haters.
I admire your work and have read (and listened to) the War of Art several times.
This current series will no doubt prove interesting, but I question the use of a several thousand years old – and possibly unique – culture like Sparta as an exemplar of what it means to be a warrior. The example of the women not crying for their dead sons and husbands is, to my mind, a part of the culture of Sparta itself, not that of a warrior.
My own work has led me to a great deal of research about the European wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, and that, plus a general life-long interest in history, leads me to believe that the exemplar you’ve chosen – Sparta – is outside the norm.
It seems to me that a warrior culture like Sparta’s is not representative of how western civilization views its warriors. There is, in my view, much more of a disconnect between the ‘civilians’ of a culture and its warriors, while at the same time the warriors reflect both the ethos of their culture AND the ethos of the warrior.
I would say, therefore, that the warrior’s role in a non-warrior culture is a much more difficult one, where having to deal with the love/hate relationship the culture has for its warriors complicates rather than (as in the case of Sparta) where the culture’s very definition simplifies it.
Yet I agree that there is a spark – an ethos – that all warriors have in common, but I would also say that there are so many layers of complexity beyond that.
To my mind, it is in that complexity which seeks to combine the values of a culture with the values of the warrior – often so disparate as to be seemingly impossible – where a warrior’s courage and honor and burden truly reside.
There’s still so much to say – the history lover in me wants to mention all the variants and complexities of what a warrior does, from the Sack of Mecklenburg in 1631 (no one’s finest hour), to the Battle of Malplaquet under Marborough in 1709 (so many ordered to their deaths), to the astounding Irish Brigade at the Battle of Fontenoy (1745) (where their hate fueled such sacrifice as to turn the tide of victory from the English to the French for whom they fought), but I will cut this short.
As I said earlier, I am looking forward to this series. To me, it is a complex and thoughtful subject despite what others may think, and well worth devoting one’s time to considering.
The discussion weaving Spartan society, attitudes of the mothers, and the warrior ethos into one tapestry heads down a dangerous road of emulating imagined substance without understanding the context. We should be cautious of idealizing or imitating this “Spartan Ideal” unless one understands the baggage carried with it. Overall, we’re a lot better off in this sense than we think we are.
The Spartans were much more complex than presented here, in “300”, or even in “Gates”- and I am a big fan of the book. Similar to the American pre-Civil War south, the Spartan society was based on the agricultural slave labor of a subjugated people, and the military excellence they were able to achieve was due in large part to the time they were able to devote to creating a military class (kind of handy when you don’t have to work to feed yourself). This military capability was not so much intended to project power offensively outside Sparta as to be able to suppress the inevitable helot uprisings. Thucydides highlights the inherent conservatism of the Spartan leadership- understandable when they knew that as soon as the army left Sparta, there was a better than even chance the slaves would revolt and no one would be able to do a lot to stop them. If you are vastly outnumbered by a group of people you’re suppressing by force, you better be handy with the steel or you won’t be around long.
As far as “tough mothers” go, I’ll take the American tough mother any day over one that allows an infant to be disposed of based on the assessment that they are unsuitable or one that doesn’t mourn the death of a son. A short anecdote about true toughness-
Seven years ago, after returning from a tour as a tank company commander in Iraq, I was assigned as a training officer for a reserve tank company in Kentucky. Shortly before Memorial Day, we received notification from the Casualty Branch, Headquarters Marine Corps, notifying us that a Marine from the local area had been killed the previous day. I was responsible for delivering this news to the young Marine’s parents. My 1stSgt and I changed into our Alphas and headed north.
Arriving at the young Marine’s house, his father was home but his mother was still at work. His father took the news as well as could be expected. The Marine’s mother pulled up in the driveway a few minutes later, unaware until she saw the 1stSgt and I standing there in her living room that anything was wrong. She immediately put the pieces together before we had the chance to say anything. We were able to get her seated and relay the news of her son’s death. After uncontrollable sobbing for a few minutes, she took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said “this must be terrible for you two- I can’t imagine how you can do this.” Less than 15 minutes after learning of the death of her youngest son, her thoughts were of the welfare of the two Marines who delivered the worst news a mother can hear.
That’s one tough mother, American style. I’ll take that truth any day over any romanticized alternative. That kind of compassion- that inherent goodness and grace- more than any warrior ethos, is the true strength of our country. It’s still there, and more common than we think, if we care to look for it.
There is a fundamental problem with the depiction of Spartan women here: all the sayings quoted are anonymous and there are very good reasons to doubt their authenticity – even if they appear in Plutarch and have become dogma. The most famous admonition attributed to a Spartan mother and rightly quoted here as “the most famous Spartan mother story,” (“with your shield or upon it”) cannot, in fact, have originated in Sparta. Spartans did not bring home their dead; they buried them on the field of honor. All the cited stories probably originate elsewhere and were intended to discredit Sparta, not praise her.
These sayings are most likely the invention of Athenian or other enemy commentators intended to create/reinforce the image of the enemy as alien and contemptible. The sayings had the two-fold benefit of making Sparta’s warriors seem less frightening, and Spartan women less human. Sparta’s warriors were diminished because these sayings proved that many of them were really cowards, who would run home to their mothers if they could. At the same time, unlike the Trojan women, who are frequently portrayed as loving mothers deserving of sympathy (see Euripides plays), these sayings make Spartan women seem so repulsively unnatural that Athenians could feel justified in any kind of atrocities against them.
The love of a mother for her child is one of the most primeval feelings in the world, a love that mankind has long acknowledged and cherished. Ancient Greek literature sets the standard. Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband is understandable not because he brings Cassandra into her home, but because she is revenging the murder of Iphigenia. Medea remains a repulsive barbarian because she is willing to kill her children out of jealousy. The quoted sayings are clearly intended to make Spartan women sound like barbarians, like unnatural, unfeminine creatures, who deserve no sympathy even in their adversity.
Furthermore, all the sayings are predicated on cowardice on the part of young Spartan men. So, allegedly, while the women were upholding Sparta’s post-Thermopylae ethos of victory or death, the young men were deserting in droves having failed to absorb the proper ethos despite their harsh upbringing. Based on these sayings, Sparta was populated by cowardly men, a situation that seems hard to square with the historical record – even if we admit that Spartans were probably no braver than most other Greeks.
Spartan women were unique in the Ancient world because of their education, economic power, and self-confidence, but there is no evidence that they were less loving mothers. I provide more comprehensive information about Spartan women and society on my website: Sparta Reconsidered. In addition, you and/or your readers might be interested in a discussion of a variety of controversial and little known aspects of Sparta on my blog: http://www.spartareconsidered.blogspot.com
My response to the story of the Spartan Mother and shield has always been the same. Let’s just change one part of war. Make it mandatory that when you kill your enemy, you have to eat the body. This mother was willing to send her son off to be killed, but was she willing to send him off to be eaten?
Neither! This saying attributed to Spartan mothers is almost certainly enemy propaganda intentionally designed to make Spartan women seem unnatural – and Spartan men cowardly. Sparta buried her dead on the field of honor, the bodies were not brought home, so the saying “with your shield or upon it” cannot come from a Spartan source. A mother’s love for her son is one of the most primeval and honored emotions of mankind. It was celebrated in ancient Greek theater and even the Trojan women were made sympathetic by portraying their love for their sons and husbands. To portray Spartan women as devoid of this fundamental human feeling was a device to make them seem alient, unnatural and barbaric. That made it easier for the enemy to justify any attrocities they committed against them.
Note too most of these stories about brave Spartan mothers include a cowardly son whom they are scorning. These stories therefore also served the useful propaganda function of making Sparta’s warriors seem far less frightening. After all, many of them were just cowards who wanted to run home to mother!
There is no evidence whatever that any of these alleged sayings by Spartan mothers has any authenticity.
Eat the enemy dead? That could really slow down an offensive… and make things kind of difficult for the Navy.
TO JOHN TERRY’S MUM
I think SP gave you a pass on some of your comments. That’s okay. Some of your questions, as well as counterpoints to your accusations about the warrior’s ethos..MY ethos…can be best understood by reading “Wild At Heart” by John Eldridge. The history of the world is written in the hearts and desires of men. By reading this you’ll understand. I love peace as much as you, however, there are wolves, and there are sheep dogs, and there are sheep. Noone wants the sheep dogs around, until the wolves show up. Warrior’s Ethos are not created, they are bestowed. I respect your opinion, but you need to revisit history realistically and objectively. If you do, you will see the necessity for Warrior’s Ethos and the naturaly drive for men and boys to want or need to fight. Paradise is reserved for Heaven only, until then there will be wars, and you will need us.
My concern is Mr,Pressfield’s use of the broad term, “warrior”. Sparta was a warrior nation, committed to aggression and disinclined to detente with its neighboring states. While the Spartan warriors’ courageous and unswerving to-the-death commitment to the victory of their leaders’ cause may seem noble, it was unreasoned, indeed compulsory, drilled into them from the day they left their mother’s womb. Was the undoubted courage and commitment to victory of the Nazi storm troopers not a manifestation of a “Warrior Ethos”?
Until recent times armies, many of them very brave and committed to victory, comprised men who were unquestionably “warriors”,professional, motivated entirely by love of armed conflict, the comradery of other warriors, possibly adoration of a charismatic hero/commander, and always the lure of the rewards of victory and plunder. versus the option of peonage.
Unquestioned, unreasoned obedience, “Into the jaws of death, noble 600”, has always been central to the “ethos” of the hero warrior. It remains so today for the Jhadists.
I truly believe that Mr. Pressfield should seek a qualifying adjective for the warrior who’s ethos he is seeking to define and promulgate, rather than have to explain away the protest the broad term gnrerates.
Thank you for this post, Steven! It has inspired an article for my fitness newsletter. I sent the link to Callie.
As a personal trainer and instructor, I work with so many women who fight for their families everyday. This series is helping me shape and articulate a direction for my business.
For me, the warrior ethos is more the effect of self mastery. To this end i hold that not all who “fight” are warriors and not all who are warriors “fight”.
I believe that those who see only the physical aspects to being a warrior have a complete lack of understanding. True warriors only fight when absolutely necessary. They are not some crazy, uncontrollable group of murderers driven mad with blood lust. They do not kill out of waste. Everything is based on efficiency of action. Most killings are wasteful and an inefficient means of settling disputes. That said, if there is no other way… the warrior will hold to his/her commitment and see the line of action through to the end.
Honor is an aspect of self mastery. The ability to accept our fears, our concerns, our own short comings, and defy the weakness and temptations they bring despite the odds. To defy the tendency to cave to those things and allow such things to have power over us. Not as an act of ego…but as an act of duty to those who depend upon you or you are responsible for/towards. An act of duty/responsibility to ourselves, our beliefs and others.
I think many people overlay their distaste for the loss of life and their emotional reactions to strife upon the warriors and soldiers who fight the battles. (again not all soldiers are warriors…. and they are still due respect for their service)
I also think that the biggest off putting factor people have towards “warriors” is the complete lack of concern for the end of their life when things need to be done. They understand that there is something greater at stake than just their lives. And that is what frightens people when they face warriors. The absence of the fear of death or harm. It is the very thing present with in the spirit of the wild animal. They have no fear of death or harm when something needs to be done. Mind you they don’t go out seeking to die or to be harmed but they will act regardless of the odds.
Wars do change…real warriors are the same be they from antiquity or in modern age. Life is full of strife and challenges and rightly so because with out anything that challenges us we would be big sacs of tissue floating around. We know what the lack of physical challenge brings….. unhealthy sedentary people. We know what the lack of mental training brings…. stupid, mentally deficient dregs. We know what lack of spiritual training brings… those who see nothing as sacred and everything as permissible….chaos. The warrior is something to strive to become…. not to harm others but to master one’s self. Warriors must face their own darkness and overcome. They must be intelligent. They must be at peace with their own nature and understand the necessity of that nature.
If we look to tribal cultures there are rights of passage that teach children to face fears, to overcome and to persevere despite the PERCEIVED situation and odds (or very real threat of pain). Now we have birthday parties and presents…. for simply breathing. Nothing is taught… challenges are not met or even faced…. truth is no longer embraced. No wonder there is such a lack of and distaste for “Warriors”.
Yes i take “Warrior” beyond the battle field because i am a woman. The most important battles never shed a single drop of blood and yet cause more devastation than can be calculated. In each choice we fight battles, invisible ones that no one admits. To attack(not discuss or debate) the “warrior ethos” as wrong and abominable is to be a person who finds no power in themselves and are complacent to be moved around as chess pieces by others as victims of the nature of life and existence. Or to be a complete loon that believes “peace” is an external set of circumstances… Peace is not a verb which means it is not an AFFECT. It is a internal state present inside of a person. It is the EFFECT of self mastery. It is the effect of applied “warrior ethos.”
One must wonder…. how many battles and wars could have been avoided if women were the warriors they needed to be for the home, traditions and family…. Or at least how different the causes would have been…. How much prevention of issues is lost to focusing upon the battlefield instead of the “home field”?
But that is the way i see it…. it isn’t necessarily right…or wrong. 🙂
Hello, Mr. Pressfield and everyone posting here.
I’ve read all the comments here and am really impressed by the thoughtfulness and open-mindedness I find here. I hope you all will continue that as you read my reply.
I write from the perspective of an infantry officer currently in the SOF pipeline. I don’t claim to corner the market on any topic I cover, and am always open to discuss anything. That said, here is my take:
I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about warrior ethoi and what they mean to me.
Fundamentally, a warrior ethos helps a warrior decide when and how to act. In armed combat, it preserves lives. Civilian and enemy lives? You bet. But there is much more behind an ethos than ROEs, the five S’s, and all the other red tape that seem to place more value on an enemy’s life than ours.
Warriors (armed combatants, in this case) are defenders of cultural identity, first and foremost. Their actions are guided by codes, creeds, and concepts that plug directly into their culture’s value system. Most warrior classes pay very close attention to their societal values because they need to understand what their culture believes is just and what is not. If they do not have a clear understanding of what their society is about, how can they act on that society’s behalf? In today’s military, we have creeds and rules of engagement that mirror our understanding of right and wrong. In armed combat, the stakes are extremely high not only because we can die, but because we are asked to kill. We only kill certain people under very specific circumstances and in specific ways. Stray outside the bounds of our warrior ethos, we cease to act as an agent of our culture. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Often tragically so. But I’m speaking in terms of the ideals our men and women aspire to. In the thick of things, warriors make tragic mistakes that haunt them for years, but it’s not intentional. However, a warrior who willfully acts outside his ethos becomes nothing more than a killer; a murderer. He ceases to act on behalf of his culture and is no longer a true warrior.
While a warrior ethos does safeguard noncombatants and enemy combatants, it performs a vital function for the warrior as well. A warrior’s code is like armor for his soul (I use the term ‘soul’ loosely here). It is a lifeline he uses to pull himself out of the hell of war so that he may return home. If a man acts within the sphere of his ethos, he can return to the culture he has defended with his soul intact. Without that ethos, combat will chip away at a man till there’s not much left but guilt, hate, and self-loathing.
I’ve noticed that some folks here are a little uncomfortable applying the term ‘warrior ethos’ outside the sphere of combat. I think I understand your perspective, and I respect your position. Many use the term ‘warrior ethos’ outside of the profession of arms because of the purity of purpose it represents, not necessarily because it espouses aggression or dominance. The warrior archetype takes countless forms, most of which are non-violent. They are doctors, priests, businessmen, mothers, teachers and scientists. Along with those in our military, these warriors work to preserve our common ideals through commerce, education, technology, and spirituality.
Earlier in this thread I saw a post by a SSG who said he did not feel quite right as a warrior and that an ethos was dictated to him by higher. Brother, I felt the same way. What changed for me was that I sat down with my platoon and we decided to take ownership of our ethos. Like a PT or training plan, dudes will put more faith in something if they have active input into it. Why do we need this? What is acceptable behavior and what is not? How will this translate to the young PFC or SGT who sees a man running towards him with a child under one arm and bundle of blankets under the other? A warrior ethos should be a living, breathing entity that everyone who abides by it constantly tweaks. The Ranger Creed, NCO’s Creed, Warrior’s Creed, all that? It means nothing if guys just parrot it like basic trainees. Own your own creed, and you’ll find what you’re looking for. Once you’ve got that base, apply it to the battlefield. ROEs shift back and forth depending on METT-TC, but the general principles remain the same (granted, there’s plenty of CYA out there too). I would be surprised if that creed you just took ownership of did not translate into something that looked like common sense ROEs.
You also mentioned guilt at wanting to test yourself against your enemy and were worried that you were being selfish. I’m not going to mince words here:
Don’t feel guilty about wanting to defeat and kill your enemy. That’s your job. If it must be done, do it well. Do I wish for war? No. But if there is a fight out there, I wouldn’t want a less-capable man out there fighting it for me and possibly losing and dying. If not me, then who? I admit, I do worry about the strain my work puts on my family. But if I didn’t answer this call I feel that I would be less the person, the man, husband, father, son, and brother that they deserve.
If you want to talk privately, my email is [email protected]
I hope that resonated with you, brother.
you got it right on a number of issues from the warrior perspective. great post.
this is a great conversation that needs to be ongoing.
Having been on both sides of the battle as a soldier and commander, and parents who both were in combat:
father in Vietnam, and mother during the bombing of Germany where her father my grandfather was a PW FOR 7 years. Twenty years in the military service. Last tour was at ft Bragg; deploying Kosovo, bosnia, and then later AFG and Iraq. This is a conversation worth having with the soldiers and familes who have Endured, Iraqi Freedom, and now as a neighbor and retiree. These insights by these soldiers are a great starting place for discussion on this subject. Best K
Too many are lost to war, period. But it’s good to see people still questioning it’s purpose and methods.
A short intro, I was born in NY in a Jewish family, was not allowed to have toy guns or watch cartoons because they are violent. Moved to Israel in 1969 and have been serving in the Israeli army since 1976 either as a conscript or a reservist. I am a commissioned officer.
I dislike the army in a very fundamental way, it provides security but destroys people and things and demands a wide array of problematic behavioral patterns, but I understand it to be a necessity.
Johns Terry’s Mom:
I agree, there is no reason to use war metaphors for what is not war. I do believe that there is a warriors ethos, that is the distilled essence of the use of violence to do what is morally right – for example to protect your family. The Art and Ethos of the warrior is to use the minimum amount of violence to achieve that goal.
To Soldier in Afghanistan:
I would not fret about that feeling you are searching for. First and foremost make sure you do your job professionally and as safely as possible. You are a squad commander who is responsible to get your job done AND bring your men back home. I fought two wars and endless other stuff. I do not believe battle or war is not to be glorified, but to be won and sustained and for that to happen with the minimum psychological damage you must do what you understand to be moral and ethical within a context. I first felt like a warrior when I was about 45 and realized I have been doing this for over 25 years.
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Steven, thank you for this effort and not is small part for capturing the warrior’s ethos and giving it life in this discussion. I was born just after the close of the Korean conflict; all of my uncles had served there. My father was too young for WWI and too old for WWII – not unlike my own situation. He volunteered for the Marine Corps, did two tours in Nicaragua and went around the world on the USS Pennsylvania. I missed the Viet Nam conflict, though I volunteered for the Navy in 1974 and intended to further volunteer for swift boats. It is one of my life’s regrets that I didn’t simply, as my father had done, drop out and go with my parents blessing. My father’s only stipulation was; not as a Marine. Regardless, I did 25 years in the Navy, many in Coronado prosecuting special operations, as opposed to Special Warfare (SEALs). I was a cold warrior, SOLIC, PSYOP, OPDEC and so forth. It is interesting to me that you frame the warrior ethos in the matriarchal context as I have always thought the strength of volunteerism, the willingness of American youth to fight in foreign wars stemmed from their sense of family and community, their particular societal and familial cohesion, which in much or most of America is anchored in a chivalric, matriarchal foundation and tradition. My postgraduate study is in strategic intelligence and I now work for the Corps as a sworn civilian. I think your observations and conclusions on the origins and value of the warrior ethos in western civilization are spot on and your futurism prescient. My family has been in Virginia since the early 1600s (recorded) and I was raised with values much like those of Robert E. Lee. After living in California for thirty odd years; Virginia is my Country. To me, good warrior strives to be an eloquent, educated and thoughtful gentleman who shows deference toward women. A man who does not romanticizes violence, but paradoxically takes up arms. The professional is enjoined out of a sense of honor and duty. About that, warriors are romantic… To my way of thinking, there could be no better friend or worse enemy. Having been among elite warriors most of my career I believe my values common among professionals, not just warriors, but driven professionals in every vocation. In boot camp, as companies would pass one another marching, in starless, moonless night, the only sound tolerated (though unauthorized) was our muffled calling out of whence we came, “New York, Texas, Maine, and Washington D.C.!” It is also common to run towards disorder and conflict – not simply taking risks – seeking lethal conflict out. And for all those who do not understand, we do. That propensity comes at great price when met. Yet, volunteers still come, are always out there, down through the generations: the willing who take pride, not so much in ribbons but for having stood into it. I have seen all the wrongs and horrors wars portend, and I have no regrets. When old warriors fade away the only we commonly regret is, we can’t do it again, only better; at greater hazard to ourselves… and to greater still to the enemy. CWO3, USN (ret): full-patch biker, warrior, father, husband, son; soon to be priest.
I feel left out of this discussion, only now having access to the internet and this great forum. In regards to an older comment by JT’s mum:
The ideal of the “Warrior” as posited by Mr. Pressfield is, as he alluded to, far beyond a literal warrior. The virtues espoused here, courage, honor, integrity, loyalty are applicable to many professions. Take the paramedic: It takes courage to reach a victim in a hazardous location (think glacier or high seas). It takes loyalty to your profession to do what it takes to reach that victim. It takes personal integrity exhaust all available methods to reach, and save that victim. Or how about a Firefighter? Did it take courage and honor to run up into the WTC while everybody else were running out? Or any dangerous building for that matter? Loyalty to the other men on your line? Or the loyalty to know that regardless, your team-mates will do what it takes to get you home?
Outside of these virtues (conspicuously similar to the Army Values (LDRSHIP), there is the process of becoming a member of the warrior caste: self depredation, asceticism, sacrifice. In this regard, even an alpinist is a warrior: they do what it takes to gain a summit. Voluntary exposure to the elements while friends or family are indoors. Fasting for days on end to temper your hunger for when it counts. Staying awake training through the nights while your wife is in bed so you can push on for days on end?
These qualities in mind, the qualities and virtues that I strive to manifest within myself, are the essence of today’s warrior ethos. Its sad how comfortable the West is with 4G internet and a Starbucks on every corner, a softening of America that estranges a warrior culture that has been a permanent part of society world wide; until we are tempted by the easy, fat lazy ways of those too meek for the warrior elite.
‘SLEEP GOOD NOW MY SON COZ I’LL TAKE YOUR PLACE’
Maniot woman who was carrying amo to her warrior son and found him dead in his place during the Greek War of Independance……
Maniots…the descendants of the Spartans in Laconia and the ONLY place in Hellas who were never subdued by the Ottomans(or anyone else)….
LAKEDAEMON..were the Greek War of Independance started…and ,of course,the place that provided the Last Byzantine Emperor-Konstantinos Palaeologos- who died gloriously defending the City(Konstantinoupoli)-1453
BATTLE OF DIROS
I do agree with all the ideas you’ve presented in your post. They’re really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are too short for beginners. Could you please extend them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.
The Warrior’s Code of Honor was written by a Korean War Vet afflicted by PTSD for 60 years. I think anyone in the military would appreciate it. Please copy it and spread it around to anyone you think could benefit from it. The website is: http://www.warriorscodeofhonor.com.
Thank you and stay strong!
I’ve found this book to be interesting so far in its explanation of Warrior Ethos and it’s application in previous wars. I can also see how it fits with what our military is doing these days. How many of them know that their friend was killed and yet they find the courage and will to go on? It amazes me to hear stories of men and women that can push through the toughest of times and face their fears head on.
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One scene in my book Gates of Fire has elicited more passionate feedback than any other. It’s the one where the Spartan king Leonidas explains what criteria he employed to select the specific 300