When I started to write A Man at Arms, my new book about Telamon the mercenary, I deliberately set out to structure it as a Western.
I made its hero, Telamon, a gunslinger.
I made him a man who lives by weaponry, literally a “man at arms.”
I set it in vast spaces, the Sinai desert.
I had a number of set-piece “gunfights,” just like in John Wick movies or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or any Western.
I made it a good vs evil story. Black and white.
Why did I do this?
Because I think the classic Western hero – and Telamon is one, even if he’s set in the ancient world, like Mel Gibson was a Western hero in Mad Max or the Road Warrior even though that was set in a post-apocalyptic landscape or Hugh Jackman was in any Wolverine movie …
Because I think the classic Western hero represents the issue that you and I (and the main freight of American males) are dealing with in our own lives and in our aspirations.
We’re stuck in the Warrior Archetype and it is tearing our culture apart.
I wanted Telamon to face this issue head-on and come up with some kind of answer.
The Western hero IS the Warrior Archetype.
His virtues are the virtues of a warrior.
And his failings are the failings of a warrior.
Virtues? Courage, endurance, skill with weapons, aggressiveness, empathy for others, a moral dimension that impels him to stand up for what he believes is right, even a willingness to die in that cause.
This is all great and we admire it in a Western hero or a samurai or a videogame protagonist or a mutant or an X-man or an Avenger.
But something is missing.
What’s the final scene in every Western? The hero rides off alone. Whether it’s John Wayne or Alan Ladd or the Wolverine or Star Lord or John Wick or Han Solo, the Western hero holsters his gun (or his light-saber) and rides off to … what?
I can tell you one place he DOESN’T ride off to. He doesn’t ride off to raising a family, to contributing to the community, to taking his station morally, ethically and politically within an actual, real-world society with all its messiness and compromise and ambiguity.
Why are Westerns and their derivatives so popular? Because we’ve all fallen in love with that fantasy.
The Warrior Archetype fantasy.
Call of Duty.
Kelly and Hobbs.
Some of us enlist in the Special Forces, the Navy SEALs, the Marine Corps. Some of us own a dozen Ars and a trunkful of handguns. We have beards and boots and monster pickup trucks.
What is that?
Is that real?
Is that an answer?
I’m not trying to paint all of us with a broad, bad brush.
I’m just asking.
Are we stuck in a role that exists only in books and movies and videogames … and that we should have moved on from years ago?
So true. I love these video clips you’re doing. It’s the epic journey or evolution from warrior to sage. This truth resonates deeply with me. It reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln, where he said in such an elegant way: “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The first time I went to DC, I ran the mall the first opportunity I had. It might be the best run in the USA. I ended at the Lincoln Memorial, and read both inscriptions. As I was standing there, reading the second inaugural address, my eyes began to water. So many thoughts ran through my mind, but the first was, “Why don’t we write and speak like this anymore?”
As I was trying to maintain my composure, I glanced at another gentleman standing next to me reading. Tears were running down his face, unabashed. Turn on the waterworks! Two men who didn’t know each other, stood next to each other crying about the ideals this great man personified.
Thank you for the quote, adding it to my memorization list.
The answer to your question is Yes. We are stuck.
I’m reading this in my office while looking at my rifles, this would be an opportune time to be my most thoughtful and articulate best….so here goes:
Yes, some are clearly stuck in a fantasy world that no longer exists. We’re no longer a country of 2 million people spread over 13 colonies, where we ate what we shot/raised and worthless paper money, We’re 330 million today, the most powerful military the world has ever seen, and the world economy still revolves around our dollar. So the bearded fat guy waving an AR screaming hand’s off to the gub’mnt wishes he was Josey Wales, Shane, Vin Diesel, or any one of a hundred western heroes who never existed. Yo; ‘Murrica!
Then there are the others; those who matured as a Warrior, and moved on to see what else life has to offer, or what they have to offer to life. As your haunting scene of Telamon and Alexander, as Telamon bids his friend goodbye to follow the Sages, a true Warrior knows when it’s time to move on to his/her next encampment.
A true Warrior has room in his/her heart for a relationship and doesn’t have to continue alone; the pretend-warrior has no room for a relationship since he/she exists in a fantasy world where there’s only room for one.
And I don’t drive a pick-up!
Well said. Too many live in a fantasy world. I hope the US citizens will find a way back to being respected by the rest of world.
I have such a clear image of your bearded fat guy that I both chuckle and cry at the same time. His photographic negative is the female-minority student at Yale screaming about the 1%ers ruining her life…as a student at YALE.
Both caricatures require a lesson in adulting, and we need to love them anyway. I was listening to Douglass Murray on the Jordan Peterson podcast this morning. Both are intellectual giants (IMHO) and they end with a call for forgiveness. They both say it with such dignity and intellectual prowess that I encourage you to listen — I’ll butcher anymore than that.
I think one of the greatest tragedies of the pandemic is an inability to fight, mobilize, and take action. If the bearded fat-guy and the screaming undergrad were having to face once in 10,000 year flood, an earthquake, or even a zombie apocalypse–those dire consequences would bring them/us together. Rebecca Solnit describes this in great detail in “Paradises Built in Hell”.
Instead we watch Netflix and call Uber-eats.
We (you and I, and many of the Veterans on this site) are fortunate to have seen true squalor, to feel true immediate fear, to have suffered from the elements and mankind–and lived to return. It is easier for us to put the current state of the world into some degree of context (although I’ve struggled myself over the past 10 months wanting to shoot at ghosts) where our two caricatures have no true suffering to contrast their narratives.
Great stuff as always. I look forward to the comments as much as I do Steve’s Sage advice. Oh–and I don’t have truck either–but I am really looking at that Jeep Renegade! We are an SUV family with my hooptie of a father-in-law gift of a 2000 Toyota Camry! Have a great week.
Brian; both of those stereotypes need to grow up get a life, and do something to justify being alive. But what do I know; I’ve been out of step all my life; walking out with Telamon to hang with the Sages sounds rather appealling!!
He (and she) is a romantic. A Lover and a Fighter. A Vigilante. A Hero. A Loner and a Leader. The Wanderer that goes forth into the unknown and brings back stories of adventure. But I believe he will always be alone – never lonely – because his true self is the artist. The Artist that never had the courage (and confidence) to create.
Excellent series, Steve.
I haven’t always read the blog and watched the video. Great truth-bombs in both. The first thing that came to mind as I watched the video is that the hero has a past. I’ve often thought we’re all damaged goods, carrying our own bruises, scar-tissue, and wounds with us. They filter how we see the world, but (I think) we fail to recognize that everyone we encounter is also the walking-wounded. Instead of empathy, our wounds–from the purely Warrior Archetype mindset–separate us from the world instead of unifying us with others. It seems so obvious. I am hurt. You are hurt. Let’s throw our arms around each other, and limp through this together–but is it not.
Third Eye Blind (I wish they were still writing music) has a terrific song called “Wounded”. The lyrics are awesome, and might be a decent prescription for how we need to overcome our wounds and ‘show up, show up wounded’.
GEN Stanley McChrystal (my vote for POTUS 2024) gave a terrific TED talk nearly 10 years ago. The entire talk is great–but the last minute is what I want people to hear and integrate. SPOILER ALERT: We get knocked down. It hurts. But if you want to lead, we need you on your feet. Same message Third Eye Blind sings about.
Why does the Western Hero walk off at the end? Because that is black and white clarity. It is so much ‘easier’ than real life. I remember longing for my little b-hut back in Afghanistan after I’d been home for 3-4 weeks. Battle-withdrawal I’ve heard it called, and it is REAL. When I found myself longing to return to the dark side of the moon instead of being at home with my family, creature comforts, normal life–I felt both guilty and completely insane. Of course, because I’m a fool, I told no one. About three weeks later I’m drinking a beer with my war bestie (deployment wife). We hadn’t seen each other since returning, and it was so great to be together.
I told him, “Hey bro..I am not fitting in. I keep think about going back. I’m unhappy..”
JB,”yeah, me too-big time. Why didn’t you call me?”
The truth was I felt too vulnerable, weak, and basically irredeemable to bother anyone, much less my best friend, with my own craziness. I couldn’t even articulate that at the time, even if I tried. Did I tell my lovely bride? Of course not.
So, a few months later, one of my young Soldiers (she was an Arabic speaking SGT, brilliant, stellar athlete, beautiful human-being) comes up to me. “Hey Sir, I found another deployment, but this time it is Iraq. I need your signature..”
She was back in college finishing her degree, wanted to go to flight school, was thinking of becoming a Marine Corps Officer…she had so much in front of her, so much potential–and yet, combat was calling her like the Sirens.
“Kelsey”, I answered, “The real war is here. What we did over there, it is almost like it is fiction. The fight is here. Finishing school, choosing a career, starting a family–this is the fight. There is no there there. There never was, and there never will be.”
I didn’t sign the paperwork. I don’t think she understood at first. Paul Harvey’s rest of the story…Kelsey did leave the Army National Guard to become a Marine Aviator. She flew helicopters, and married a fighter pilot. She’s now out, raising her kids. There is some powerful DNA and character modeling combo for those kids–look out world.
I love where this series is going.
Good recent conversation between Sam Harris, Stan McChrystal, and Chris Fussell on Sam’s podcast (#231).
Steve looked so comfortable hefting that samurai sword in his lap that you half-expected him to suddenly spring up and start laying about him. That would have added another dimension to this series. On a more serious note, I remember reading that the Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa, who wrote and directed the original amazing *Seven Samurai* film, reported that he just seized on the epic Western genre as a model – he loved John Ford’s classic Western pictures. And then director John Sturges re-borrowed the same script for *The Magnificent Seven*, the Hollywood version of the Japanese version of the Western version of the story.
A story can’t survive that kind of the rehashing unless there is pure gold in the story line to begin with. Something about that archetype rings true.
“… Hollywood version of the Japanese version of the Western version of the story.” Good one.
I like how Lyn Blair opened up this comment string with words from Lincoln’s first inaugural: “We must not be enemies,” we “must not break our bonds of affection,” and all we have to do is reach out to “the better angels of our nature.”
That’s where we need to go. Like that young poet Amanda Gorman spoke, evoking for all people: “We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms.” We grieve and we hurt, all of us. “The victory won’t lie in the blade, but in the bridges we’ve made.”
It’s always a journey, this continual process of change. I’m reminded of this axiom I’ve heard a couple of times, but I can’t recall from where. Could have been from a Buddhist monk or a neuroscientist or a consciousness researcher, but it goes something like: “Human beings aren’t a ‘thing,’ they’re a process.”
I like it. Leaves open more opportunities. And I can think of each archetype being a milestone through the process.
Oh, and I was curious about the intro and exit music to Steve’s videos. Shazam is worth every penny I didn’t pay for it:
It’s “Break Free,” by Fabien Tell. Steve uses the first ten seconds, but you know what? The final 1:30 is actually pretty dang good, too: https://youtu.be/jBijC2G8EIM
As far as the “sword being unsheathed” sound effect, I think Steve musta added that. Picture him with his sword (what is it? Xiphos? Gladius? ) in his living room with the sound effects guy, mic on a stand, and recording equipment and whatever else a sound guy needs.
Sound guy: “Steve, we’re going to need another take. This time as you’re unsheathing, really DRAG it through the metal of the scabbard, and then really BRING it out in a BIG ARC, so we can get that reverberating “ringing” sword sound. Okay?”
Steve: “Roger that. Reverberation! 10-4. Big arc! Ringing sword! Wilco!”
Diana (off-screen): “Dammit, Steve! I just bought those curtains!”
Apparently, when you put text between <> that text will not appear in the comment. Interesting… So it’s supposed to go:
Steve: “Roger that. Reverberation! 10-4. Big arc! Ringing sword! Wilco!”
Steve DRAWs his xiphos in GREAT RINGING ARC; the sound guy is pleased; follow by the sound of “SLASHHHHHH.”
Diana (off-screen): “Dammit, Steve! I just bought those curtains!”
Maybe we all admire the western because it is a manifestation of what we all feel on the inside; it represents our inner world, the inner person that most people will never know, the part of that we are too afraid to show people. When he rides away into the sunset I envision him running back to himself…Retreating back to his inner world. Even if he did ride off to raise his family, contribute to the local community, take his moral station, and deal with the mean and ugliness of the outer world— he would still have to guard his internal true self from the world in order to stomach completion of those tasks; he would eventually need to seek solitude and call upon the warrior within himself in order to replenish what he has outwardly given. It’s a false choice. One must exist in both worlds if one is to exist at all.
This is legitimate heavy-weight thinking. Glad to have you in the neighborhood.
Happy to be here. Thank you kindly. You guys are all fantastic.
Wanted to echo what Joe said. I finished reading your post and had to sit for a minute. Well said! Stunned me like a punch to the nose with ‘It’s a false choice.’ Damn.
Welcome Aboard Doc
Yes, he needs to recharge in order to do battle again. Makes sense!
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Ph.D. Navy Wife – very thoughtful comment. Some people gather strength from a group (a family or community). But the Western hero archetype can only rebuild his/her strength through solitary retreat. I bet if you were to ask that character what’s he looking for, alone out there in the wasteland, he wouldn’t be able to tell you.
Joe, love your staging of the perfect sword metallic unsheathing. In a Greek hoplite phalanx, after the spears have all been broken and splintered, to hear the Greeks draw their swords that way in unison would be a chilling sound. It would mean, “We’re not finished with you yet.”
Scott, I think the most chilling sound would be a wife or girlfriend’s admonition when you break that vase that her grandmother gave her. “Didn’t I tell you to leave your sarissa in the garage? What I am I supposed to tell my mother?”
I think he could tell you what he is looking for … love. That takes us back to one of Steven’s previous post on how it all comes back to love.
Joe – that’s painfully funny. Such a scene could very well have been a Greek man’s first experience with Deimos and Phobos. This could have been the secret Spartan way to condition their infantry to cope with dread and fear.
Boom. Bombs dropped.
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A few questions on your site: Are we obligated to marry right away? Or is there an option to meet for, say, some baklava and Turkish coffee and see how things go? Kind of a “test run”? When I do get a chance to meet with a Turkish girl, I like to put in front of her one cup of Turkish coffee and another cup of dirty motor oil and see if she can tell the difference. Is a good way to sort out the Armenians and Bulgarians, who want to just PRETEND like they are Turkish.
I think my buddy Salman Rushdie met his future wife Padma Lakshmi on a dating site such as yours. It went pretty well for a while, but then she left and took half his sh!t. He stayed drunk for five weeks after that, and I can’t afford to fall behind on my current novel. Thank you for the pleasure of your reply.
Orhan Pamuk, Turkish novelist
Recipient of 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature
I found myself longing to return to the dark side of the moon instead of being at home with my family, creature comforts, normal life–I felt both guilty and completely insane. Of course, because I’m a fool, I told no one. About three weeks later I’m drinking a beer with my war bestie. that’s painfully funny. Such a scene could very well have been a Greek man’s first experience with Deimos and Phobos. This could have been the secret Spartan way to condition their infantry to cope with dread and fear.retaining walls
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