The Warrior Ethic: a response

“The Flight of Aeneas” (1595), by Peter Brueghel

I can’t remember if it was the late Col. David Hackworth or the late Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. (author of the influential retrospective on the Vietnam War, On Strategy) who made the telling point that any American general in World War II worth his stars would make it his business to know the names and backgrounds of all of the German generals opposing his forces, and that, by contrast, very few American generals in Vietnam knew even the names of the North Vietnamese Army generals opposing them, much less their backgrounds.

So I agree wholeheartedly with Jeet’s contention that as a matter of military strategy, demonizing the enemy is dumb. In that regard, the Greek warrior ethic is indeed of significant utility, as was the chivalric code of medieval Europe which assumed that one’s opponents were fellow Christian combatants who should therefore be taken seriously on the field of battle (and of course whose personal identities and histories would be well known to both sides).

The belief in an aristocratic warrior fellowship based on Christian principles also enabled the evolution of a set of tacit and explicit rules about war that acted as a gentle (and certainly welcome) brake on its ferocity — horrible though wars have been, one should remember that without such rules they would almost always have been worse.

The Greek warrior ethic, in fact, is a case in point. Rather than limiting the goal to victory in combat, the warrior ethic did not blink at the plunder, rape, abduction, and wholesale slaughter that would often ensue after a victory over an enemy city-state. Alexander the Great refrained from this for political reasons — he was trying to conquer the rather extensive Persian empire, and found local support useful — until he finally took the imperial capital Persepolis and let his troops run wild, additionally instructing them to kill every adult male they found.

And though it is true that in The Iliad Homer presents the Trojans as fully-rounded human beings, equal in almost all respects to the Achaeans, the warrior ethic on display in that conflict includes the murder of prisoners and (as described in The Aeneid) the deliberate burning of Troy and the killing or enslaving of most of its inhabitants. All in a day’s work, to the Greeks.

One of the negative dynamics of a warrior ethic, I believe, is that it tends to elevate warriors to a higher status than that of ignoble merchants and artisans and peasants. Though enemy warriors may be respected by an opposing force, the enemy population itself is regarded as little more than victory prize (in the form of plunder and slaves) and as something for warriors to sate their desires on. Chivalry at least had a notional respect for women and innocents, even if this was less acted upon than one could hope for.

It is interesting that in recent decades, the U.S. Army has begun to instill a “warrior ethos” in its troops founded on the following principles:

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Not frightening-sounding stuff on the face of it, but such indomitable language is reflective of the shift from a conscript army of average citizens to a professional army of “lifer” volunteers — there is a monastic, almost creed-like essence to it, and it’s of a piece with the U.S. military’s increasing proportion of Christian evangelicals. Even the act of referring to troops as “warriors” rather than “soldiers” is something that places far more emphasis on fighting as a matter of personal identity, rather than as a reluctant duty.

I’ll end by recommending Elizabeth Samet’s wonderful new book, Soldiers Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, for some very interesting insights into the modern U.S. officer class and its views on literature and the profession of arms. And speaking of the movie 300, I’m currently reviewing a book on a similar (if much broader) topic: Anthony Pagden’s Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West. I’ll post a link to this review when it comes out in May.

One thought on “The Warrior Ethic: a response

  1. A very interesting post, Ian. You’re right, of course, that there is a downside to the warrior ethics, particularly in its ancient Greek form. And it’s interesting that there has been an attempt to revive the warrior ethos in the United States. Aside from the army code you cite, one could mention the cult of Leo Strauss (which is very much about creating a leadership class instilled with a pagan sense of command, including a warrior ethos). Also Robert Kaplan’s book Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. And of course the books of Victor Davis Hanson, movies like 300, Gladitor, etc. The political career of John McCain is part of this story too: he’s notably disdainful of those who don’t “serve” in some form (mere businessmen, workers, and citizens).

    I have to say, aside from the morality of restoring the warrior ethos, there is also the question of practicality. I really don’t think you can turn contemporary America into Sparta. Perhaps you can have a few hundred thousand Spartans in the midst of 300 million but the whole nature of modern society mitigates against a return to the ancient warrior ethos.

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