Is “Warrior” the Right Word?

For years, I have faithfully read the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute. Published since 1874 as a professional forum for the Navy and Marine Corps, it is neither required nor typical reading for a self-respecting member of the Boston professional classes. But it reflects my life-long interest in naval affairs and keeps me current on the thinking of our military leadership. The writing is strong, and the opinions expressed are diverse.

In the last decade, however, I have noticed a troubling change in rhetoric. Quite abruptly, the term “warrior” began to appear in articles, commentaries, and (always the most telling sign of any trend) advertisements. For forty years, I read about sailors, marines and soldiers, their issues and challenges, but nothing that prepared me for the abrupt adoption of self-identification as warriors. The change was quick, it was dramatic, and seemed to be pervasive. In 1940, Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote “John Paul Jones, a Sailor’s Biography.” In 2006, the Naval Institute published “John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior” – evidently considered an improvement on the simple and modest use of the word “sailor.” The Navy has not been unique in that regard. In 2003, The Army added the assertion “I am a Warrior” to the second line of a pumped up Soldier’s Creed, part of a warrior ethos embraced by that service’s leadership.

This change in self-perception carries with it undertones of bombast and aggression foreign to our traditions. For generations, those who served the American people had been content to call themselves sailors, soldiers or marines, at least in polite company. Among themselves they might choose other terms, more pungent and self-deprecating. But not warriors.

The Civil War was our first great mass struggle. No one embodied a cold-hearted willingness to kill more than Generals Grant and Sherman. In many ways they could be said to have created the American style of waging war. But with their informal ways, casualness about the niceties of military dress, and profound skepticism about the paths of glory, they would not have considered themselves warriors. And the men they led would have felt the same. The US and CSA volunteer regiments of that war took and inflicted casualties, and bore the casual deaths of disease, with enormous fortitude, but they did not think of themselves as warriors. That would have smacked of pretension and undercut motives which had little to do with ideals of warrior prowess – freedom for the slaves, preservation of the union, or defense of states’ rights.

And ironically, after the Civil War, the army’s principal task for forty years was the systematic elimination of a true warrior (and of course truly American) culture whose hostility to the exploitation of the West was seen as a threat to national interests and to the fulfillment of the national destiny.

In the Second World War, it was again our enemies who explicitly embraced a warrior culture. The Imperial Japanese Army, with its emphasis on a warrior code, and its corollary brutality towards those considered unworthy opponents, and the Waffen SS, with its emphasis on an Aryan tradition of warrior dating back to Tannenberg, were seen as all the more threatening and foreign precisely because of their emphasis on warrior traditions.

On the contrary, American officers, and the men they led, were uncomfortable with an emphasis on such virtues — to the extent that they didn’t loathe or deride them. Eisenhower, Bradley or Nimitz never portrayed themselves as warriors, and those who did, like Patton, were controversial figures. The greatest generation identified a job to be done, and took it to its conclusion, but did so without self-promotion or illusions of glory. Militarism was a quality to be suppressed, not exalted. The war’s great lesson was that citizen soldiers could indeed stand up to those inculcated in a warrior ethos, without themselves ever adopting the same trappings. The out-numbered sailors who manned the destroyer screen of Taffy 3 at Leyte Gulf against the core of the Japanese battlefleet fought with the same tenacity and courage as their opponents, and turned the tide of battle. For all that, they would have greeted an assertion that they were warriors with embarrassment or mockery.

Of course, in all of these conflicts some leaders craved glory above all, and for some soldiers and sailors the pursuit of war was in end in itself. It is probably the case that any conflict will bring out those qualities – and that their presence among at least some is a predicate to victory. But so long as we conducted great struggles with mass armies, the American people did not see their sons and brothers in the armed services as warriors, even if they sometimes admired them as heroes, which is a rather different thing. And more importantly, those serving as soldiers, sailors and marines, didn’t either. The word warrior simply never resonated in the citizen armies that fought our great wars.

Perhaps that’s just the point. The warrior concept began to take on currency after our armed services, in the wake of Vietnam, moved away from broad citizen participation, and sought an ethos that would differentiate the military community in a way that emphasized its unique qualities and values. It was perhaps seen as a way to animate and validate the experience of an all-volunteer force and a means to foster pride in the profession of arms in a way that more prosaic labels arguably cannot. It gathered momentum after 9/11, reinforced by the assertive stance of the Bush administration in the run up to the second Iraq War.

Other factors may be at work as well, as varied as the changes in society and technology in the last twenty years. As the culture wars have intensified, and insecurities about the long-term primacy of the United States have grown even at a time of unprecedented military dominance, invocation of the warrior invokes a belligerent pride that is both a rallying point for some domestic constituencies and an implicit message to some external threats. Perhaps there’s also an element of guilt on the part of the civilian population that is assuaged by glorifying those who do serve. It also resonates with changes in popular culture. Video games emphasize individual participants against disembodied, and often inhuman, enemies. Courage (of a surrogate nature to be sure), hard to hand combat, and quick coordination – warrior skills – take precedence over more abstract or civic virtues, whether they be long-term planning or cooperation with others.

Perhaps none of this would matter but for that fact that words like warrior are not just labels. They are also statements of attitude that carry their own consequences. Achilles is the greatest warrior in Western literature, the hero of its first great poem. He was violent and proud and fierce in combat. He stood alone against broader civil commitments. At the climax of the Iliad, he defeats the Trojan hero Hector — the better man in every measure of family and civic virtue, but ultimately the loser on the battlefield — and his sole goal is the abasement of his enemy. Hector begs for an honorable burial. Achilles promises Hector only that he will let dogs and vultures eat his flesh. In a frenzy of rage and pride, he mistreats Hector’s body for twelve days – until the Gods intervene.

Achilles the warrior would have understood, and likely approved, desecration of Taliban bodies – it is the culmination of the warrior’s ethos, the ultimate assertion of superiority in the fight. It is also at odds with our values as a society and inimical to our interests as a nation. Glorification of warrior virtues is discordant with our culture, and with the ideal that our soldiers and sailors are also citizens, tied by the same values that we all hold as Americans. We don’t need self-proclaimed warriors to win wars, as has been proven from the slopes of Gettysburg to the blasted villages of the Ardennes. We do the armed services no good when we seek to emphasize how different they are from those they are sworn to protect, and choose to emphasize only one element of the many qualities that should define our fighting men and women.

The most sacred spot at Arlington National Cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. If the word solider is good enough for the bodies lying there, it should be good enough for us.

A version of this essay was previously published in the December 2012 issue of Proceedings.

Author: John Allen Burgess

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