The British Army faces an increasingly complex operating environment, in which soldiers are ever more responsible for actions whose impact will go beyond the reach of their rifle and in which the factors to be understood at the Platoon level are every bit as complex as those facing the GOC. In this often intellectually bewildering context, the Warrior Ethos has become a useful shorthand for the way in which soldiers are subject to different expectations from civilians, reminding us of why we are different, and of the foundations for military service, no matter how far that service might take us from the controlled application of violence. In parallel, society and the military have become more tolerant of difference, be it in race, gender or sexuality, to the extent that organisationally, the British Army has recognised not only that a failure to recruit female, black or gay talent is a failure to recruit talent, but has also recognised that a diverse team with divergent viewpoints and life experiences is better equipped for high performance than a homogenous one. However, integration and the development of a truly inclusive culture is a challenging and, for now, incomplete process which faces considerable resistance, largely as a result of well-intentioned and heartfelt views based in unconscious bias; one of argument used to reject the diversity agenda is that it dilutes the Warrior Ethos, that diversity somehow means becoming softer and less tough.
In July 2015, USA Today printed a report detailing the removal from post of Lt Col Kate Germano, who had been CO of a US Marine Training Battalion. Under the headline “Marines balance warrior spirit and diversity”, former US Marine Corps officer and journalist Jim Michaels posed a question:
“Born inauspiciously in a Philadelphia tavern in 1775, the Marine Corps has grown into the country’s preeminent 911 force, proving itself in battles from Tripoli to the streets of Fallujah, Iraq. Along the way the Marines built a legend based on grit and raw courage. It’s what propelled them across the beaches of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal and through Hue City’s deadly streets in Vietnam. Is it now facing a new challenge as America’s culture of inclusiveness seeps into the service and threatens to dilute the warrior ethos that has set it apart from the other services for more than 200 years?”1
The inference is very clear; inclusivity and diversity threaten the culture of grit and courage on which the US Marine Corps depends. Interestingly, though, beyond the hyperbole of the newspaper headline, the story reveals a much more interesting story, of a hard, clearly very soldier like, female Commanding Officer who refused to accept a broad range of ways in which it was assumed that her female trainees would perform to a lower standard than their male peers, including areas in which gender was self-evidently irrelevant, such as marksmanship. Lieutenant Colonel Germano recognised that such dual standards did not amount to diversity, but rather reinforced gender bias; presumably, however, her chain of command was more interested in demonstrating this hollow version of diversity than really empowering the female trainees. In this case, it was not diversity that threatened to dilute the Warrior Ethos, but a politically correct approach to inclusion whose focus had drifted from military capability towards other, peripheral priorities.
The Warrior Ethos itself deserves some attention and definition at this point. Very much en vogue at the moment, it is a short piece of US Army doctrine which is a distillation of some very important and fundamental ideas. The encapsulated Warrior Ethos of the US Army is:
“I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.”2
Explained and described in FM 3-21.75, the purpose of the ethos is to motivate soldiers to persevere, to refuse defeat and to forge victory from chaos, even when hungry, tired and afraid. Like the Moral Component in UK Doctrine, the Warrior Ethos is all about the will to fight. The Ethos is supported by a doctrinally-defined Warrior Culture, a US Army concept of a “martial ethic” which connects the warriors of today with those of the past and their sacrifice.3 Increasingly, it is also being borrowed as a phrase by the British Army to reflect an approach which emphasises the importance of basic military skills, tactical excellence and personal readiness for warfighting operations. In this culture, there is no place to hide; every member of the warrior tribe must be fit, tough and good at fighting above all else; leaders must be particularly so.
When reading the US Field Manual, the most obvious example of the Warrior Ethos in action from my own experience was the attitude demonstrated by officers and soldiers from The Parachute Regiment. Their selection process, the recent legends of Arnhem and Goose Green and their national profile had by the 1990s created a culture of fierce personal pride, of belief that they could fight and win and a focus on the business of fighting. This, I would argue, is the Warrior Culture and, therefore, the Warrior Ethos, at its purest.
The majority of the British Army’s Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery Regiments represent a proud tradition of homogenous, almost tribal service. Men recruited from the same demographic groups in the same region had much in common and could easily be brought together in their homogeneity. My first Troop was full of young men from Burnley, from Blackpool and Bolton; always quick to disparage each other’s home and football team, they were even faster to condemn Yorkshiremen and Southerners. If they played Rugby, they played League. It is easy to see how those of us who have grown up in this world can see diversity as a threat; without the shared experience before recruitment, how could we be expected to build teams that close?
The answer, I would suggest, is obvious to any soldier with experience of leading young recruits through their training to become soldiers. We don’t build disciplined, motivated, fighting teams simply by collecting young men from one place. We build those teams by imbuing our soldiers with the Warrior Ethos; mission first, never give up, never leave a fallen comrade4. Or, to use the equivalent British Army mantra; Selfless Commitment, Integrity, Loyalty, Respect for Others, Discipline, Courage. It is these shared values and their embrace that provides the foundation of truly effective fighting teams. That these values are not dependent on homogeneity is evident in the example of a Warrior Culture used above. In 1982, 2 Para was one of the few infantry battalions not to be regionally recruited, making them one of the most diverse. This diversity was no drawback at Goose Green, where their warrior culture and fighting spirit as paratroopers kept them moving forwards, rather than a shared experience of life before becoming soldiers. Homogeneity provides an illusion; while we may prefer working with people who share our background and our characteristics, we must be ready and determined to work alongside any member of our military tribe when the need arises, blind to their colour, gender or sexuality. If we cannot embrace diversity and commit to one another as soldiers and comrades above all else, we have abandoned the Warrior Ethos; if we cannot put the team first, we are not soldiers.
And yet the perceived tension between diversity and the Warrior Ethos remains a widely-held concern. Perhaps the most contentious source of diversity is gender. The physical differences between men and women make it much easier to make excuses about the integration of women and to form arguments that they compromise the Warrior Ethos. A black man or a gay man will be expected to pass exactly the same fitness tests as a white, straight man, but a woman will be held to a different standard, making it easier for bias to be justified. In the US Marine Corps example cited at the outset, it is clear that for many influential individuals, the training of female marines meant a lowering of standards. Lieutenant Colonel Germano suggests that this lowering of standards and separation in training is intended, either consciously or subconsciously, to prevent female marines from competing as equals with their male counterparts, ensuring that even the very best of them are regarded as second-class marines.5.
She also highlights an obstacle in the connection between the warriors of today and those of the past. Our heroes, the paragons of our Warrior Ethos, are all men. This gives room for confusion and for the confirmation of bias.6 USMC reservist Steven Pressfield’s “The Warrior Ethos” provides an excellent example of how a presumably well-intentioned individual with a little experience of military life can describe a culture and approach which is exclusively male-dominated, with women relegated without comment to the roles of mothers, wives and victims. The viewpoint he published in 2011 advocates such archaic masculine role models and attitudes that only loaded descriptions like patriarchal will suffice. In his text, he provides examples of warrior heroes such as Alexander the Great and Leonidas of Sparta, pointing to their personal bravery, their willingness to endure and their refusal to back down from a fight as key characteristic of the Warrior Ethos.7.
In doing so, he points to one of the apparent challenges we face in modern armies as we recognise and embrace diversity: that all of our historical role models are men. Not only that, but our tribal Regimental system means that we honour our very bravest men above all others; those whose physical courage has become legend. For my first regiment, this means a daily remembrance of a brave man whose arrogant stupidity led to the near-destruction of his brigade.8. Although as a naturally conservative cavalryman I would not change that tradition for a moment, I also recognise that there could not be a less appropriate role-model for a young soldier. I would also argue that the pantheon of brave white men whose exploits we all celebrate with justifiable pride are not a complete mirror for who we hope to be as warriors in the contemporary environment and into the future.
As Lieutenant Colonel E H Carpenter argues in his 2013 critique of Pressfield’s view, the Warrior Ethos has evolved as the character of war changes. The finest leaders will not always be in the very front line, painful initiations into the warrior tribe are not acceptable and ultimate victory will often come from the decision not to fight. There can be no doubt that the Warrior Ethos which has served so well through the ages must continue to evolve to meet the challenges of the wars we are going to be required to fight in the future.9. After the Crimean War, we recognised that selling commissions was not a sensible officer selection process; by the Boer War, we had learned that the relative safety of khaki was preferable to the bravery of a scarlet tunic. Both of these changes directly challenged aspects of a Warrior Ethos previously prevalent in these islands for centuries, but nobody would dream of arguing that they were not a necessary part of an evolution to meet the ever-changing operating environment. The Warrior Ethos has always evolved to fit the changing character of conflict; has always evolved despite the protests of comfortable conservatives; and it will continue to evolve into the future.
The beginning of the 21st Century is a time of uncomfortable evolution in warfare; soldiering has become an activity which requires more universal intelligence and thought and less brute force. In a process which has been going on for 100 years, since the arrival of the tank and the Royal Flying Corps, every soldier must be comfortable operating equipment much more sophisticated than their rifle and will be required to make decisions which may have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of a whole campaign. Although this process has been going on for a century, the exponential speed of technological advances in weapon systems on the battlefield and in information flows across the world over the last 30 years has had a fundamental impact, with which I would argue we are struggling to keep up. It is these factors that have created the need for the Warrior Ethos to broaden and become more consciously inclusive.
That changes to the way we fight have largely been driven by changes in society is nothing new; it is absolutely not the role of an army to reflect society, but any army that limits its recruitment, even unintentionally, to traditional homogenous demographics within that society is failing to recruit all the best talent. It is, therefore, accepting mediocrity; the very antithesis of the Warrior Ethos. Put to one side the studies proving that diversity delivers results in the civilian world10 (because such studies have yet to be made in a military context); we simply cannot afford not to employ every individual with the talent, character and ambition to become an effective warrior in today’s army.
The Warrior Ethos is at its clearest and simplest when stripped down, whether into the 4 promises of the US Army Doctrine or into the British Army’s Values and Standards. Either can be illustrated with examples from history and they can be woven into the tribal lore of our Regiments and their traditions, but they are not the preserve of any type of person, other than those who volunteer to serve as warriors. They are the basis around which professional military culture must hang, which has evolved and will always evolve to suit the changing way in which wars are fought. Regularly through the history of the British Army, there have been times when evolution in our culture feels like revolution; at these times there have always been the reactionaries such as those ignoring Lidell-Hart and resisting mechanisation while Guderian built on the lessons of the First World War. At these times of change, there is fear that the Warrior Ethos is in peril and that the fragile culture of our fighting troops could be diluted or lost. But the Warrior Ethos is not a fragile relic. It is a living, changing thing rooted in centuries of example and history; it has survived disgrace and glory; industrialisation and mechanisation; and it will survive the information age, evolving to suit the demands of warfare in this century and beyond. Accepting, including and cherishing an increasingly diverse range of modern warriors will absolutely and inevitably be a part of that evolution.
Headquarters, Department of the Army, FM 3-21.75 “The Warrior Ethos and Soldier Combat Skills” Washington D.C., 2013
Pressfield, S, “The Warrior Ethos”, Black Irish Entertainment New York 2011
Carpenter, E. H., “Steven Pressfield’s The Warrior Ethos: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint.” Umberella Books, Las Vegas 2013
Hunt, V. et al., “Diversity Matters.” McKinsey and Company, London 2015
- Michaels, J., “Marines balance warrior spirit and diversity” USA Today 28 Jul 2015 https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/07/28/quest-inclusiveness-undermining-corps-germano/30463249/ (accessed 3 March 2018)
- Headquarters, Department of the Army, FM 3-21.75 “The Warrior Ethos and Soldier Combat Skills” Washington D.C. 2013, p.1-1
- Ibid p.1-3
- The more prosaic phrase used in the UK is “Don’t jack on your mates”
- Germano, Kate “Diversity and the Warrior Ethos” Email to the author, 3 March 2018. Personal communication.
- Pressfield, S, “The Warrior Ethos”, Black Irish Entertainment New York 2011
- For an explanation, see https://www.krh.org.uk/staff-parade-1868.html
- Carpenter, E. H., “Steven Pressfield’s The Warrior Ethos: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint.” Umberella Books, Las Vegas 2013
- Hunt, V. et al., “Diversity Matters.” McKinsey and Company: 2015