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On the Toxicity of the ‘Warrior’ Ethos

Do you remember how successful Zack Snyder’s 2006 film, 300, was?  It enjoyed a popular, if not cult, following amongst military personnel.  Its popularity generated widespread use of the film’s iconography and ‘Spartan’ became a brand used to promote ‘warrior’ values

That the author of the source graphic novel, Frank Miller, had a Huntingtonian agenda,1 and that this in turn was  based on Greek propaganda, was not taken into account.  Snyder’s romanticised image of heroic warriors does not match the historical reality.  Worse, it did not even occur to the promoters of the ‘warrior’ brand that the Spartans were a privileged minoritarian caste whose political and military system rested on slavery and the ruthless oppression of their population. 

Notwithstanding this 2006 film, the image of heroic ‘warriors’ is deeply embedded inside the military psyche.  There is a feeling amongst some military professionals that the ‘warrior ethos’ is needed to promote a more aggressive and independent ‘warfighting’ culture. Yet, even a basic review of the historical evidence shows that the warrior ethos is both toxic and dangerous to modern militaries.  ‘Warriors’ are rapists, murderers, and slave owners. Their values are the opposite of those that modern armed forces should aspire to. 

This article is split into three parts each making an interlocking argument: 

Firstly, it examines why soldiers are fascinated by warriors.  It argues that warrior societies fell behind stable and centralised nation-states because they lacked the discipline to succeed.  This led to their defeat by disciplined soldiers by 1900. 

Secondly, this article uses the post WW2 French Army as a case study to demonstrate why a warrior ethos ultimately leads to catastrophic moral failure with serious political consequences.  The warrior ethos weakened the French Army to the point of mutiny. This case study should be a warning to professionals who flirt with it today. 

Finally, this article concludes by arguing modern military professionals should aspire to another historical example, that of Roman Centurions.

The Warrior Fandom 

What do we mean by ‘warrior’?  John Keegan’s 1993 analysis offers a starting point; A warrior is a professional fighter trained since childhood whose class or caste holds power.  Warriors feel they own the exclusive right to apply violence or bear arms.  

Samurai, Feudal Knights, Turkic Mamelukes, and Eurasian steppe horsemen are prime examples of warriors who inherited their status from birth.  They held power in their respective societies because they were trained in the application of violence and valued it as a tool to seize power. Not because of any other contribution.  This in turn led to a chronic instability as they competed for power through conquest, war, and destruction. 

Early C16 etching of Mamluk Lancers

It’s easy to look back in awe at these cultures and study the romanticised images presented by films such as 300.  Yet, they fought, massacred, raped, enslaved, and pillaged for their own gain. If you are looking for actual warriors in the modern world then you need  look no further than the enemies of liberal democracies with their disregard for human life, their killing of non-combatants, their crimes against women and their lack of discipline.  That is what Pashtu insurgents, Boko Haram, and Mexican Drug Cartels still do today. The warrior culture is wholly toxic. 

Warriors Are on the losing side of history

For all the myths, warriors lost to disciplined soldiers on the battlefield.  The emergence of centralised state power, driven by the need to focus violence outside the borders of the state, was the primary factor behind this.  States took control of fiscal revenues and directly recruited men at arms from the population, rather than resting on feudal agents. As such, States were able to raise and maintain standing armies.  They could organise violence in pursuit of a unique coherent political project.  

New weapons, which reduced the time required to train soldiers, aided this process and the adoption of artillery.  Cannons were unaffordable for private armies and became a State monopoly. This sealed the superiority of standing armies and especially in the conduct of siege warfare.2  Logistics also evolved to enable the systematic feeding, clothing and paying of soldiers during campaigns instead of living off the land. 

The need to concentrate firepower converged with a cultural interest in ancient history.  Pike and shot battle formations drew inspiration from the Greek phalanx and evolved to draw inspiration from Roman Legion formations.3 

This combination of the professionalisation of arms and of the introduction of musket drill led to adoption of a Roman Legion inspired structure and discipline.  In Europe, and in its colonies, the warrior gave way to the soldier. But it was not the end of courage on the battlefield. Discipline gave European armies the square of the 27th of Foot at Waterloo, 60 Legionnaires versus 2000 Mexicans at Camerone, the Argyll and Sutherland’s ‘Thin Red Line’ at Balaklava, the 24th of Foot at Rorke’s Drift.   

27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot at the Battle of Waterloo 1815

With very few exceptions, disciplined and professional forces prevailed systematically over warriors they fought against.  Not because the Western race or civilisation was superior, as many Europeans believed, but because warrior societies are incapable of creating the conditions for similar scientific and industrial progress.4 For warriors, violence is a way of life, not a necessary evil.  As a result, infighting and violent internal power struggles are inherent to warrior societies.  Warriors were on the losing side of history.

The Pursuit of ‘Allyness’ and the Warrior Culture

Then, why are so many military personnel in awe of warrior figures?

Dominic Adler presents a humorous analysis of British Army subcultures, which he titles ‘the pursuit of allyness’.  Soldiering, for most, is a boring and mundane activity.  80% of soldiers spend 80% of their time conducting routinely uninteresting tasks.  Therefore, they fantasise about how their professional lives would be different if their job was rappelling onto balconies and kicking down doors.  Adler identifies a need to be different, to look ‘cool’, and present an image of their profession which is different to the reality.

This fascination for being a ‘warrior’ is the overarching concept behind the very existence of allyness and badassery as concepts within military culture.5  Warriors are bearded tomahawk wielding badasses that soldiers working in coveralls aspire to be.  Warriors make their own rules. Soldiers are bound by regulations.  

Beards and basassery. Soldiers aspire to look ‘ally’. Napoleon once said “a man will fight hard for a bit of ribbon”.

To sum up ‘warriors’, they seek to rule because 1) they alone think they can make war-winning decisions 2) a civilian power cannot understand their sacrifice and thus cannot be trusted and 3) they have historically been in power as a caste in ancient/tribal societies.  Because their cultures have historically carried weapons and been trained in the application of violence.

If you are a military leader reading this now and thinking that you can control the ‘warrior ethos’ then it’s time to take a condor moment.  The case of the post-WW2 French Army shows that the culture is toxic and invites poor discipline ultimately leading to mutiny. 

Case Study: French Army 1945-1962

The post-WW2 French Army merged two cultures.  On one hand, the Free French volunteers who had escaped occupied France in 1940.  They had been trained for service in North Africa as aggressive light infantry. Many of them had also been recruited to form commando units and SAS squadrons.  These men had, in turn, trained Résistance fighters in guerilla warfare. 

On the other hand, the Armée d’Afrique which had remained loyal to the collaborationist Vichy government until 1942.  This part of the French Army was largely composed of colonial troops recruited from indigenous populations.  It was a de facto ‘anti-guerilla’ force used to police French colonies. Its officers thought of themselves not as professionals but as tribal chiefs and their uniforms and culture was inspired by local traditions.  In the French Foreign Legion, for example, the Commanding Officer’s bugle salute remains today ‘Au caïd’. ‘Caïd’ being the title of Algerian tribal leaders.  

A group of French soldiers during Operation Camellia in Indochina over 24-28 September 1953. © ECPAD / Pierre Ferrari

Fashion and titles were not the only things that colonial officers borrowed from their indigenous troops.  The Armée d’Afrique also had a tribal, very personal, and almost cult-like, style of command. French Colonial officers were equally proud of the ‘savage’ or ‘fierce’ nature of their native troops owing to the casual racism of the day.6 

In the aftermath of WW2 these two cultures merged to produce a French version of the warrior: the ‘baroudeur’.  

The perfect model of a ‘baroudeur’ was Marcel Bigeard.  As a field-promoted sergeant he fought valiantly during the fall of France in 1940 and later fled to join the Vichy-controlled Armée d’Afrique.  Bigeard was then trained in airborne operations by the British and parachuted into France where he led a Résistance maquis.  After the war, Bigeard trained a generation of former Résistance guerilla fighters to become officers in the French Army before seeing action in Indochina as the commanding officer of an Airborne Colonial Battalion (6e BPC).  

Commander Bigeard at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu © ECPAD / Jean Péraud / Daniel Camus

Bigeard’s history sounds, and is, heroic.  Bigeard, and others,7 formed a generation of the French Army who merged these two cultures together: aggression and self-reliance of their commando/airborne training with the independent tribal cult-like warrior leadership of colonial officers.  

Yet the warrior freedoms of the French military culture were more appealing than the mundane discipline of conventional soldiering.  Brutal, independent from public scrutiny, unaccountable to the law and dismissive of human rights, these leaders turned their respective areas of operations into their own kingdoms. For Warriors, War is Personal

For Warriors, War Is Personal

The battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, in which the French Army was defeated by the Viet Minh, sealed the French defeat in Indochina.  The ‘baroudeurs’ blamed this failure on the French Government.  They were determined to prevent a similar outcome in Algeria (1954-1961).  Helped by an aggressive counterinsurgency doctrine, the French Army in Algeria faced a general breakdown in moral values and discipline accepted at the highest levels of command.  Officially deployed in support of ‘police operations’, French troops engaged in torture and murder of terror suspects on a wide scale.8  Rules did not apply to them and their legal masters could not understand their sacrifice.

When French President Charles De Gaulle sought a peaceful end to the conflict, his warriors rebelled.  To them, the war was personal and civilian control threatened their own political project for Algeria; a segregationist independent Algeria ruled by the European minority.  Their culture of insubordination meant they would not suffer their efforts and sacrifice being in vain. They refused to acknowledge that their tactical successes might result in strategic defeat.  

From left to right French Generals André Zeller, Edmond Jouhaud, Raoul Salan and Maurice Challe.
Wikipedia fair use.

French Officers, buoyed by their tribal take on command and leadership, were blinded by the belief that the casualties they had suffered entitled them to decide the fate of Algeria.  In 1961, four French generals staged a coup in Algiers and the warriors (Legionnaires and Paratroopers) followed their lead.  Announcing the coup to his warriors, the French General Challe openly said: ‘I’m in Algiers… to uphold our pledge, the Army’s pledge to keep Algeria, so that our dead would not have died in vain… Do you want to lower your flag once more, for the last time?  Then you would have lost everything, including your honour… The discipline that is our strength should never lead to dishonour.’9

For Challe, and his warrior comrades, the war was personal.

French Soldiers

Stemming from an entirely different military culture, the French conscripts did not follow the warrior Generals.  Their loyalty to the state, and not the warrior generals, meant that President De Gaulle was able to keep control of the situation.  

The conscripts saved the honour of the French Army by upholding loyalty and lawfulness while warriors used violence to achieve their own political agenda.  To counter the mutinous warriors, President De Gaulle had the leaders arrested and regiments disbanded.  

French Soldiers in Algeria 1960-1962

The warriors who had taken up arms against their legitimate government and escaped justice went into clandestinity.10  In their thirst for revenge they would later resort to terrorism in a bid to achieve their political goals through violence.  The warriors turned into terrorists and expressed dissent through blind violence, including attempts to assassinate De Gaulle.  The French warriors did not care about the legitimacy of the elected civilian Commander-in-Chief. They only cared only for their personal agenda.  

The French case study shows that the warrior ethos fosters a sense of being and separation from society.  Warriors wield arms because they were born to do so. This is the direct opposite to the values that modern military professionals, and especially the British military, should stand for. 

Part Three: Gloria Exercitus. The Roman Alternative

Military professionals clamour for charismatic figures to aspire to.  But the desire for heroic warrior leaders has blinded many to ethical and professional leaders who would provide better role models.  Roman Centurions are one alternative. 

As a modern cultural reference, think of Lucius Vorenus of HBO’s Rome.  A Centurion, charismatic, seasoned, professional, disciplined, and lawful.  He is physically fit out of personal pride, and he maintains himself to be an example to his subordinates.  Centurions were literate and honed their skills. They sharpened their minds through conceptual development.  Their pride was not so much personal as their sense of belonging to their beloved legion’s glorious history. Centurions  were calm, collected, and dedicated professionals. 

More importantly, and in contrast to the warriors examined above, they were an integral part of the society that they defended.  The officers were also politicians, lawmakers, or civil servants. The Roman Legions were an inclusive organisation where soldiers were rewarded with land.  Non-citizens, regardless of religion and ethnicity, were welcome and rewarded with citizenship at the end of their service. Inclusivity and discipline are values which stand this culture apart from warriors. 

To illustrate the value of this culture, a more modern example is the French Foreign Legion during the Battle of Camerone in 1863.  The Foreign Legion has always sought to integrate refugees into service.  They were disciplined and thoroughly drilled owing to their Swiss Guard lineage which in turn drew from Roman culture.  The officers that led a company into what would be the French Foreign Legion’s finest hours were clerks, quartermasters and members of society.  Steadfast, dedicated, lawful, professional, experienced in their fields, but by no means warriors. Their example is one that we can offer to the whole of defence and to the wider society.

This is not to say that violence should not be trained and controlled.  The core role of the armed forces is, afterall, to break things and kill people.  A martial or combat ethos is a necessity. Military professionals would reap the benefits, both cultural and physical, of introducing a combatives system.  Such a culture would, much like the USMC MCMAP, not only serve an immediate purpose in close quarter battle but also to infuse martial values. The Royal Marines Commandos and the Gurkhas have been beneficially training in martial arts and there is no reason preventing the rest of the Forces from doing the same.  If leaders can separate their ideology from warriors and define a more professional future. A combatives system and a martial ethos would also help in giving personal fitness goals. More importantly it would provide a code that promotes individually taking ownership and care of one’s own fighting abilities.  This is the mentality of the Roman Centurion. 

Cover photo is French soldier patrolling in Algeria. ©Claude Cuny/ ECPAD

Ryan Noordally
Ryan Noordally

Ryan is a sergeant in the Royal Artillery with ten years of experience in the Surveillance Target Acquisition branch.  Prior to this he taught history and geography in a French college in Africa.  An aikido brown belt, he is now a novice Brazilian Jujitsu enthusiast


  1. After Samuel P. Huntington, author of the Clash of Civilizations, 1996 who argued that future wars would be fought between cultures and that Islamic extremism would become the biggest threat to world peace after the end of the Cold War.
  2. Cf. Black, Jeremy, A Military Revolution?: Military Change and European Society, 1550–1800 (London, 1991)
  3. Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange countered the reputedly invincible Spanish ‘Tercios’ (which borrowed heavily from the Macedonian Phalanx) with maniple-inspired formations. He based his innovations on the writings of Roman Empire military authors Vegetius (circa AD 450) and Aelius (AD 101-138), cf. Glete, Jan, War and the State in Early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic and Sweden as fiscal military states, 1500-1600 (London/New York, 2002)
  4. Hoffman, Philip T., Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (Princeton, 2015)
  5.  ‘Allyness’ is best described as military fashion sense, i.e. wearing various non-issue items, or modifying issue clothing or equipment in order to look subtly different from one’s peers
  6. The British Empire came up with the invention of ‘Martial Races’ in India, remnants of which are still visible in the depiction of Gurkhas in British media. Cf. Streets, Heather, Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914 (Manchester, 2004)
  7. Jacques Massu, Jean Sassi, Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc, to name a few.
  8. Several French intelligence officers would go onto train South American dictatorships death squads in the Dirty War (1976-1983). Cf Robin, Marie-Monique, Escadrons da la mort, l’école française, (Paris, 2008)
  9. General Challe’s speech of April 22 1961 at 0630 hours announcing the coup and appealing to the army to follow his and Gen Salan, Jouhaud and Zeller’s lead.
    ‘Je suis à Alger(…) pour tenir notre serment de l’armée de garder l’Algérie pour que nos morts ne soient pas morts pour rien(…) Voulez-vous une fois de plus, la dernière, amener votre drapeau. Alors vous auriez tout perdu, même l’honneur (…). La discipline qui fait notre force ne saurait en aucun cas conduire au déshonneur.’ (Translated by the author)
  10. The Organisation Armée Secrète, or OAS (meaning Secret Army Organisation) was a right-wing French dissident paramilitary organisation during the Algerian War.  It carried out terrorist attacks including bombings and assassinations with a death toll of between 1,600 and 2,000 as an attempt to prevent Algerian independence.

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