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Long Read Military History Opinion People and Leadership

The ‘Warrior Culture’ is more than a Badge

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

The term ‘Warrior’ is a military affectation.

Romanticised on the cinema screen and popularised during operations in Afghanistan, one might have expected its use to decline when combat operations ceased in 2014.  Yet, while not as persistent as the British Army’s peculiar affection for the ’58 pattern belt, the ‘warrior culture’ continues to linger.  In recent history, breakfasts, fitness, mindset, and regimental recruitment campaigns have all been given the warrior moniker.  Unlike discussions on belts, beards, and haircuts, however, ‘warrior’ needs genuine and mature debate as there is a much deeper issue at stake.  Writing in the Wavell Room in April 2020, Ryan Noor was absolutely right to question whether adoption of ‘warriors’ is appropriate at all.  His is the latest voice in a line of commentators that have questioned the utility of the mentality.  Unlike Ryan, I do not believe the warrior ethos to be inherently toxic.  Rather it is a tool that can be used for good.  Nevertheless, like developing any ethos or culture it requires effort and cultivation.

This article explores two issues.  Firstly, what the thirst for the warrior ethos tells us about the strength of identity today.  Secondly, the deeper meaning of the ‘warrior ethos’.

Had I been writing this article just a few years ago I would have agreed that the warrior ethos was flawed.  It seems the antithesis of military professionalism.  A mentality at odds with the restrained way in which British units traditionally identity and differentiate themselves.  Parading dogs, ferrets or goats or battle honours, for example, seem unlikely companions to the popular image of a warrior.  Ryan asks military professions to not aspire to the film ‘300’ but to be more like a Roman Centurion.  Whilst it’s easy to appreciate the sentiment, in contrast to Ryan I would not draw the conclusion that warriors are rapists, murders and slave owners.  The popular image of the warrior plays up the application of violence and a particular image. 

Today though, I am no longer convinced the warrior ethos is toxic.  As a label, forming part of an individual’s identity, it can be a positive both in terms of cohesion and belonging.  It can also form part a deeper and more lasting shield against moral injury.  What is damaging is when historical models are picked over to fit a particular narrative without full examination.  This is where Ryan’s argument that a fictional Roman Centurion offers an alternative role model falters.  Romans, after all, did some pretty bad things, the sacking of Carthage for example.

Embracing the Romans might also mean exchanging one ethos that is susceptible to misinterpretation with another, this time the Stoics, or personal ethics.  Nancy Sherman observes that the philosophy of Stoics is not a perfect match for the contemporary military.  Simply reading Meditations ought not lead one to proclaim themselves a Stoic.  The same caution should hold true with warrior ethos.  Those attempting to harness the warrior ethos really need to think about what they’re getting into.  There is far more to it than looking ‘ally’ and fighting well.  Applying the warrior ethos well requires an interdisciplinary approach that takes time and effort. 

Ryan offers an analysis of what it means to be a warrior from John Keegan, which emphasises the notion that warriors are separate from society.  Such a distinction though does not figure in the Oxford Dictionary definition; ‘a person who makes war upon or persecutes another’ or ‘a person whose occupation is warfare; a fighting man, whether soldier, sailor, or (latterly) airman; (in eulogistic sense) a valiant or an experienced man of war’. 

True, the former links the warrior to the image presented by Ryan but the latter bears the hallmarks of the soldier.  The dictionary defines soldier as a person of military skill and experience.  The distinction appears to be one of an interpretation of history rather than language.  Ryan argues that warrior cultures were defeated by disciplined soldiers.  An alternative view of history would suggest that the societies he references were undone by treachery and mercenaries, as much as the growth of the state.  Ryan is succumbing to a romanticised Renaissance view of the professional soldier and is arguably dismissive of the worth and culture of past militaries. 

Ryan use of the post WW2 French Army as a case study could also be problematic.  One might ask more about the structural conditions in French politics that led to the coup by French Officers.  It may be the case that it was less ‘warrior ethos’ and more political discord that prompted their actions.  Modern armies, even when not emphasising warrior identities, do not have a perfect record of behaviour.  Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts and Huw Bennett’s work on the Mau Mau should make uncomfortable reading for all professional soldiers.

Harking back to soldiers of the past has always happened.  From personal experience, I can recall soldiers in Afghanistan as early as 2005 stylising themselves as descendants of the jäger tradition, despite the lack of any obvious connection in regimental history.  This was done because they felt there was a common bond in purpose and approach.  Such connections are not limited to the Army.  Witness, for example, the submarine service flying the Jolly Roger or air forces marking their planes with successful kills.  Such actions are indicative of a desire to carve out identity.  A Professor of military ethics, Pauline Shanks Kaurin, highlights that identity is not static.  Instead, identity is the result of a ‘long, dynamic and critical process’.  The product of this reflection, she argues, goes on to shape individual effectiveness, agency and group cohesion.  Commanders, therefore, need to understand the consequences of the identity they foster. 

Ryan argues that ‘300’ provided the catalyst for contemporary warrior emulation.  Soldiers, new and old, want an identity that distinguishes them from their peers in other units and certainly from those who choose not to serve.  That is why military identity is held in such high regard by those that have served.  The reaction to Ryan’s article from some quarters is evidence of the passion with which some will defend their identity.  Perhaps the warrior status is simply an evolution of this tendency. 

One might suggest that the desire to embrace a warrior ethos reflects a dissatisfaction with the use of military identities of the past.  Perhaps lines of red coats or khaki battle dress no longer resonate when today’s leaders focus on empowerment and mission command, both of which feel the opposite of historical soldiering.

Or maybe the use of ‘warrior’ is an attempt to preserve something of the language of war.  In an era when the military has become everything and the language of conflict and heroes is pervasive, only a soldier can claim to be a warrior.  Embracing this new identity takes on greater importance when the public regard soldiers as the victims of others’ decisions. 

The timing of the release of ‘300’ occurred at a point when the austerity of living, fighting, and simply surviving in the deserts and fields of Afghanistan was relatively new.  Perhaps the imagery of the film, combined with the context soldiers found themselves in, provided an identity that soldiers could relate to and find comfort and solace in.  As Ryan notes ‘allyness’ is something that many soldiers aspire towards, and the stereotypical warrior seems to have it. 

Photographs from Afghanistan captured an array of military cultures at work, from militias to special forces.  Differently attired and, in some cases, spectacularly bearded, such images have caught the imagination of what a modern soldier ought to look like.  Hard fighting and living in an environment which emphasised differences between cultures; perhaps no one should be surprised that warrior idolatry took hold.  But when an individual adopts the warrior ethos, do they understand what they are emulating?  Looking ‘ally’ is one thing but there are deeper associations with the warrior that need to be understood. 

Suggesting something is complex is required analysis these days but it is, alas, the case with the warrior ethos.  Shannon E. French’s The Code of the Warrior addresses this complexity in her examination of warrior codes through the ages.  Ranging across a variety of cultures, her work shows how warrior codes included concepts of restraint, that codes were reinforced by its members, and those found to have broken the code could expect punishment.  There was more though:   

‘By setting standards of behaviour for themselves, accepting certain restraints, and even honouring their enemies, warriors can create a lifeline that will allow them to pull themselves out of the hell of war and reintegrate themselves into their society.’

Shannon French, The Code of the Warrior

Reminiscent of what society demands of a contemporary soldier, Christopher Coker makes the point that the popularised version of the warrior, reflected in ‘300’, has cheapened the actual meaning of the warrior ethos; a belief that served to make war more humane.  I’d suggest that Ryan falls into the trap of viewing historical warriors through their actions rather than grappling with the depths of the ethos.

Shannon French and Christopher Coker both make the case that a warrior code provides a form of psychological lifeline or shield from the moral injury that can arise from participating in combat.  It may well play a part in combating the weariness and toil seen in the faces of those returning from combat.  This is only effective, though, when the ethics are understood.  Ancient warriors achieved this deep understanding as a result of the immersive nature of their development. There are certainly interpretations and examples from historical warrior codes that are incompatible with contemporary soldiering.  But that doesn’t mean that a warrior code is irrelevant.

In the case of the British Army, ethics are found in the statement of service Values and Standards.  These values, rooted in virtue ethics, are not that dissimilar to those a warrior culture would demand from its members.  As Tom McDermott argues some ‘virtues are agnostic’ of outcome.  As a simple example, loyalty can serve or harm the soldier if not properly understood.  One could argue that the legionnaires at Camerone and in Algeria both demonstrated loyalty to the idea of France, if not to the direct chain of command.  British readers would do well not to forget the admonishment of the ‘green wall of silence’ in Iraq.  It is not the values that are toxic, but the way in which they are treated and applied.  This shows that the development of the warrior ethos requires physical, spiritual, and intellectual engagement.  Ryan’s recommendation for a combative system acknowledges part of this, whilst failing to mention that the US Army version explicitly links to the Soldier’s Creed and the warrior ethos. 

Invoking the warrior ethos demands tensions, nuances, and subtleties be fully explored and explained.  Reducing the discussion of values and ethics to a tick box exercise doesn’t cut it nor does simply embracing Spartan imagery.  This is the point that Coker makes.  As H.R. McMaster states ‘the military must also work to understand and preserve its own values and do so in a manner consistent with its place in a democratic society.’  That is arguably the true embodiment of the warrior ethos and not the adoption of an imagined warrior style.              

One could make the case that the warrior ethos is inappropriate for much of the Army.  The application of violence is, after all, not the primary responsibility for large numbers of military personnel.  Pauline Shanks Kaurin offers the ‘Guardian Identity’ as an alternative that allows an individual to balance their war fighting identity with the other tasks that fall to them.  This is appealing, especially given that until the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan military forces were engaged in very different types of activity.  But debating warrior or guardian in this instance is to return to the argument that lies at the heart of Ryan’s article; what type of ethos and identity is useful for the contemporary military professional?

Establishing one’s own identity, and that of the group, is of fundamental importance.  Calling to the past to reinforce the identity is useful because it creates a lineage and a sense of continuation from which spirit can be drawn.  Perhaps there should be concern that traditional military identities no longer seem to resonate.  There is a need for further study of this phenomena.  To be successful any identity needs to have a firm ethical base and be treated critically.  Simple imitation of another’s identity and ethics isn’t flattery; it is lazy.  And dangerous.

Regardless of whether individuals or units choose to style themselves warriors, guardians, soldiers, or something else, it is incumbent that the ethics and values are understood and filtered to ensure that they are compatible with the contemporary context.  As Sharron French notes ‘the key is to select for preservation only what is consistent with the values cherished by contemporary warrior cultures’.  That is a responsibility for military leaders.  Anyone who thinks that a warrior ethos simply means looking ‘ally’ will be sadly disappointed, and will do themselves and their people no favours. 

Cover photo by Manoj kumar kasirajan on Unsplash

Gareth W

Gareth W is a British Army officer. In his 17th year of service, he is now involved in the development of future leaders.

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