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Long Read Wavell Chats

Wavell Chats: Warrior Ethos

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Wavell Room followers have been discussing the warrior ethos recently. We have featured two articles. The first, by Ryan Noor, argues that ‘Warriors’ are rapists, murderers, and slave owners“. The second, by Gareth W, argued that there isn’t a problem with the warrior culture, rather, how leaders choose to interpret it.

The topic has caused much debate on our pages and social media. This makes it the ideal subject for our first Wavell Chat. The aim is to bring together experts for a free-flowing discussion on an important issue. Unlike a traditional article, however, a Wavell Chat gives contributors a chance to explore ideas and frictions in arguments in real time and unscripted.

For this discussion, we roped in Ryan Noor, Angry Staff Officer (who wrote the excellent piece “Stop Calling us Warriors“), and Gareth. We’ll let them introduce themselves:

Matt

So before we really crack into debating the warrior ethos, we probably should introduce ourselves for the readers.

Matt

I’m Matthew, I’m student at King’s College London doing War Studies

RyanNoor

I’m Ryan, JNCO in the Royal Artillery, former student at the University of Strasburg (long time ago)

angrystaffofficer

Angry Staff Officer, captain, US Army National Guard, engineers. Gin and coffee drinker.

Gareth

I’m Gareth, an Army officer, juggling home working, Disney+ and trying to keep my children doing their school work.

angrystaffofficer

@Matt – can I hype this on Twitter?

Matt

Please do – Twitter hype’s never a bad thing!

Matt

And brilliant. So now our readers know who we all are, I think the first question is – why does this debate Matter? What’s important about the warrior ethos?

RyanNoor

What’s important about any fighting person’s ethos?

angrystaffofficer

I think it’s a Matter of organizational self-reflection – who we are, and who we see ourselves AS, Matters. We can’t know what we’re going to do if we don’t know who we are.

Gareth

It Matters because of the way that the warrior ethos has crept into our language and is becoming an increasingly central part of people’s military identity.

RyanNoor

I would add that the ‘how’ you fight Matters as much as the ‘why’ in terms of morality, but I do not want to blur the fine line between morality and thicsa

RyanNoor

ethics

angrystaffofficer

And I think it’s important to add that this debate is not about somehow making our forces less lethal – it’s about increased lethality in a professional force, and modelling that image.

Gareth

You can probably delete fighting from Ryan’s first question and it applies to everyone. Understanding the ethos is important as it influences how and why we do things.

RyanNoor

‘Image’ is the key word, how we see ourselves, what we would like to be seen as

RyanNoor

And this is why both angrystaffofficer and I have referred to pop culture elements likely to influence or to be used to influence service personnel

Gareth

This is the problem that I have had with the warrior ethos in the past. Too many have brought into the image without getting into the underpinning purpose. Engaging with the concepts is time consuming, quite hard work and not always immediately rewarding.

Matt

If the problem is people buying into image and not purpose – what do you think the purpose is, Gareth?

Matt

(Ryan and ASO – please feel free to weigh in on this too, of course)

angrystaffofficer

That’s why the term “warrior” catches on so quickly, I think. It evokes a simple image that people can latch onto without much thought – it’s a marketing gig that got turned into an ethos and is rapidly spreading into an ideology. Ironic, really

Gareth

For me its a framework to think about how and why we apply force, our relationship with each other and the communities we serve. I don’t think it is static; indeed it shouldn’t be.

RyanNoor

I think that Gareth was right to point out in his article that there isn’t A warrior ethos but several and they might not be what I’m wary of rather than what a projected warrior ethos is used for. So I’m going to name things: toxic masculinity or nationalist politic views

angrystaffofficer

I’d add to that – it’s also an emotional appeal. “Warrior” is evocative language. “Soldier” is as well, but not the same level of innate and underlying power. Soldier is faceless. Warrior is Achilles.

Gareth

ASO is right about the pop culture image having become a marketing tool. Unfortunately it has obscured the really important role of the ethos. And too many people have brougt into the iconogaphy and dressing up.

RyanNoor

The ‘warrior’ or what some people make of it is a convenient model to latch onto to refuse the changes in societies and the armed forces that reflect them.

Matt

Speaking of pop culture – I guess the elephant in the room is . How influential was that movie, do you think? Has there been anything like that before or since?

Gareth

Absolutely agree with Ryan that far too often the warrior thing is being used to market another agenda.

RyanNoor

I think it started with the revival of the sword and sandal via Gladiator

angrystaffofficer

I’d go even further back – Blackhawk Down

RyanNoor

Jean Michelin of the French #MilTwitter fame told me he had to grip a young Lt who used ‘At my command unleash Hell’ every time he called for fires…

angrystaffofficer

First, I love that there’s a French MilTwitter – and second, oh lord yes. And let’s be honest – Gladiator, Blackhawk Down, We Were Soldiers – all fun movies to watch. Historical? Welllllll, kinda. Useful for an underlying ethos? Depends

Gareth

The trope of the individual battling against the odds is everywhere. It doesn’t confine itself to war movies or literature.

RyanNoor

We should not forget video games too, Assassin’s Creed, God of War

RyanNoor

Even in a cooperative mode, a computer game is a deeply individual experience and is often about a single hero in a hostile environment

angrystaffofficer

Gareth nails the salient point we’ve been circling – that it’s about individuals, rather than something greater than the individual. The individual as a warrior is sort of iconic, and deep in American-English mythology. Take Horatius at the bridge, for example.

Gareth

It seems that we are exposing our people to an image and not going beyond it. Ryan – is there enough done to develop an understanding of ethos for soldiers. ASO – I’d be keen to hear the US approach.

Matt

More broadly, we’ve got experts on the British, American, and French armies here; do you think the warrior ethos differs on lines of nationality?

RyanNoor:

“It seems that we are exposing our people to an image and not going beyond it. Ryan – is there enough done to develop an understanding of ethos for soldiers. ASO – I’d be keen to hear the US approach.”

@Gareth I don’t think there is, and this is why I have written this article. We are ‘branding’ the warrior and recycling pop culture iconography without any sort of distinction

Gareth

The ethos might be held by the individual but if done propely ought to bind them to something much bigger.

angrystaffofficer

Gareth, we have an entire Warrior Ethos in the US Army – https://www.army.mil/article//warrior_ethos The US Army has latched onto this so hard that the current recruiting campaign is “What’s your warrior?”

Gareth

But is there deeper discussion about the ethos beyond that? I look at it and can’t help but wonder if a slogan has replaced difficult conversations. I could make the same accusation against how the Values and Standards are sometimes approached in the UK

RyanNoor

The French have bought into it too and it’s not without benefits (mission command, self-reliance, aggression, agility). However, as the French Army uses the term warrior, they don’t refer to anything specific as in time/culture. Some odd regiment might be named after a Gallic tribe but it’s often a nickname dating back to C and tied with the recruitment local area

RyanNoor

On Twitter, there have been individuals who in reaction to my article, called for dropping some of the V&S because we had an ‘unfair’ fight doing COIN against insurgents. This is the danger of using a version of the warrior ethos to ignore the LOAC when fighting an enemy that ignores it.

angrystaffofficer

The actual ethos of the US Army goes deeper than the idea of warrior, but it often gets lost in the simplistic view that the name brings. It’s an attempt to build a false sense of history and narrative that doesn’t need to be built, since the American soldier already has that history. Officers of the early US Republic esteemed being a good citizen above being a warrior. I think that’s what gets lost here.

Gareth:

The French have bought into it too and it’s not without benefits (mission command, self-reliance, aggression, agility). However, as the French Army uses the term warrior, they don’t refer to anything specific as in time/culture. Some odd regiment might be named after a Gallic tribe but it’s often a nickname dating back to C and tied with the recruitment local area

@RyanNoor ASO makes this point at the end of his article about embracing our own history to illustrate an ethos. In one of the comments to Ryan’s articele someone said that the type of operations today required more of a warrior ethos. i wonder if people are looking back at regimental history and they aren’t finding something they can connect to.

Matt

Is there something particularly appealing about more ancient, ‘warrior’, histories than more modern examples? Why is Thermopylae more engaging than, for example, Buford at Gettsyburg?

RyanNoor

Going back to pop cul

“@RyanNoor i wonder if people are looking back at regimental history and they aren’t finding something they can connect to.”

@Gareth I think that the answer lies, again, in pop culture. The power of discipline and collective endeavours has not been shown in cinemas or on other medias for a long time. I can only think of Master and Commander for instance

RyanNoor:

“Why is Thermopylae more engaging than, for example, Buford at Gettsyburg?”

@Matt Two things, the Huntingtonian spin on it, and abs, oily, bulging, sexy abs

Matt

I suppose the abs analysis links strongly into the toxic masculinity aspects of warriors

angrystaffofficer

I get accused of trying to be politically correct when I oppose the term “warrior.” That one always confuses me, because I direct people to their own history rather than co-opting someone else’s myths

angrystaffofficer

And I’d call it not so much toxic masculinity as just being a right asshole.

Gareth

I can’t help but think that the sense of individual freedom plays to wider trends in the military. Those at Thermopyale (at least the pop culture version) have more freedom than at Gettysburg.

Gareth

“I suppose the abs analysis links strongly into the toxic masculinity aspects of warriors.”

@Matt This is where the ethos is being corrupted by pop culture and a failure by leadership to hone what they mean. I don’t believe warriors is intrinisically linked to toxic masculinity. But things are alloweed to slip past unchallenged and it becomes the accepted version.

Gareth

I’d point to Pauline Shanks Kaurin’s work and her identification of femine traits as integral parts of the ethos.

RyanNoor

It all started with the Reaganian s actioners  man armies with Sly/Arnie/Chuck et alii, and it matched the values of the days, individual achievements against the odds etc. Funny enough all those heroes also happened to redefine masculinity especially the physical attributes. Make no mistake, I love Rambo, Predator etc. and I’d even go as far as saying they were somehow influential to my chosing a military career. The question being, how to harness the pop culture image of the warrior to make the modern western soldier (respectful of Human Rights, law etc.) a Guardian to quote Pauline Shanks Kaurin

RyanNoor

And female warrior figures of pop culture are not necessarily good models either (Lagertha in Vikings for instance)

angrystaffofficer

Excellent point, Ryan. How do we take the image – often used as a recruiting tool – of the individual and create that individual into someone who sees themselves as professionals, embodying an ethos?

Matt

It might be a question for marketing specialists – but what do you think? Is there a way of making the modern western soldier attractive in pop culture?(edited)

Gareth:

Excellent point, Ryan. How do we take the image – often used as a recruiting tool – of the individual and create that individual into someone who sees themselves as professionals, embodying an ethos?

@angrystaffofficer It has to be driven by leaders and with supporting education. I can count on one hand the number of weeks I’ve spent in ethics discussions to date.

angrystaffofficer

Same, to be honest. Which drives me to then ask if the warrior problem has infected us to the point where “warfighter” becomes problematic as well – besides being a grammatical mess

Gareth:

“It might be a question for marketing specialists – but what do you think? Is there a way of making the modern western soldier attractive in pop culture?”

@Matt Hew Strachan’s recent RAND paper identifying a popular view that soldiers are victims makes it challenging. They aren’t victims.

RyanNoor:

“It might be a question for marketing specialists – but what do you think? Is there a way of making the modern western soldier attractive in pop culture?”

@Matt I think there is, we’ve just forgotten how to do this/artists are not inclined to. Think of a non-racist Zulu – which was basically a victorious Thermopylae. TV series have been good at telling stories of WW and ordinary men doing extraordinary things

RyanNoor

Somehow some leaders chose to pick models they don’t understand against recent and well documented examples of magnificent displays of courage, selfless commitment etc…

angrystaffofficer

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things is definitely something that all militaries – really, all societies – hold up as examples to other. And rightly so. MoH and VC recipients, for example. But those individuals were not fighting as warriors – not fighting for themselves, their own honor, loot, money, etc. They were fighting as part of a professional military for a larger ethos and cause.

angrystaffofficer

I’m really wondering if the Chamberlain speech in “Gettysburg” sort of encapsulates it – ‘We are an army out to set other men free.’ THAT’S an ethos.

Gareth:

True but the ethos that they embraced has its origins with the warrior traditions. It’s possible to separate the bad bits from those that are useful. It just needs thought. I was taken by an example I cam across in a British unit where a conscious decision had been taken to employ the warrior image to then build an ethos that the CO wanted. The image was the gateway to soldiers buying in.

Gareth:

Same, to be honest. Which drives me to then ask if the warrior problem has infected us to the point where “warfighter” becomes problematic as well – besides being a grammatical mess

@angrystaffofficer I’m still not sure what “warfighter” is actually meant to mean.

RyanNoor

A fair chunk of my article that didn’t make the final draft explained how WW changed the very notion of hero. So many people had endured, fought and died – and the social struggles of the day meant that generals wouldn’t get all the credit like they had before – the choice of the unknown soldier killed the notion. The widespread stories of the misery in the trenches also turned soldiers into victims of dehumanized almost random death (artillery) in the eyes of the population. I know only of  names of WW VC winners (because I belonged to sub-units named after them)… but everybody knows Lawrence of Arabia, von Lettow-Vorbeck, maybe even Felix von Luckner. There’s a before and after WW, a divide between the solemn commemoration of the unknown ordinary soldier and the media made glory of the lone figure leading actual warriors to victory.

Matt

@angrystaffofficer Do you think that dynamic applies in the US military too, which had quite a different experience of the Great War?

Matt

I also wonder if the ‘forever wars’ have perhaps stoked the adoption of a warrior ethos because it’s harder to find a higher purpose as powerful as the death of slavery or defeat of fascism in these conflicts.(edited)

RyanNoor

@Gareth Ref the CO that employed a warrior figure to build an ethos, which one did he pick and did the historical record of these warriors match what the CO wanted from his men and women?

angrystaffofficer

Following the American Civil War, generals were the common “heroes.” Following WWI, there was a trend towards the common soldier, or the hometown heroes. The Sergeant Yorks of the world. Most Americans really only knew of Pershing following WWI. None really knew his fighting division or corps commanders, let alone his chief of staff George Marshall.

Gareth:

@Gareth Ref the CO that employed a warrior figure to build an ethos, which one did he pick and did the historical record of these warriors match what the CO wanted from his men and women?

@RyanNoor To be honest I haven’t discussed the detail. What struck me was, as someone who disliked the term, he thinks it can be be useful to support what he’s trying to establish.

angrystaffofficer:

“I also wonder if the ‘forever wars’ have perhaps stoked the adoption of a warrior ethos because it’s harder to find a higher purpose as powerful as the death of slavery or defeat of fascism in these conflicts.”

@Matt YES. Also, we’ve suffered an identity crisis post-Cold War. Our ancient adversary gone, what were we to do? This is happening in parallel with the rise in warrior culture. The forever wars merely cemented it, as a way to separate those who were fighting them and those who weren’t.

RyanNoor

@angrystaffofficer And this is one of the worst trap, separating the soldier from the rest of society

angrystaffofficer

It is, Ryan, and it’s been the principle way that I see the warrior meme being utilized in the US.

RyanNoor

And as much as I have yielded many points to @Gareth on his piece, warriors are a caste within a society, often the leading one because of the exclusive ownership of weapons and use of violence as a political mean

RyanNoor

Yes, I’m talking about morons bearing weapons in government buildings

Gareth:

It is, Ryan, and it’s been the principle way that I see the warrior meme being utilized in the US.

@angrystaffofficer Is that an extension of Huntingtonian views of civ-mil relations as much as the warrior identity?

angrystaffofficer

There also needs to be a discussion in tandem with this, of the differences between freedom and rights

angrystaffofficer

Gareth, yes, I believe the two are strongly related.

Gareth:

“And as much as I have yielded many points to @Gareth on his piece, warriors are a caste within a society, often the leading one because of the exclusive ownership of weapons and use of violence as a political mean.”

@RyanNoor Does the historical context mean that the ethos is limited? I don’t think its the case. However, I do wonder about the wisdom and appropriateness of placing the military on a pedestal. It often seems that parts of US society have begun to regard the military as untouchable. I don’t think its quite taken hold in quite such a way on this side of the Atlantic.

angrystaffofficer

I do believe that as long as there is war, there is going to be a divide between the civilian and military sides. There just will be. The difference, however, is when the military side starts saying that it is inherently better than the civilian side, just because they are military. Which is what I see happening over here.

RyanNoor:

@RyanNoor Does the historical context mean that the ethos is limited? I don’t think its the case.

@Gareth Neither do I, I’m merely stressing the widespread use of the ‘warrior’ to set the soldiers apart from society, something that could even be dangerous to political stability

Matt

To segue slightly, do you think that the ethos applies relatively uniformly across armed forces? Or does rank, gender, race, job etc. significantly influence it?(edited)

 ngrystaffofficer: 

It seems predominant in men – to the exclusion of women. Very heavy in combat arms, but I see it all the time in combat support as well.

RyanNoor

A generic ‘warrior’ ethos isn’t exclusive. Picking a certain type of ‘warrior’ or its image, to be more precise, as a communication tool can be problematic.

Gareth:

“To segue slightly, do you think that the ethos applies relatively uniformly across armed forces? Or does rank, gender, race, job etc. significantly influence it?

@Matt If it’s to function in the way that I think Shannon French or Christopher Coker discuss it then there is a need for it to be recognisable across all elements. I fear that what it ends up being used as though is a means to create in and out groups. I’ve seen some claim that the warrior ethos is a combat arms only thing. Its not helpful and you can see why its viewed with concern.

Matt

Interesting and useful stuff for leaders to bear in mind!

RyanNoor

At the same time, I struggle as support arms, as a warrior. Even though I belong to the branch that is likely to deal the most damage to the enemy

RyanNoor

*to see myself

RyanNoor

As for the include/exclude, I also struggle to see any connection between me, my Fijian, West Indian, Nepalese etc, colleagues with Spartans, Vikings, knights etc.

angrystaffofficer

As an engineer, it’s a highly technical branch. We cannot be uncontrolled, passionate, or anything else that is warrior-ish. Which is part of the problem. Going back to the “warfighter” term – we’ve taken this and broken down the elements of combat power into “warfighting functions.” For good or ill, we’ve made our bed and now we’ve got to fight in it. Battles are won by the full synchronization of all warfighting functions. There is no place in there for warriors. Warriors do not synchronize. They do not sustain. They do not understand in depth operations. They attack. That’s about it.

Gareth

This returns us to needing to be clear about what the ethos contains. If its entirely focussed on those who apply violence it ends up leaving some behind. But it doesn’t have to be. The more profound spiritual, philosophical elements can have traction across the uniformed force. It will be problematic when you’re trying to establish a mixed civilian-military team.

Matt

Excellent stuff. I don’t have really have a natural segue from this, but as I think we’re getting towards the end of the discussion with nearly  hours on the clock – what do you guys think is the single most important part of the broader warrior ethos issue?

Matt

Is it about definitions, civil-military relations, accurate history – or something else altogether?

RyanNoor

Use. What warrior ethos is used for and how.

Gareth

Getting beyond iconography and into the substance of the ethos.

angrystaffofficer

In my opinion, it’s about how we view ourselves. Which in turn defines our ethos, civ-mil relations, and our activity with our own history

Matt

All powerful takeaways for leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Any final thoughts before we wrap up this roundtable?

RyanNoor

I had a great time, very proud to have been on board and have a chance to chat with all of you

angrystaffofficer

Be careful of embracing an identity that you don’t fully understand; don’t look to pop culture or divisive memes to create an identity, use the one you’ve already got through your own history. And teach ethics!

angrystaffofficer

Thanks so much for having me on, this was very fun. Next time, let’s do it over drinks when all this is over and I can come visit.

Gareth

Absolutely agree. Great experience. Warrior ethos – not about being cool, nor is it toxic. Simply about binding us and societies together.

RyanNoor

I think the cultural identity of a military outfit is a subject in itself

 Matt: 

A subject for a future chat like this, perhaps! Thank you all very much for participating; I learned a ton (not to mention had fun) and I’m sure our readers will as well.

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