Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
The term warrior, as a brand marketing term for militaries in western democracies, should be permanently junked; it sells an impossible image for soldiers, marines, airpeople, and sailors to live up to while preventing the civilian population from executing its oversight function. It prevents western militaries from executing the marketing and communication goals they need to have. Its use creates a huge wall which prevents civilians from understanding members of the various arms forces and learning about what they actually do. What’s worse, the connotations associated with warriors reinforces the many serious and real problems that military culture has. Finally, “warrior” reifies an image so far from what actual military personnel are like that it’s creating recruitment issues both now and in the long term.
Civilians, The Military, Communications, and the Social Contract
I found the Wavell Room because I read widely, not because I’m professionally attached to defense policy in any way. In my day to day life, I am a marketer with a slight obsession with A/B tests.1 When I am hired by a client, one of the first questions I ask is “what is your goal?” This is because it defines marketing priorities. With companies selling a good or service, this process is somewhat narcissistic. They’re trying to fill a need or want that I already have (or they want me to have) as either an individual or as part of a company. For example, Thermopop is filling a need for accurate cooking temperatures so I don’t poison myself with under-roasted chicken. Environmental Systems Research Institute, the company behind ArcGIS, helps companies and governments work with and analyze location data. Coke (supposedly)2 makes you feel happy when drinking it.
Militaries in western democracies do NOT function like companies. They are the result of my relationship with the government in the social contract. I loaned away my power and right to violence to a section of government in return for protection. The military gets to be violent FOR ME in order to reduce violence overall. As part of that same contract, I need to have a role in oversight so that loan of my power isn’t abused and that my tax money is spent smartly. I execute this role by voting for representatives (as a US citizen, that’s my Congressperson, Senators, and the President) so I can go spend my time doing other things.3
This relationship means the military in western democracies are managing up to the people they are responsible to: their (mostly) civilian citizens.4 As a result, they have very different communications goals than a company trying to complete a transaction. Because of this militaries need to make sure that citizens care in an empathetic manner and have a vague understanding of the issues involving the military, so that when I go to the ballot box, or (dare I say) call or write to one of my representatives, I should have vague ideas about the military if they want me to advocate a policy preference. In return, my representatives are supposed to tell my military what to do on my behalf and provide for its needs. Otherwise, I won’t ever develop opinions that I can act on about, say, if the F-35 is a boondoggle5 or should dress shoes be made of plastic for military uniforms. And I especially need to understand these issues when my country goes to war and deploys soldiers, airpeople, marines, and sailors somewhere.
Finally, all militaries need to recruit. That pool of recruits comes from the civilian population. After all, every military person (and otherwise) reading this right now was at one point a baby.6
In companies, management failures means execution failures: employee turnover, missed opportunities, and loss of income. With militaries in western democracies, signs of management failure look different. Because militaries are part of the social contract, the earliest and most important sign of failure is when the military becomes a symbolic mirror used as a political prop by politicians (and frankly marketers and the media) as opposed to a functioning part of the government in charge of violence against enemies. This behavior is a projection of strength as opposed to understanding, building and maintaining actual strength. This projection is often the military equivalent of vaporware: being used as an object that looks very cool and/or impressive for both the military personnel and the politician. In reality, however, none of the individuals involved are doing their respective jobs.
As part of becoming a prop, militaries begin to become dominated by both leaders and recruits who are mirrored. Since standing around as a prop isn’t very productive, leaders who allow this to happen probably are gaining something, such as a larger chunk of the budget, a favor, or greater influence over discussions and decision making at some later date. Meanwhile, the more military personnel are used as props, the more dominant that image becomes as an icon in the public eye. When repeat an image with specific meaning often enough, you’ll get a response from a target audience who find that image compelling.7
This, in turn, propagates a culture based on that mirror. Leaders who aren’t involved in making the prop leave for more fertile ground because they lack internal political capital and influence. More and more recruits come in based on the impression they are given from these images. Great candidates who don’t mirror the prop do not even bother considering the military as a career, claiming it’s for other types of people. The civil-military gap starts to become a gaping chasm.
At least in the US, where I live and participate as a citizen, the military regularly gets used as a prop. There are significant recruiting problems. And some of the stories I hear about the culture and functional performance aren’t endearing, and I come from startup land, where I’ve seen and heard plenty of off the rails stories.8
These sorts of systemic problems are often self propagating without intervention. Before a train goes off the rails, it’s just a really fast train. And the people on it and involved with it like going fast as a general rule.
Pop Culture, Warriors, And Spartans: A Case Study of Media
One of the core ideas that came up in the Wavell Chat about warriors was the notion that pop culture, more specifically film and video games, is driving the public imagination about soldiers as warriors.9 As Ryan Noordally points out in his essay, these forms of media have followings in the corps of military personnel as well. Together, the media is creating a shared civil-military concept, one that equates soldiers to warriors.
One of the more emblematic films in this category is the film 300. As a piece of history it has problems and historians are critical of the film for a reason. Functionally, however, the historical problems are the tip of the iceberg. As Dr. Andrew E. Larsen notes in his blog, “movies about the past are very often movies about the present”. 300, as well as other forms of media which the warrior appears in, is actually about how we define “warrior”.
Looking at King Leonidis as he’s displayed for us to ogle in 300, we’ve defined it as a nearly naked white man carrying a very symbolic spear and sword while battling dark, demonic, lascivious hordes after having sex with his wife. Due to the conscious choice for the film to not get into the Spartan-Athens alliance and the reasoning behind the Battle of Thermopylae, as well as the lack of social context of Spartans, we never see Leonidas as accountable to his allies nor the vast majority of non-citizen Spartans, including their many slaves.10 He barely even consults with his own religious authorities, and doesn’t talk to Spartan’s ruling council before rushing out to war. Instead, the camera lens continuously forces our gaze to focus on his sexualized body, his oily looking abs glistening as he participates in a blood tinted orgy of violence.11
This image is our definition of #peakwarrior. Similar sorts of imagery appear in other media, from Black Hawk Down to Call of Duty: stories of individuals fighting for glory entirely decontextualized from why there was a battle to begin with.
The warrior image is problematic. In the militaries of western democracies, there’s not a single soldier, airperson, marine, or sailor whose lived experience in the military is anywhere close to the image of the oily abs man. Military personnel don’t have an enslaved population to support their arbitrary decision to go to war. They’re multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious, and made up of all genders. They use email and PowerPoint alongside guns and explosives, technologies unimaginable to Ancient Greeks. And they live in a world where decisions about going to war are shaped by our collective media experiences.
The History of the Heroic Military
The idea of equating the average soldier with warrior tropes is a modern concept which dates to the mid-nineteenth century. Historically, in the public eye, soldiers have been looked down upon in contempt. They were considered, for example, by Arthur Wellesley, The Duke of Wellington, “the mere scum of the earth”. A common trope in the 18th century was that soldiers were young men running away from some girl’s father.
This image changed with the development of an literate urban middle class powered by the industrial revolution which wanted entertainment paralleled by their respective nations’ colonial expansion. The military’s conquest became the stories with which the urban middle class entertained itself with. Popular penny press spread this notion of the jingoistic conquering hero to large mass audiences and they lapped it up. It was not only a means of entertainment, it was a means of asserting national pride and identity.
The mixture of the extension of the franchise and the massive total efforts required in World War 1 started to pour gasoline on this fire. Figures like Kitchner decided to put propaganda about the war in advertisements for everyday items, linking Britishness , products, and support of the war together. The US supercharged the media-military relationship by recruiting Hollywood directors to make films in World War 2. Today, there’s an office in the DoD in the US that specifically liaises with the entertainment, advertising, and media world if someone needs to rent a tank.12 13
The Military: Hegemonic Masculinity, Identity and Consumer Culture
Historically, war has been associated with male identities. Today14 it is still associated with hegemonic male identities because of the need for individuals in the military, as well as the organization itself, to project power and domination when necessary for battlefield effectiveness.
Meanwhile, consumer culture and media is driven by our need to construct identity and make it real, including our respective genders. We all want to show off our ideal selves, and we encode our ideal selves in everything from tattoos to consuming BBC gardening shows.
As a marketer, hegemonic identities are particularly powerful because they strike deep feelings in us all about our sense of values and place in society. It’s why when I read too many startup sites without looking at women’s fashion sites, I suddenly see advertisements for startups that deliver medication around male pattern baldness.
Conceptually, this is why we regularly see military and warrior language attached to products that have nothing to do with the military. If you want to sell to men, particularly young white men, hegemonic masculinity tropes are the easy way to build a business. That’s how we get copy and branding like: Mocha-Java coffee supposedly causes you to “Get Your Warrior On” or Black Hat SEOs naming one their forums the “Warrior Forum“. How about Naval Supremacy body wash being “3X THICKER than teenage body wash” because it is meant for “hard-working men”? And, as a New Yorker, the weirdest for me is Warrior Fitness Boot Camp with its program for kids. Maybe I should be breaking out the Hero Vodka after all of these examples?15
The military, in turn, uses these same tropes to try to recruit; and their “sales process” (the recruitment pipeline) is long.16 Unlike buying chewing gum, no one can join the military and start training in under a half hour. Usually someone has thought about joining the military for some period before walking in a recruiting center. The brand concept of the military driving the interest to walk through the recruiter’s door is the same idea children use to play pretend; an image of heroic warriors, unaccountable, saving the world from monsters.
Once a to-be soldier, airperson, marine, or sailor joins training, the military double downs on this trope. They give directives around a warrior culture, and as Dr. John Bornmann describes in his phd, the recruits use the same tropes as generated by the media to construct their new identity as a warrior. But what if you are never even going to be close to achieving the warrior image? What if you aren’t white or male, or never go into combat arms? Even if you are a straight white male in combat arms, the image of a warrior doesn’t describe you nor your masculinity in our hyper-modern world, since in your private life, you are free to borrow any trope and feel any feeling.
Warrior Culture and the Blood Sacrifice: Divorcing the Public
I often say to clients “you only convert a percentage of who you target. So, you better have a great target and a great message.” The more the warrior culture is used, especially as it’s message is co-opted by the media and individuals to create funhouse mirrors of white masculinity, the more likely those who cannot see themselves in the trope stay alienated outside of clapping when someone in the military is showcased during a football game.
Today, the warrior culture is becoming partisan (at least in the US). I watch tacticool LARPers wearing camouflage and proclaiming Molon Labe on shirts sold to them by veterans who do not believe in the values of the state, but I am not surprised. Those attracted to warrior tropes want to be above the populace at large because the trope gives them permission to not care
At the same time, as manhood changes and becomes more diverse, it’s not surprising that those who could join, don’t, despite clear indications that classic notions of sacrifice for the state still ring true today.
Meanwhile, the public isn’t interested in what the military does. Warriors don’t need citizens to care because we aren’t asked to be part of the nation and sacrifice ourselves and our blood, sweat and tears for the identity of our nation. They just need the public to nod yes while being adored for their deeds. It therefore isn’t surprising that no one seems to care about how to run a war while we have soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors abroad.
Warrior is a false bill to sell to the public, to military personnel, and to recruits. It turned the public into bobbleheads nodding yes and ignoring you as opposed to citizens invested in what you do. It’s attracting the wrong sorts of people to the profession. And it’s preventing critical questions about what you do being asked by the public.
No wonder you can’t sell the modern military as a job to the public. But then again, this is really my fault. As a member of the public, I’m the one responsible. I’m sorry.
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Shana volunteers as Wavell Rooms lead for marketing, communications and growth. When she isn't leading Wavell Room donation drives, Shana finds time to write the occasional article too.
Shana has a decades's experience of marketing for, brands large and small, consumer and B2B. She gives classes about how to mix data and strategy. She loves high quality AB tests and terrible fish jokes. You can subscribe to her newsletter here.
- A/B tests are the reason everyone is afraid of polarization. Because hey, why not splice everyone into targeted buckets and test messages on the bucket if you want to sell something!
- Personal option: Coke tastes gross; I’m never going to become a customer, and it will never make me happy to drink it even if millions of people disagree with me about this. However, consumer packaged goods (think toilet paper), fashion, and food brands do invest in techniques like neuromarketing to figure out how you feel so you’ll buy, because a lot of products aren’t bought purely for functional reasons, they’re bought because of how they make people feel.
- This is basically a 1 paragraph pitch of Locke’s 2nd Treatise. The tax thing is a side point about the economics of government and NOT about the social contract.
- Technically all military personnel are also part of the body politic – while public partisan politics may be circumscribed, rights like voting are kept.
- For a UK reader: that’s an American English word for “work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value”
- If you weren’t I want to meet the scientist who created you
- For those curious, this is a nod to effective frequency.
- That said, startups, tech, and media are more typically filled with normal people, the same way militaries are. I wouldn’t say tech bros and crazy behavior are outliers, but they aren’t the majority either. They’re just the loudest and most annoying.
- One of the core points I think the chat is missing – it’s not just video games and movies. It’s all media, from paintings in museums to images of soldiers that may appear on disposable coasters in a bar to mentions of soldiers in pop songs.
- Compare Homer’s description of Achilles’s shield, which takes up a significant chunk of Book XVIII of the Iliad (a terrible translation is available here: http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.18.xviii.html I usually recommend Richard Lattimore if you want to read an elegantly translated version of Homer :https://www.amazon.com/Iliad-Homer/dp/0226469409 )
- How sexualized is he? Let’s put it this way: I doubt there is a male reader comfortable sending me a picture of himself posed the same way in a speedo because it would come off a step up from dick pics. And if someone did, probably the rest of the readership would go “WTF?”
- This is a brief summary from Dr. Berny Sebe’s Heroic Imperialists in Africa: The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes, 1870-1939 https://www.amazon.com/Heroic-imperialists-Africa-promotion-Imperialism/d0719097517
- And that’s also before the extensive and expensive campaigns the US Military creates with Omnicon/DDB.
- A hegemonic identity is the idealized, dominant identity, one that helps reify the structures of society. They aren’t necessarily bad nor good
- Since someone might have noticed I am linking to a number of veteran-owned brands as examples: There are veteran-owned brands which don’t bother with the warrior trope and/or keep it minimal. My favorite: https://pitbarrelcooker.com/ They making on-brand jokes are around hooks and show delicious recipes!
- And have been for over 100 years now for both recruitment and combat motivation. See “The Combat Warrior” by Dr. Anthony King, Chapter 4