October 28, 2021 | National Review

Preserving the Warrior Ethos

It is corroded, and the necessary restorative work belongs to us all
October 28, 2021 | National Review

Preserving the Warrior Ethos

It is corroded, and the necessary restorative work belongs to us all

The warrior ethos that emerged in the modern Western world has its origins in the warrior myth as embodied by Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War in the Iliad. In America, the warrior ethos evolved into a covenant that binds warriors to one another and to the citizens in whose name they fight and serve. It is grounded in values such as courage, honor, and self-sacrifice. The ethos reminds warriors of what society expects of them and what they expect of themselves.

One might wonder why this esoteric topic deserves attention, especially when our nation has experienced multiple traumas and faces many practical challenges at home and abroad. Understanding war and warriors is necessary if societies and governments are to make sound judgments concerning military policy. American citizens’ expectations help the military establish standards that guide recruitment, training, personnel policies, and even how forces organize and modernize to deter war and defend the nation. In democracies, if citizens do not understand war or are unsympathetic to the warrior ethos, it will become difficult to maintain the requirements of military effectiveness and to recruit the best young people into military service. The warrior ethos is what makes combat units effective. And because it is foundational to norms involving professional ethics, discipline, and discrimination in the use of force, the warrior ethos is essential to making war less inhumane.

The warrior ethos is at risk. If lost, it might be regained only at an exorbitant price.

The warrior ethos is normative, and it appears in various forms across the armed services. For example, the U.S. Army lists its values as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Recognizing the demands that protracted conflicts against brutal and determined enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq were placing on soldiers, the Army formalized the warrior ethos as the heart of a creed that every soldier is meant to internalize in basic training.

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Apparent in those four pledges are willingness to sacrifice for the mission and for one another.

Good combat leaders put mission accomplishment and the survival and well-being of those they lead before their own well-being, to inspire warriors to act in ways contrary to the natural drive of self-preservation. But warriors fight mainly for one another and to preserve their own and their unit’s honor. Good combat units are like a family whose brothers- and sisters-in-arms feel deep affection for one another. As Paul Robinson points out in Military Honour and the Conduct of War, “honour spurs men to fight in two ways: positively, through the desire to display virtue and win honour; and negatively, through a desire to avoid dishonour or shame.” Warriors expect to take risks and make sacrifices to accomplish the mission, protect their fellow warriors, and safeguard innocents.

The warrior ethos is a constant through changes in tactics and weapons. As John Keegan observed in The Face of Battle, his classic 1976 study of combat in the same geographic area across five centuries, from Agincourt (1415) to Waterloo (1815) to the Somme (1916), what battles have in common is human: “the behaviour of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honour and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them.” He observed that the study of battle is “always a study of solidarity and usually also of disintegration — for it is toward the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed.” The warrior ethos is foundational to maintaining the cohesion of one’s “human group” and generating the courage and combat prowess necessary to disintegrate the enemy’s. Unit cohesion derives from soldiers’ trust and confidence in their leaders and in their team.

The need to develop confident, cohesive teams to withstand the test of battle is timeless. In her book Stoic Warriors, Nancy Sherman quotes the Stoic philosopher Seneca to describe training as a form of “bulletproofing” warriors against the debilitating effects of fear: “A large part of the evil consists in its novelty,” but “if evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes.” Confidence is a necessary ingredient for courage because it serves as a psychological and emotional bulwark against fear. Fear is debilitating in battle because it can lead to hesitation and allow the enemy to gain the initiative. Fear can also lead to poor decisions that place fellow soldiers or noncombatants at unnecessary risk. Fear can erode discipline and, over time, cause the psychological, moral, and ethical disintegration of the small units (e.g., squads, platoons, and companies) that are the foundation of combat effectiveness.


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