Skip to main content

The Army is No Place for a Warrior

A professional army is no place for a warrior. And yet many within Western militaries are using the term and the imagery of the warrior as both descriptors and ideals. Despite the rise of usage by militaries of the term warrior, it is not without its problems. The warrior has a long history that is marked by disobedience, misconduct, and misogyny. For these reasons, it should be avoided when we're talking about contemporary, professional militaries.

In this essay, I will look at four key questions: Where does the idea of the warrior come from? What does it mean? Why does it matter? And then finally, what is to be done?

Where does the idea of the warrior come from?

The term and the image of the warrior can be seen—in official and unofficial milieu—across the West, from the US Army and Marine Corps, to the Canadian Armed Forces, to the Australian Special Air Service Regiment. The term is used as the highest praise, bestowed upon figures such as wounded veterans and retired generals. Often the warrior imagery takes the form of the Spartan, epitomized by the iconic silhouette of the horsehair plumed helmet. 

It is important to recognize that warriors are not really historical beings in the sense that we don't look to the accurate notion of what they actually did. We are much more persuaded by their mythical nature. As Christopher Coker writes, myths are more real than science: they are destiny defining. In that sense, we look to these kinds of images passed on through myths as containing the secrets or the essence or the foundational principles that we need to follow if we want to be the best we can be. Mythical warriors are used as representations of the ideal martial figure. These representations (both verbal and visual) form a discourse that produces a precondition for action. It is not information that is being passed on, but rather affect: emotional content.

These archetypes of the warrior are very much with us. But where are we getting these representations of the warrior? We don't all live with our noses buried in books about ancient myths. So where does this imagery come from? Contemporary, distorted interpretations of ancient and modern warriors are often found in popular media, such as a movies or television.  And so, we can see the fetishization of the warrior in movies like 300, or in television shows, like The Mandalorian. So prevalent are these representations of the warrior that recent US Army recruiting ads used the slogan “warriors wanted”, suggesting that a person might well be a warrior before they even join the military. And not only that, you can be a warrior long after your professional military service is over; once you become a warrior, it's something that you can retain or hold on to. We can see this in consumer products, where warriors are portrayed as defenders of an idealized way of life. A crop of veteran-owned businesses, such as Nine Line Apparel or Black Rifle Coffee, use the term and image of the warrior to market their offerings, largely aimed at warriors outside the military.

The fact that representations of the warrior come from a variety of sources matters because it illustrates that militaries are not in a position to control or unilaterally define how warriors are represented. As much as they may try to harness or edit a version of the warrior suited to their needs (in order to build morale or esprit de corps, for instance), the reality is that the warrior is represented in a plethora of ways, from myriad sources. Far from an unambiguous figure, the warrior strikes a complicated pose.

What does the warrior mean?

What are we talking about when we talk about the warrior? It is easy to believe that the warrior is about perfection, about excellence on the battlefield. Indeed, for many proponents of using the warrior in professional militaries, this is the utility that the warrior brings. Fortitude, courage, and skill at arms, say, are all encapsulated in representations of the warrior. That may be true, but what else do these images of warriors actually mean? If we look at the historical record and the mythological transcript across all of the Indo-European community, ranging from what we would now call India, all the way through Persia, up through Turkey, in through Greece, what used to be the Roman Empire and into European cultures, including Germanic, and Nordic or Viking cultures, this 5000 year record has shown some very durable, one might say indelible, patterns of how warriors have been represented. As the French anthropologist Georges Dumézil claims, while the warrior becomes essential for the survival of the community, nevertheless it is a thoroughly ambivalent figure, prone to commit random acts of violence or treachery.[1] Dumézil believes that all societies that form part of this Indo-European inheritance have a complicated relationship with warriors. He mentions that all societies have three functions. The first is the function of order, which is represented by the sovereign or highest governing actor. The second function is that of security, which is represented by the warrior. Finally, the third function, production, is represented by the rest of society, particularly women, farmers, and artisans. It is within that threefold notion of society that warriors are prone to three fundamental kinds of transgressions, or sins, against society, which line up against these three social functions. Warriors often rebel against the sovereign. They often commit injustice or kind of dirty tricks against other warriors, which we might call perfidy. They also commit sins against productive society, like looting, like sacking, but also very prominently, illicit sexual relations. Let us look at these enduring and problematic aspects of the warrior.

The warrior is prone to a rebellion or rebelling against the sovereign. We see this in The Iliad when Achilles falls out with Agamemnon over Briseis. Achilles views himself as the ultimate warrior versus Agamemnon, who maybe once was a warrior, but now he's older and the sovereign ruling over all of the Greeks besieging Troy. We see a similar relationship between Thor and Odin. We see this antagonism between Lancelot and King Arthur. Shakespeare captures the warrior’s contempt for authority in his Coriolanus, who begins as a warrior on the battlefield, a triumphant general, but one who comes back home and rails against authority, including when that authority rests with the people, the people of the Republic of Rome. This is present, too, in much more contemporary—and somewhat less mythical—figures. We can see this contempt, for example, from General MacArthur, represented as the combative American Caesar, towards President Truman, portrayed as a milquetoast shopkeeper from Missouri. 

The second dimension where warriors conduct themselves in dishonorable ways is against other warriors. We see on a Greek vase, for example, Achilles with the body of Hector, dragging him behind his chariot around Troy, desecrating the body, which was seen in The Iliad as a severe transgression. Indeed, it causes the gods to intervene. More recently, we see a member of the Canadian Airborne Regiment torturing and ultimately killing the Somali teenager Shidane Arone in 1992, and members of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment allegedly killing almost 40 Afghans illegally in between 2005 and 2016. In Ukraine, stories of soldiers from both the Russian and Ukraine armies torturing prisoners of war are circulating. 

Finally, we see warriors sinning against productive society. This can take several forms, including activities like looting or taking war trophies. The most egregious, though, is the practice of carrying out illicit sexual relations. In The Iliad, we see Achilles and his ‘war bride’ Briseis, a young woman whom he has abducted. He captures her and believes that it is a warrior's right to kind of take her as his possession. When Agamemnon demands her as his own trophy, Achilles retreats from the battlefield taking his warriors, the Myrmidons, with him. Sir Lancelot has an affair with Lady Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur, thus using illicit sexual relation as a form of rebellion. In contemporary settings, we have the warrior General David Petraeus having an extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, his biographer, to whom he also passed confidential documents. Rape as an instrument of war represents perhaps the most perverse dimension of this transgression: it occurs on almost every battlefield, including in Ukraine. 

All three of these sins we see echoed throughout the mythical and historical record. And they permit us to record, across the Indo-European cultural space, warriors with a common set of problematic traits. First, they tend to be endogenously motivated, which means they very much see things from their own point of view. It is their own desires that motivate them: the desire to excel, the desire to get rich, the desire to be immortal; whatever it is, warriors appear to be motivated by their own personal ideas. Second, as we have mentioned, they have a troubled relationship with authority. Third, they have a paradoxical relationship with the feminine. On one hand, they frequently see themselves as the protectors of women in their own societies. At the same time, though, they are willing to inflict pain and suffering through acts like rape and sexual slavery, as part of their “just rewards” for good performance on the battlefield. Fourth, they tend to be given to rage, violence, destruction and atrocity, whether we're talking about Achilles, or berserkers in the Viking tradition. Moreover, this idea that they have an uncontrollable anger often has detrimental impacts not only for themselves, but for the wider military effort or even the wider society.

Therefore, it is important that we recognize that while warriors are portrayed as excellent combatants, they have also been portrayed, and can be seen within the historical record, as selfish: they see war as a personal experience, a test of their own ability, an opportunity for them to realize Maslow's ideal of self-actualization. As Caroline Alexander notes, “Achilles hijacks the Iliad.”[2] For him the war for Troy is a personal test, which has detrimental effects for the rest of the Greeks and the Trojans in a very tragic way. We can see this kind of personal focus echoed in events like the US Army's infamous “kill team”, a squad that was operating in Afghanistan. According to the magazine The Rolling Stone, troops in this outfit were “bored and shell shocked and angry”, and tired of waiting around for more of [their] comrades to be killed and [so] disturbed by the passive role of the squad that the sergeant in charge actually decided to take things into their own hands.[3] Here we see this selfishness: like Achilles, the kill team figured that it could decide when to fight and how to fight. They appear to feel that it is up to them as warriors, the ones on the ground as it were, to set the conditions of acceptable behaviour.

Partly becauseof similar feelings of exceptionalism, we are confronted by the fact that in many societies, warriors have needed a kind of ‘special handling’ when they come back from war. They need to be formally reintroduced back into the societies whence they come. In Nordic culture, for instance, there is the notion of the berserker, warriors were represented as having turned into a bear on the battlefield and who needed to transform back into human form in order to come back into the fold of non-martial society. Similarly, we see across cultures the idea that warriors are welcomed back after war, but requiring some form of transformation, whether it's through ritual cleansing, or having to rededicate themselves to following the rules of their host society. And where these transformations do not happen then warriors either get exiled or are shamed and ostracized, or in many cases, tragically, commit suicide.

Warriors, then, have traditionally considered themselves and been considered by their wider societies, as special and apart from the wider community. Frederick Nietzsche goes further and points out that warriors are disenchanted with society itself: “[the warrior] is angry with civilization because he (sic) supposes that its aim is to make all good things − honors, treasures, beautiful women − accessible even to cowards.”[4] Good things, it seems, should be the exclusive preserve of those who have fought. This may be an extreme form of exceptionalism, but it is not without its contemporary echoes. In 2017, retired United States Marine Corps General John H. Kelly, while acting as White House Chief of Staff, expressed this feeling of exceptionalism: “We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served…In fact, in a way, we’re a little bit sorry because you’ll never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our servicemen and women do. Not for any other reason than they love this country.”[5] Clearly, the warrior stands apart—and maybe a little above—the rest of society.   

Why does this matter?

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu might have viewed the use of the warrior title or image as a form of symbolic capital.[6] Like all capital, if it is spread around too much, it loses its particular value. So, you want to be selfish in a way; you want to have your identity as relatively isolated and difficult to acquire, because scarcity increases the value of your symbolic capital. Symbolic capital has two aspects to it. It is based on a prestige or celebrity or honour founded not only on one’s own knowledge, or one’s connaissance, but also on recognition from others, reconnaissance, others who understand, appreciate, and respect what has been done or achieved. We see this quite keenly within military organizations where elite groups, or groups that figure themselves to be elite, try to reserve that symbolic capital for themselves. So, whether that is airborne forces vs non-airborne forces, or special forces vs conventional forces, or combat arms versus support forces, there is often this attempt to increase one’s symbolic capital by saying that the elites represent the real warriors, everybody else is just average or run of the mill. The cruder demarcation between civilian and military is not sufficient. Indeed, as British General Sir John Hackett put it, “The movement of the military away from the civilian has now in general been reversed. They have come closer together. Military skills are less exclusively specialist. The military community lives less apart. Uniforms are less worn in civilian society.”[7] Perhaps as this distinction between civilian and military has faded, the need for increased distinction within the military has been sharpened. The result is a self-selecting sub-community of warriors within the military itself. This can lead to a healthy spirit of competition amongst individuals and units, leading to better performance. However, it can also cause a number of detrimental effects within the military as well, such as feelings of resentment between elite and non-elite units, which can, in turn, lead to a reduction in morale and cohesion. Logistical units, for example, that are looked down upon by commando units might be less inspired to go the extra mile to provide support.

A second dimension of why this warrior discourse matters is that the figure of the warrior tends to be corrosive to the notion of a professional military under civilian control. Samuel Huntington speaks in The Soldier and the State about two imperatives that face the military. The first is the functional imperative: the military should go and fight and win wars. Meeting this imperative takes skill, discipline, and the ability to plan, for example. Huntington’s concept of objective control strikes a bargain: the civilian government grants the military professional autonomy, the ability to concentrate on developing the skills and aptitudes required to meet the functional imperative. In exchange, the military agrees to remain out of politics. However, Huntington acknowledges that this imperative alone is insufficient.  There is also a societal imperative: the military also has to make sure that they fit in with and follow the norms and rules and traditions of the society for which they fight. A warrior culture, as we have seen, tends to downplay such a focus on societal norms in favor of their own specific norms. Therefore, we often see a tendency for those identifying as warriors to focus on the functional imperative at the expense of the societal imperative. This predilection is not just corrosive to the notion of the profession; it may actually lead to challenges to civil control. The techne of the warrior is valued more than an ability to conform to social morays. Indeed, the warrior is often portrayed as an aloof figure, superior to the bureaucrat or politician. For instance, the Commander of the Canadian Army, Lieutenant General Rick Hillier said the following at memorial service for Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan in 2003: “It is the soldier, not the journalist, who guarantees freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the politician who guarantees our democracy. It is the soldier, not the diplomat that becomes a tangible expression of a nation’s willingness to extend its values and its ideals worldwide.”[8] Such a ‘warrior supremacy’ orientation exacerbates the ‘expert problem’ which exists in most principal-agent arrangements. Risa Brooks believes that this attitude can contribute to what she calls “McMasterism”, where warriors regard themselves as in a position to give advice to political decision makers, but if the decision maker chooses to ignore that advice, then the warrior, like Achilles, may choose to walk away.[9] Harold Lasswell warned of “a garrison state […] a world in which the specialists of violence are the most powerful group in society.”[10] Surprisingly, in a 2017 survey, 17% of Americans said that they would be happy with the military taking charge.[11]

What is to be done?

Within the context of contemporary, professional militaries, the use of the term and other representations of the warrior should be avoided. Instead, the fact that the professional military member is not fighting for personal glory or enrichment, is not animated by individual rage, but rather acts as an instrument of the state should be foregrounded. Carl von Clausewitz properly places, within the structure of his dual trinities that lie at the heart of war, a clear division of responsibility. According to him, the idea of hatred or enmity or passion lies not with the military, but with the people. That passion is channeled through the government who issues direction, and then the military does its best with its training and skill to be able to execute that direction in the realm of chance, all while the enemy military is trying their best to do the same. Therefore, we do not look to have berserkers or rageful warriors as the animating feature of the armed forces. Instead, we should be focusing on this notion of the soldier (or sailor or aviator), defined as “one who enters into an obligation to some government to devote for a special period, his (sic) whole energies, even if necessary, his life to the furtherance of a policy of that government.” US Army Colonel Ralph Peters wrote in 1994, that the soldier is, in effect, the anti-warrior; he wanted to make it very clear what the differences were between the warrior and the soldier by valorizing the notion of the soldier as disciplined and rules-governed.[12] 

Professional militaries, then, should abandon the warrior in favour of the soldier. A less flashy role model, perhaps, but one that does not valorize selfishness, insubordination, perfidy, and sexual violence.

 


[1] Dumézil, Georges (1970): The Destiny of the Warrior. Chicago.

[2] Alexander, Carolin (2009). The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and the Trojan War. New York, p. 98.

[3] Cf. Boal, Mark (2011): The Kill Team: How U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Murdered Innocent Civilians. www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/the-kill-team-how-u-s-soldiers-in-afghanistan-murdered-innocent-civilians-169793/ (accessed December 4, 2023).

[4] Nietzsche, Friedrich (1881): The Dawn of Day [Morgenröte] III, Nr. 153.

[6] Bourdieu, Pierre (1986): The forms of capital. In: Richardson, J.  (ed.): Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York, pp. 241-258.

[7] Hackett, John (1983): The Profession of Arms. London, p. 40.

[8] Hillier, Rick, Lieutenant-General (2003): We will remember: Tribute to Sgt Robert Short and Cpl Robbie Beerenfenger. Speech delivered at Canadian Forces Garrison Petawawa, Ontario. 7 October.

[9] Brooks, Risa (2020): Paradoxes of Professionalism: Rethinking Civil-Military Relations in the United States. In: International Security 44 (4), pp. 7-44.

[10] Lasswell, Harold D. (1941): The Garrison State. In: American Journal of Sociology 46 (4), pp. 455-468.

[12] Peters, Ralph (1994): The New Warrior Class. In: Parameters: The US Army War College Quarterly 24(1), pp. 16-26.

Summary

Christopher Ankersen

Dr. Christopher Ankersen is a Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University. Prior to joining NYU, he held several posts at the UN and acted as a strategy consultant to militaries, governments, and private firms in the UK and Canada. From 1988 to 2000, Dr. Ankersen was an officer in the Canadian Forces, including on overseas missions with the UN and NATO. He has taught, among others, at the London School of Economics, King’s College London, the Royal Military College of Canada, and the Harvard Extension School. His research interests include civil-military relations, strategic studies, and international security.


Download PDF here

All articles in this issue

Military Ethics and Military Ethics Education: In Search of a “European Approach”
Lonneke Peperkamp, Kevin van Loon, Deane-Peter Baker, David Evered
Just peace despite war? In defense of a criticized concept
Markus Thurau
Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Not a Bit of the Old Ultraviolence
Arseniy Kumankov
Military Ethics Education – Bridging the Gap or Deepening the Chasm?
Dragan Stanar
The Retransformation of Soldiers’ Identities
Patrick Hofstetter
The Army is No Place for a Warrior
Christopher Ankersen
“Try to get more emotion into the classroom”
Deanna Messervey

Specials

Roger Mielke Janne Aalto Michaël Dewyn Patrick Mileham Stefan Gugerel Evaggelia Kiosi Mihály Boda Richard Schoonhoven