is warriorship a virtue?


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Many “Warriors” sacked cities, carried off women as slaves, burned down villages and did other things we would consider reprehensible today. While I of all people value the “Warrior Ethic”, as we have re-codified it with our modern values; I would hesitate to define the basic concept of a “Warrior” as necessarily “virtuous”, at least by any modern standard. Remember though that was the “Way of War” in those days. Warriors were warriors because that’s what they were. Most were born into a caste system, Knights, Samurai, Tribal Warriors etc….Soldiers were the “Average Joe’s” that joined (or were conscripted) into armies, taught how to fight, paid in some manner and sent into battle. Many went back to being “Joe Farmer” afterwards. Some became “Career Men” and sort of crossed the Soldier/Warrior boundary. In our times I would say that the difference between a Warrior and a Soldier is a matter of professionalism, commitment to craft, and the honoring of a “code” either personal or codified. In the military, when you meet a “Soldier” vs. a “Warrior” you know it….

I don’t really now of any example in military history where significant things were accomplished by warriors who “fought alone”. The lone wolf, Rambo “Warrior” is a myth IMHO. Even the Samurai and medieval Knights who were of the “Warrior Class” fought in organized battles. Examples of individual combat did absolutely exist, but all warfare is typified by some form of teamwork. Our modern definition of “Warrior” is very different from the historical model IMO. For example, the Samurai were “Warriors” by caste and at the same time there were Ashigaru “Soldiers” recruited from the other classes who fought at the same time. They all fought, bled and died pretty much the same, but what was expected of the Warriors by their society was quite different. There really is no “class” difference in the military these days (besides the officer/enlisted split), so the difference between a Warrior and a Soldier has picked up all of this philosophical/spiritual/mystical stuff. I just think of the difference as one of “dedication to craft”. The difference between somebody who “does something” from someone who “is something”.

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9 thoughts on “is warriorship a virtue?”

  1. What, then, is the difference in morals between a warrior born into the system, and a warrior who dedicates himself to the system? An example from movies would be the difference between Maximus and Commodus in the movie “Gladiator”. Granted, these are fictional characters. Throughout history there are countless examples of warriors and heroes. Often a person’s character is judged by the really good or really bad things that person has done. I guess my question is more what defines a hero and what defines a villain. Is G.W. Bush ultimately a hero? Is A. Hitler ultimately a villain? Or can they be viewed as both?

  2. Welcome.

    Those are good questions. I guess my answer would be that being a “warrior” and being a “hero” are separate matters, and that morals and “warriorship” are two different issues as well.

    As to being born into or dedicating oneself to “warriorship”, It is my opinion that in terms of being a “warrior” it makes no difference. The ethical issues of Warriorship are part of the evolution of civilization and the changing expectations modern civilization has of our fighting men.

    When it comes to warfighting and being a warrior though is being an “ethical or good person” really a prerequisite? As long as the warrior accomplishes his mission, obeys orders and follows the laws of war he is a “good” warrior. The way I see it, dedication to the “art and craft” of war, technical and tactical proficiency, skill at arms and courage in battle are the “core” of being a warrior. Ethical and moral expectations of the warrior are a variable that can change depending on the culture, historic period and political history we are looking at. If the rest of a persons life is a wreck, he may be a bad person who is a warrior. An issue arises when one aspect of a persons life starts to bleed over into the other.

    Being a “hero” or a villain is a subjective thing. Hitler WAS a hero to the German people, at least for a while. He was a villain to others. There is no doubt that the Mongols, the Vikings, the German SS, were excellent warriors. One can desire to emulate their military skill, however I would hope that nobody would admire the rest of their actions.

  3. You bring up a good point Tom. I think one issue that is symptomatic of the franchised/civilianized image of the ‘warrior’ and/or ‘warriorship’ is the shift in focus. Historically, both ancient and modern/recent history, ‘warriorship’ is about accomplishing something and ‘warriors’ focused on accomplishing tasks and, other than the indoctrination training of forming schools such as boot camp, don’t dwell on right/wrong or ethics (at least in terms of mission and training). You’ve already listed the ‘morals’ by which modern warriors are expected to operate but none of those specify what actions are ethical or not in the face of mission accomplishment.

    “Unconventional Warriors” (SEALS, RECON, G.Berets…) are celebrated as the elite warriors, as are Snipers and such. In practice, NONE of these ‘warriors’ would stay out of jail for long if they tried to live by the ethics/values/practices in a civilian setting. They lie, cheat, steal, sneak, avoid stand up fights, and are damn good at what they do.

    I think, and this isn’t necessarily a bad image to use as inspiration IMO, that the ‘image’ of the modern warrior as role model that is pushed by civilian martial arts programs and ‘man schools’ is one of a long dead code that may never existed.

    People see the ‘honorable warrior’ as one who will present himself clearly on the battlefield, making no deceptions of who he is, call a clear challenge to his enemy, and always offer his enemy an opportunity to surrender….

    Historically, I think this total package has only existed in places like the storytelling of Charlemagne’s Court, movies, and other settings where inspiration was the motive and not accuracy.

  4. I think it is a false dichotomy. An ‘ethical’ auto mechanic doesn’t cheat you on the bill, it has nothing to do with his ability to fix the car.

    Heroism, honor, and ethics exist in social or political context. Jihadists consider suicide bombing to be consistent all of these, where as western societies think the opposite.

    I believe that “warrior codes” are essentially control mechanisms for the ruling parties. Making a quasi-religion out of service inclines people to do the bidding of their rulers – even when nobody is looking. History shows us that breaking selectively breaking these codes is essential for gaining power.

  5. You have a point, however I think that people need to remember that there are “macro” and “micro” views on these issues. The social, societal and governmental reasons for “codes” is different from the reasons why the individual adheres to them. And just because a person may be cynical about one rationale doesnt discount the validity of the other.

  6. I am not making a value judgement, indeed if we believe in a higher purpose or a cause then there should probably be a “code.”

    None of that is diminished by recognizing it for what it is. There is nothing cynical about this view, unless you associate what can only be described as religious or spiritual overtones to a hypothetical code.

    My argument is that the code benefits the cause more than the individual. The law of armed conflict does far more for state-level actors than it does for the individuals serving the state. This should not be taken as saying that a code is of no value or that it should be disregarded.

  7. I can understand where you are coming from and I really cant say that you are wrong in your opinion,or that it even contradicts my own.

    My thought on the matter is that, historically, it was cultures that vaued individual combat and individual valor that formed “warrior codes” vs. industrialized states. I would also say there is anecdotal evidence that these codes seem to be peculiar amongst volunteer “warriors” vs. conscripts.

    If anything, it has been my experience that the revival of the “warrior code” in our modern US Military originated at the individual level and is popular because our volunteer enlistments probably attract many people who find the idea “romantic”. Of course the state would only support and take advantage of any movement of the sort.

    In the end these codes basic function is to try and put a higher purpose to what is a very “base” and ugly practice.

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