Our odd “Valhalla” obsession


On Tuesday I wrote about the “Centurion” and professionalism articles, both which compared elements of the modern military with Rome. At the end, I mentioned how the odd obsession that many military and veteran personnel have towards all things Spartan and to a lesser degree, Roman, is giving way to a new obsession – Vikings. Over the past few years I’ve seen more and more references to “meeting up in Valhalla” and Viking memes used to express a particular viewpoint.

The popularization of the Spartans in military culture is long-standing, but grew over the last decade and especially once the movie 300 was released. This happened at the same time the Army started using the term “Warrior” interchangeably – and often as full replacement – with “Soldier.” All Soldiers were “Warriors” and with it came an automatic reverence. The Solider-Warrior dynamic has been written about at length – there are three great articles here that capture the phenomenon. The Spartan-obsession has also been taken on – see The Best Defense here.

I jokingly said on Twitter the other day that it’s the beards that make Vikings popular today, and I was only half-joking. I think there’s an element of the Viking aesthetic – at least in popular culture – that makes them appealing to many members of the modern military. The ability to grow beards – for whatever reason – is one of the small things that young servicemen admire, along with the ability to wear civilian clothes. Beards have become more popular generally recently, but this is especially so in the veteran community, where the newfound permission to grow facial hair is capitalized on upon ETS, often for years after separation from the military. There is also this idea that Vikings are singularly focused on fighting, which is attractive to a young member of a professional military who signed up for that, but finds himself in a much more mundane position on a day-to-day basis, feeling saddled by the rules and general discipline required of a modern military.

What I wonder is what the constant referencing of ancient warrior cultures says about our own military. Much of the referential treatment towards the Spartans or the Vikings likely comes from popular culture and not pure history. It’s a fantasy. Do we (as members of the military) have unrealistic expectations of military service that cannot be fulfilled, or is the military failing to meet these expectations?



“Why is a girl in front of you!?”

During PT yesterday, I overheard a young NCO shout back at his soldiers who were straggling behind “Why is a girl in front of you?” It was shouted in that incredulous staccato that slowly gets perfected by good NCOs over time, annoyed with other soldiers’ inability to do what needs to happen.

In this situation, there was a female soldier in front of the soldiers struggling. I don’t know if she was part of his formation, or just a female soldier running on her own.


Leadership: Sometimes you have to just look away

I recently came across this scene in Metal Gear Solid V. Big Boss walks into the weapons hangar to check the progress of the Battle Gear. As he walks in, his attention focuses in on the “I love Diamond Dogs” mug that’s sitting on top of the gear. Then Huey’s kind of bitchy face pops up behind it, making eye contact with Boss. The camera cuts back to Boss and you can see he is a little disgusted by it, but he doesn’t say anything. No words are exchanged.

Boss is the kind of military guy who doesn’t care about the swag or the trappings of being in a “cool” unit. He’s more concerned with mission accomplishment and probably views anything outside of that as a waste of time. A younger, less mature Boss might have destroyed the mug or at least called it out. But Boss at this stage knows that while he might not be into the mug, some of his guys might be, and if it helps them get through the day, then why not let it go?

It reminds me of small things I’ve encountered over the years in the military. Soldiers who purchase morale patches and put them somewhere on their kit or displayed in their military vehicle. Or non-official unit emblems or logos that find themselves stenciled on a wall locker or gunner’s shield. None of these things are “authorized,” and when a leader comes into contact with them, he or she has to make a decision whether to cut it down there or to let it go. Generally speaking, it’s probably best to do the right thing and cut it down. Other times – and so much of this is context dependent – the best decision a leader can make is to look away.


Flash-to-Bang: Nonsense on the internet, hearing it from soldiers


Smoke Grenade

Just about everyone I meet in the Army has a Facebook account now. It is more odd to not have one than to have one. Whenever I am up, standing in front of soldiers, I automatically assume I’m being Snapchatted. Social media is out there and exists. There’s no putting it away.

There are loads of military themed sites that vie for the attention of service members and veterans. Years ago, it was soldier blogs that made waves, giving others a peer inside the world of the military. Those have mostly died off, replaced instead with aggregate sites that allow many more voices to be broadcast to a much wider audience. These are sites like Task & Purpose, We Are The Mighty, The Rhino Den, Havok Journal, SOFREP, etc.

Then there are the strictly social media landing spots – Power Point Ranger, U.S. Army W.T.F. Moments, Gruntworks, Doctrine Man, etc. The list goes on and the low barrier to entry – an internet connection and an idea – allow these sites to rapidly proliferate and compete for the attention of its audience.

While aggregate sites allow for the display and dissemination of partially to fully formed ideas, the social media sites are pure candy. They post clickable, shareable, rage-baiting images and ideas designed to trigger an emotional response. Some of it is hilarious. A lot of it is nonsense.

Last week, before the media event and graduation at Ranger School, I heard soldiers speaking with confidence to one another that the outcome was pre-determined because of the Havok Journal article that claimed the President was going to be at the graduation, so ipso facto, the women got a free pass. In the circles I heard the claim, no one made a correction. No one said it was nonsense. It was read on the internet, disseminated, and settled.

A couple of months ago, when this article about the demise of Army leadership began making the rounds again, I was approached by a good soldier asking me why he should stay in the Army, because that article resonated with him.

Back in Afghanistan, I watched junior soldiers grow enraged over the ARCOM awarded to MSG Moerk because they saw a thousand memes on it. I could never imagine why a junior soldier – or any soldier – would be so interested (and outraged) at an award a senior NCO gets at a post, far, far away.

I’m not sure I’m shedding any new light on this. I’m sure in institutions all over the world social media is having a similar effect. I certainly see it in politics. It’s just something I’ve noticed a lot more in the military recently.

There is still this assumption that what happens online, stays online. That is an outdated understanding of the internet. What happens on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, interplays with conversations in morning formations. That funny picture I clicked ‘like’ on before PT becomes the actual thing someone references during the run. Only, out in the wild, removed from its original context of a funny thing on a goofy military site, it might not be so funny.

Related: The Military Meme Machine. I’m not a fan.