Our odd “Valhalla” obsession

viking_by_saeedramezani-d4zvblg

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?

@dongomezjr

4 thoughts on “Our odd “Valhalla” obsession

  1. The Faceless Bureaucrat

    Hello there. It won’t surprise you–given what I have written several times over on Kingsofwar.org.uk about the whole Warrior trope–that I believe there is something ‘unhealthy’ in the way that certain elements of armed forces in the West (particularly in, but not limited to, the U.S.) cleave to mythical Warrior identities. The Warrior is not a simple, straight forward ‘good role model’; as individuals (idealised and actual) and as functional types, Warriors have always had a complicated relationship with collective violence. This is true across much of, inter alia, the Indo-Persian-Greco-European mythological imaginary. Homeric, Vedic, and Norse heroes are not worthy of blind emulation, partly due their inherently self-centred approach to combat.

    As iconoclastic as it may be to say that (and I guess it must be, given the threats I have received from those who believe they are Warriors when they read my writing on this) the real mystery is to figure out what the allure is. Esthetics is probably part of it, but why do serving, professional service people want to be associated with images of ill-disciplined, immature, selfish, greedy, individualistic, hedonistic, unaccountable committers of atrocities from centuries ago? Why not choose chivalric ideals, for example? Why not choose home-grown patriotic symbolism (from winning US armies, I mean)?

    Part of the reason, I reckon, is to distance themselves from civilians–politicians, civilian strategists, diplomats, whizz-kids, bureaucrats, hedge fund managers. Could it be a version (an extended, extreme, perverse version) of Huntington’s ‘professionalisation as isolation’ movement espoused in his 1957 classic The Soldier and The State? “Anyone can get a grad degree; only Warriors go to Valhalla.” Taking this further, it is likely a move to ensure a degree of ontological security for those who believe they are the heirs of Achilles or Beowulf.

    This is problematic for several important reasons, but let me mention two here. The first is that Warriors don’t follow orders well: they don’t ‘fight and win the nation’s wars’, they fight their own (often deeply personal) wars, and this is dangerous for liberal democratic states. Modern war is an extension of politics (I read that somewhere), not a quest for glory.

    The second is that Warriors almost always have problematic relationships with female figures. Hypermasculinity does not play well in a society made up of diverse, fluid, complex gender relations.

    Returning to Huntington’s conceptual lanscape to conclude, Warriors wrongly believe they must focus solely on the military’s functional imperative, seeing no value in supporting its societal imperative. In primative societies, role differentiation may have allowed for this (and certainly in our epics, this is often emphasized), but contemporary societies, contemporary politics, and contemporary wars demand that armed forces achieve a balance of functional and societal appropriateness.

    Now is the time to leave fantasy role-playing behind and get on with the serious business of soldiering (regardless of the service to which one belongs).

    @sine_faciem

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    1. Chris Hodges

      That’s a lot of words to say you believe soldiers should be neutered automata with no free will or motivation beyond the ‘greater good.’ We can easily turn your question “… why do serving, professional service people want to be associated with images of ill-disciplined, immature, selfish, greedy, individualistic, hedonistic, unaccountable committers of atrocities from centuries ago?” into a question criticizing the inverse of soldiers, bureaucrats. That is, save one trait – individualism. You mention that as if it were a mortal sin, when in reality it is one of the highest virtues practiced by man. The most evil, base crimes in history have been perpetrated by those who have sought to suppress the individual for what they have preached is the greater good. The faceless bureaucrat from centuries and millennia past shares all your stated malfeasances, but who remembers them? They have caused much more damage, but are justifiably denied a shred of glory. There is no glory in being a faceless member of a mewling pack of people casting blame on the group, but there is no personal liability, either. I view committing an atrocity by the avoidance of personal liability as a far greater sin than committing an atrocity in the pursuit of glory. Don’t misquote Clausewitz so flippantly, war is not an extension of politics, it is a fundamental branch of politics, a “true political instrument” as Clausewitz says. War is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will. I use the Howard/Paret translation of Clausewitz, and I love their rendering of the ultimate purpose of war: “Fighting is the central military act. All other activities merely support it… Engagements mean fighting. The object of fighting is the destruction or defeat of the enemy (227).” The warrior is essential, no matter how contemporary we view ourselves.

      I’m not just picking on bureaucrats because of your pen name, this is not an ad hominem polemic. Rather an indictment on the bureaucrat in general. You just picked an unfortunate and entirely appropriate nom de plume for this rant. Stay with me.

      The subjugation of self for the group seems to be a hallmark of the military, but that is a dangerous fallacy. The immaturity and a lack of discipline can be a problem, to be sure, but self-discipline is a far nobler trait than group discipline. You have set up a sad straw man in your denigration of the warrior.

      The reason serving, professional service people want to be associated with these images is because of their aversion to politics and bureaucracy. You acknowledged that in your missive. Fighting men naturally have an aversion to the irrelevant dog and pony show that ivory-tower thinkers who are afraid of the warrior think should be an integral part of soldiery (I am implicating many senior military officials in this way of thinking). Aversion to the idea that to contribute to a group, you must give up your essential traits.

      Who are the warriors that modern-day warriors want to emulate? Speaking generally; Vikings, Spartans, the Mongol hordes, Roman legionnaires, Celtic raiders, medieval knights. A look through the Ranger Up catalog pretty much confirms this. Why do soldiers want to emulate these people? Is it because their core values are immaturity, selfishness, greed? No. It is because their core values are bravery, loyalty, duty, selflessness, honor. Is it because we admire the Spartans reliance on helots or the bureaucracy of the Mongols? No. We admire their traits that allowed them to get shit done. When the self is subjugated, these traits are either stripped out or made compulsory, and when something is made compulsory it ceases to have value. to quote my sons’ favorite movie, “Everyone’s special, Dash”, “Which is another way of saying no one is.” An army requires discipline, yes, but it should be a group of disciplined individuals, not an unquestioning gaggle of drones. The group should work because you have a group of self-motivated people who bring their own individual talents to the table. You want us to emulate home grown patriotic symbols? Who do you have in mind? Audie Murphy? Ulysses Grant? Andrew Jackson? Winfield Scott? Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon? William Swenson? I submit that all these men would fall victim to more than one of your negative images. These are the modern day Homeric heroes, and they all undoubtedly had problems with the form of ‘serious soldiering’ you may have in mind. In 500 years, there will be those who pine for the victims of the “atrocities” committed by Audie Murphy in his destruction of German infantry and tanks, but now he’s a hero. We can’t judge the past heroes by our sensibilities (especially if they lean away from real warrior sensibilities and towards warriors of the social justice type) any more than we should not do the right thing now, for fear of not being on the “right side of history,” a popular canard of my more pacifist friends. A popular quote from the peers I graduated high school with is “I voted for [insert candidate] the second time he ran, because I wanted to be on the right side of history.” I can’t imagine a more despicable, faceless motivation.

      I take deep issue with your two major problems. “The first [problem] is that Warriors don’t follow orders well: they don’t ‘fight and win the nation’s wars’, they fight their own (often deeply personal) wars.” First of all, that is a straw man. The warrior fights and wins. If he is allowed to fight and win his nations wars, he does so. If he is hamstrung by layers of bureaucracy, stifling ROEs, SHARP training while on the battlefield, then naturally he can not fight the nation’s wars as effectively, and so must turn to his personal wars. He will follow orders, but the bureaucrats use those orders to control and tweak the warrior beyond his purpose, to lead him off to the gelding-knife. This is deadly, not just disfiguring, If you want wars fought and won.

      Your second problem, “… Warriors almost always have problematic relationships with female figures. Hypermasculinity does not play well in a society made up of diverse, fluid, complex gender relations.” I wonder if you are using the word ‘problematic’ (one of my least favorite words in the English language, thanks grad school) correctly. The first nine synonyms on thesaurus.com are “ambiguous, dubious, moot, precarious, puzzling, questionable, tricky, uncertain, unsettled.” Do you literally mean that the relationships between warriors and women are ambiguous, dubious, uncertain? Hypermasculinity plays as well ‘in a society made up of diverse, fluid, complex gender relations’ as the best athlete on the ball field plays with his six-year old neighbors in the cul-de-sac. He will beat them every time, and they will not enjoy playing the game after a while. He possesses talents and a level of bearing that they don’t. Subsequently, they can either try to emulate him, or hate him for it. Willie Mays used to play stickball in the alleys of New York. My grandpa worked with a guy who resented Willie Mays so much, because as a little kid in Harlem, he was constantly running after Mays’ long hits. It’s much easier and more comfortable nowadays to hate the star rather than to reach inside yourself and get good enough take his place.

      The very concept of ‘diverse, fluid, complex gender relations’ is a self-created problem. ‘Diverse, fluid, complex gender relations’ only exist because of the comfort and decadence which our society enjoys, an existence that has been slowly hammered out on the battlefields. We can split as many hairs and find as many exceptions to the rule as we want, and soon it becomes more noble to be an exception than to adhere to the rule, or law of nature in this case. Ironic, considering the SJW obsession with subjugating the individual.

      The warrior culture is healthy. Those who don’t see it as such have the problem. That society sees the warrior culture as unhealthy is an incrimination against the culture, not the warrior. Remember, jogging is unhealthy for a fat, bloated, gouty diabetic.

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  2. Greg The Freelancer

    I believe everyone has a right, actually an obligation to dream and fantasize. We can learn a lot about military strategies from the Spartans and from the Vikings. While we do not grow beards and carry clubs and 100 pound swords, there is nothing wrong with fantasizing some. As long as it is healthy fantasy, and we do not dive into thinking we are Spartans and Vikings, but American soldiers.

    I have seen people turn their lives into soap operas and act like they are the stars of movies and television shows. That is unhealthy, but dreaming of that life is not unhealthy, and psychologists will tell you that it should be.

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