The Professional Soldier

female soldier wearing a pilot's helmet army recruiting ad

A long-standing interest of mine is the concept of the “warrior” and the way it started to permeate military culture at the beginning of the GWOT. Recently, there was a small kerfuffle over the rebranding of some Army dining facilities as “warrior cafes.”

The “warriorization” of the Army is a subject with deep roots. We can trace it back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and specifically, the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah and the capture of Private First Class Jessica Lynch.

Part of the problem, as the popular thinking went, was that soldiers outside of combat jobs (like infantry) didn’t see themselves as potential combatants. The Army was a job and each soldier had their role – but theirs wasn’t to fight. The early realization that the Iraq war was not going to end quickly and that the “front line was everywhere” led to a re-thinking of the culture that preceded the ambush.

As a result, we became warriors. 

We learned the warrior ethos. Modern Army Combatives, which, until then, was more of a niche hobby inside elite Army units, became ubiquitous with the publication of the Modern Army Combatives Field Manual and later TC 3-25.150. Commanders spoke to their “warriors” at formations and spoke of their “warriors” in official communications. 

It stuck. Until it didn’t.

It’s difficult to put hard dates on it, but this seemed to last from 2003 to about the early 2010s. The warrior craze seemed to just fade away as a priority. It’s still out there, but it’s not getting the attention that it once did.

That’s part of what was strange about the emergence of ‘warrior cafes.’ It seems like a throwback to those COIN years where we were just trying anything. Remember the Defense of Jisr al-Dorrea (better known as ‘those weird COIN dreams’)?

Personally, I never liked the warrior moniker and the campaign around it. It seems disingenuous. If we just call ourselves warriors, the thinking goes, maybe we would foster a more aggressive mindset.  

I always thought ‘soldier’ was a term that captured everything that was needed. And if anything, I’d say professional soldier, to distinguish it from conscription. 

I’m not alone in this thinking. Military ethicists have dug deep on this issue and can better explain why calling ourselves warriors is a bad idea. 

I’ll add something though. I think there is a connection between the warrior campaign of the early 2000s and the growth of “warrior” brands and the “warrior” aesthetic both inside and outside of the military. All of this self-reinforcing narrative has become such a strange identity marker. 

Remember those discussions, articles, and hot-takes on the “warrior-caste?” This is the idea that the US has this cadre of warriors who are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to our military activity. It is true that only a tiny percentage of the population serves and this community grows increasingly insular over time. 

But most of the articles I remember reading about the “warrior-caste” were written in a barely-veiled self-congratulatory style, by reluctant warriors.

As a counter, I really liked the “profession of arms” campaign that we saw under General Dempsey. That too seems to be dying from lack of attention.

Warriors, soldiers, conscripts, victims. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with simply being all that you can be.


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The 3 things you can’t talk about with military folk

PT, shooting, and combatives.

PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND

When I first got to a line company in the 82nd, my 1SG called me into his office to give me his in-brief, and fill me in on his philosophy on how to be successful in his company. On his desk, he had a GI Joe action figure (one of the big ones). The GI Joe was wearing all the gear: body armor, kevlar helmet, web gear, and he had an M16 strapped to his chest. The GI Joe was sitting on top of a jar, and taped to the jar was a a white piece of paper with the bold black words PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND. He caught me looking at it, and said “SPC Gomez, what does that say?”

Me: “Psychological highground, 1SG.”

1SG: “And do you know what that means.”

It didn’t matter if I knew, he was going to tell me, so I shook my head no.

1SG: “It means being the baddest dude in the room. What would you do if someone came busting into your room with all that gear on? You’d probably crap your pants.” (he didn’t say dude or crap)

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

1SG: “Part of being a successful infantryman means being intimidating. When a 6 foot tall (me: neither of us were over 5’7”) monster comes crashing through your door, you’re going to pause, because he’s achieved the psychological highground by looking intimidating. In that pause, is where you win.”

I nodded in agreement.

1SG: “But that’s just one part. SPC Gomez, to be successful in my company you’ve got to be good at three things: PT, shooting, and combatives. You’re an 11B, so 300 is where you start. You will qualify expert, and you need to be ready to fight another human being and win.”

Nod.

1SG: “PT, shooting, and combatives. Take care of those three things and you’ll be golden.”

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

He was right. If you keep yourself out of trouble and do those three things well, you can be a pretty successful infantryman. But, as the title of the post suggests, these are the three things you can’t talk about with military folk.

This is something I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve recently been reminded about it as I’ve dived into reading the comment section of blogs, and occasionally joining in.

Recently, the Army banned the use of Vibram Five Finger (VFF) footwear from use with the Improved Physical Fitness Uniform (IPFU). From what I understand, the reason they were banned has to do with the way VFFs look (like gorilla feet), not their utility as a running tool (simulating barefoot running). Over at Kings of War, a blog out of the War Studies Department at King’s College that usually discusses issues of grand strategy and big picture, highly intellectual stuff, they posted a short piece on the situation, which as of this writing garnered a whopping 78 (78!) comments. Heated debates ensued over what the ‘best’ or ‘most professional’ PT program is. I left a couple of comments on why I thought the Army made the decision they did, and was chided as being weak-minded for being easily distracted by footwear (true). Similarly, over at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure, a post about the coveted Reflector Belt resulted in the same craziness.

Post a picture of a target with your shot group on Facebook, and rest assured, your military buddies will jump in to tell you how much you suck, the production history of the weapon you used (and why it is inferior to the weapon they prefer), a detailed ballistic report from the grainy BlackBerry photo, and then reiterate again that your shooting sucks, at least in comparison to theirs.

I won’t get into combatives too much. Everyone who trains in a martial art believes they are training in the best martial art. And to settle the debate, this is the best martial art.

The point is, these three things evoke an emotional response from military folk, probably because these three things are at the core of what we think the military is supposed to do, and be good at. Everyone in the military does PT, shoots, and probably does some form of hand-to-hand combat training. The civilian world certainly expects that we do all those things. So when you bring up your new PT routine with military friends, you are sure to get some unsolicited advice on how you’re doing it wrong, or how you should forget everything you know and adopt his/her eccentric-flavor-of-the-weak fitness regimen. Think you know something about guns? Well you don’t, and your military friends will remind you. And your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is no match for my Krav Maga which is no match for his Sambo or her Muay Thai.

So, like politics and religion, I try not to talk about these things, to the best of my ability. And if I do, I just let everyone else be the expert.

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