Our odd “Valhalla” obsession

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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?

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