Killing them Softly: Warriors Lost in a Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Selfish bastard 

Originally published 21 September 2010 at Kings of War (RIP). Reposted here with the permission of the author. I am thrilled to be able to post this here – it’s one of my favorite pieces on the concept of the ‘warrior’ as archetype. I’ve done my best to restore this post to its orginal form, to include the photo at the top and caption. I did make some edits though – mostly rebuilding links. Enjoy.

Don’t ask me why I read this. But having read it, I cannot refrain from commenting.  

Messenger spends some time looking at the death of Marcel Bigeard and finds in his passing an occasion to indulge in some, well, indulgent sentimentality about the ‘Twilight of the Warrior’. Using Bigeard as both an archetype and a springboard, Messenger laments the death, not of an individual, but of an idea:  

Bigeard thrived in the dirty war (guerre sale) of the postcolonial era, amassing an extraordinary combat record at the head of paratroop units he trained to fight in his image and helping to develop the most successful counter-insurgency strategies of the postwar era. Yet his obituaries this summer were dominated by a continuing dispute within France over the use of torture during the Battle of Algiers in 1957—action sanctioned by the French government of the day. Such is the fate of even the greatest warriors in the West’s post-military popular culture.  

Gone are the days of the butch hero, who took names and kicked ass. Gone are the days where the ends justified the means. Gone are the days of the true warriors…almost:  

What Bigeard…did at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu should be remembered in the way that the 300 Spartans’ defense of the Hot Gates has stirred boys’ dreams for 2,500 years. Few do so remember it, but among their number are the American generals who have been prosecuting our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Like who, you ask?  Messenger gives us a clue by opening with a quotation from Stanley McChrystal’s farewell address:  

Caution and cynicism are safe, but soldiers don’t want to follow cautious cynics.  

(McChrystal’s idea of someone whom soldiers would want to follow is perhaps better left to a more apt publication…like Rolling Stone.)  

Aside from these few tortured, unappreciated souls, the rest of us, well, we ‘just don’t get it’. This is the familiar trope found in so much of the current jazz about the ‘warrior caste’ in America. I find the whole thing a little predictable, to be frank, and more than a little pathetic, as my previous posts on this subject on KOW can attest.  

But, for the sake of argument, let’s look at the idea of the warrior for a moment. I want to postulate that despite the veneer of self-sacrifice, the Warrior is actually a narcissistic, self-obsessed figure. (Ed from Kings of War: note that the ’W’ in Warrior is capitalised, to denote the ideal-typical Warrior. This is an editorial change from a previous version of this post, added for clarity’s sake.)  

Achilles, one of the original heros–and perhaps the model for our concept of the heroic warrior today–is portrayed by Homer as a sulking, spoiled, vainglorious prat who refused to fight because he felt under-appreciated and slighted by his king, Agamemnon. It was not until Hector killed his companion Patroclus that Achilles, fuelled by personal feelings of revenge, entered the fray. Alexander, a slightly more historically realistic character, but a stylised warrior hero nonetheless, likewise fought for personal glory:  he is purported to have whined to his father that by the time he was old enough, there would be nothing left of the world to conquer. The Spartan 300 did not die at Thermopylae for the sake of others. They fought to avoid shaming themselves.  

Morris Janowitz, writing in 1964, follows this line of thinking. He states that the biggest obstacle to the ‘constabulary concept’ (essentially, a model of warfare that incorporates what we would now label ‘stabilisation’ operations) is the particular ‘tastes’ of the self-styled warriors in the professional military:  

Heroic leaders…tend to thwart the constabulary concept because of their desire to maintain conventional military doctrine and their resistance to assessing the political consequences of limited military action which do not produce ‘victory.’  [Morris Janowitz, “The Future of the Military Profession,” in Malham M. Wakin, ed. War, Morality, and the Military Profession. 2nd ed., (London: Westview Press, 1986): 59]  

I find it fascinating that ’heroic leaders’ feel that it is legitimate for them to ‘thwart’ anything. They appoint themselves as the guardians of what is ‘proper’: the proper role of the military; the proper kind of fighting; the proper size of the military budget, etc. Just as Achilles feels that he can pick and choose his battles according to his own preferences, so does the contemporary warrior hero. McChrystal’s words in his French hotel room, as reported in Rolling Stone, are reminiscent of the cossetted Achilles in his tent.  

Perhaps the contemporary warrior believes that the Greek notion of the warrior hero, as exemplified by Achilles, is so powerful that it is deserving of the Roman epithet ‘quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est’. To think so would be to ignore an important aspect of the Greek hero. His role was not immortal and everlasting; indeed, quite the contrary. He was the exemplar of a particular image of Greek society at the time. He is an idealised creature tied to the particular values esteemed by those in Greek society who held ideological or normative power and could set the agenda, with regards to meaning, norms, and practices. Just as Zeus knew that he would eventually lose his position as the king of the heavens, so too the Greek hero’s days were numbered.  

There is no global, objective definition of what it means to be a warrior, despite the existence of a persistent Classical narrative, largely based on readings of Greek epics. As Christopher Coker admits, “morality is embedded in a social context. Ethical codes are not arrived at by universal agreement any more than they are discovered by universal reason.” [Christopher Coker, The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror. (London: Routledge, 2007): 146.]  

But, the hero’s defenders would cry, that is just the problem. There is nothing wrong with the hero, it is the society that is flawed. Messenger reminds this in his article when he says:  

As so often when political issues are intertwined with military, hindsight is blind.  

Now, dear reader, you know where this post is headed, don’t you?  

Just as the Greek hero did not exist solely on the battlefield, but also in the agora, the contemporary soldier cannot retreat from reality into the cocoon of rock’em sock’em action. He, too, must exist in the real, shabby world of workaday normality: with mortgages, MTV, and misaligned morals. Clausewitz (of course!) entreated us to bear this in mind:  

War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means…According to this point of view, there can be no question of a purely military evaluation of a great strategic issue, nor of a purely military scheme to solve itNevertheless, it has not yet been fully accepted, as is shown by the fact that people still like to separate the purely military elements of a major strategic plan from its political aspects, and treat the latter as if they were somehow extraneous. War is nothing but the continuation of political efforts by other means…It is this principle that makes the entire history of war comprehensible, which in its absence remains full of the greatest absurdities. [See this familiar message stated not in On War, but in Clausewitz’s private correspondence here.)  

Even if it worked for Achilles and Alexander, it cannot work today. Soldiers do not fight the wars they want, the way they want. They must fight the wars their masters want, the way their masters want. As one military observer noted, after interviewing officers returning from operations in the Balkans in the 1990s:  

What it means to ‘feel good’ about being a soldier should now have an expanded dimension. The traditional warrior ethic and the comments of ‘wasting their time with peacekeeping’…must change. The soldiers who complain of not ‘feeling the hero’… as a result of humanitarian service must not be encouraged to cling to…obsolete expectations.  

As Janice Gross Stein observed, as she confronted foreign policy makers reluctant to make policy in the topsy-turvy post-Cold War world:  

Well, get a life! Frankly! [The world] is disorderly, messy and disorganized, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have policy. [Janice Gross Stein, “Policy Is Messy Because The World Is Messy. Get Used To It.” Policy Options.  January-February 2001: 73.]  

We cannot afford to allow ‘warriors’ fight the wars that make them ‘feel good’. In the West, as Michael Mann points out, we moved, long ago, from a schema were the military is an “insulated caste” to one where it is a “political institution…answerable to parliament” [Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power.  Volume II.  CUP, 1993: 62.]  

Where does that leave the warrior?  His choices are two:  

1.  Stay in his tent, like Achilles, waiting for his moment, defeated by his own hamartia, Aristotle’s tragic flaw.  

2.  Disappear altogether, replaced by a new ideal-type, one in keeping with the contemporary values operant in our societies.  

Perhaps the problem, and not the solution, are the Greeks. The Talmud, for instance, adopts the inverse position to that of the Greeks: it defines a hero as one who conquers his urges, rather than giving in to them.  

Now that would be heroic. 

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The Soldier-Warrior Dynamic in Metal Gear Solid

I’ve recently been replaying the Metal Gear series after completing MGSV:TPP. I’ve always been a Metal Gear fan, but this was the first in the series I’ve completed since Metal Gear Solid on Playstation. I decided I would go back through the series (by order of release) to completey unpack the smart, complicated, and often absurd story.

Over the past two weekends, I finished the original two Metal Gears for MSX and then moved on to Metal Gear Solid. While reading through the SPECIAL files that recap the events of the first two games, I came across this narrative of the final words exchanged between Solid Snake and Big Boss.

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And the surivivor must live his life as a warrior until he dies.

Since I’ve been writing a lot about “warriors” lately, this stuck out in my mind as odd. Plus, I had literally just finished Metal Gear 2 and I was fairly certain Big Boss didn’t use the term “warrior,” but instead opted for “soldier.”

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Here’s the conversation referenced:

And the survivor will love out the rest of his days as a soldier.”

Granted, these are both translations from Japanese, and it would be interesting to know what word was in the original script. I don’t even know if there is a distinction between “warrior” and “soldier” in Japanese, so it might be inconsequential.

Still, I think it is interesting to see how even back in 1998, when Metal Gear Solid was released, there seems to be a shift in terminology, where “soldier” gives way to “warrior.” This is before the Army began using “warrior” in any official or widespread way.

There was another part of this conversation that piqued my interest, though. Big Boss, in explaining the raison d’être for both him and Solid Snake, says the following:

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“It” being a place to fight, a place to be “warriors.”

That quote reminded me of this quote by former Special Forces Major(Ret) Jim Gant:

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

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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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