The Warrior Ethos

The Warrior Ethos

East of Eden

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 14, 2011

[Last week we introduced this new series, The Warrior Ethos, posting the introduction and Chapters One and Two. Today's post is Chapters Three, Four, Five and Six. The Warrior Ethos will continue in this space every Monday. To see prior posts, click on the "Series" bar above. Let's resume!]

CHAPTER 3    EAST OF EDEN

Where did the Warrior Ethos come from? Why would anyone choose this hard, dangerous life? What could be the philosophy behind such a choice?

An answer may come from the Garden of Eden (which is an archetypal myth common to many cultures other than our own Judeo-Christian).

God sets up Adam and Eve in paradise, where all their needs are met without effort. But He warns them, “Don’t go near that tree in the center of the garden.” Of course, they do. The mother and father of the human race choose to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

In other words, they choose to become human. They acquire a quality of consciousness that, before then, had been the possession of God alone.

God kicks them out—into the land of Nod, east of Eden. And here is the curse He lays upon Adam and Eve (and by extension upon the human race forever):

Henceforth shalt thou eat thy bread in the sweat of thy face.

In other words, from now on you humans have to work for a living.

No more picking fruit for free from the trees. From now on, you have to hunt. You have to chase wild animals and kill them before they kill you.

Adam and Eve became the primitive hunting band. The hunting band became the tribe. And the tribe became the army.

The Warrior Ethos evolved from the primary need of the spear-toting, rock-throwing, animal-skin-wearing hunting band—the need to survive. This need could be met only collectively, as a group working in unison. To bind the band together, an ethos evolved—a hunter’s ethos.

Every warrior virtue proceeds from this—courage, selflessness, love of and loyalty to one’s comrades, patience, self-command, the will to endure adversity. It all comes from the hunting band’s need to survive.

At a deeper level, the Warrior Ethos recognizes that each of us, as well, has enemies inside himself. Vices and weaknesses like envy and greed, laziness, selfishness, the capacity to lie and cheat and do harm to our brothers.

The tenets of the Warrior Ethos, directed inward, inspire us to contend against and defeat those enemies within our own hearts.

CHAPTER 4    LORD OF THE BATTLEFIELD

Alexander the Great, toward the end of his life, frequently stayed up all night, sacrificing to the god Fear. Why? Because the ancient way of war was characterized by fear.

The Warrior Ethos evolved as a counterpoise to fear.

In the era before gunpowder, all killing was of necessity done hand to hand. For a Greek or Roman warrior to slay his enemy, he had to get so close that there was an equal chance that the enemy’s sword or spear would kill him. This produced an ideal of manly virtue—andreia, in Greek— that prized valor and honor as highly as victory.

Be brave, my heart [wrote the poet and mercenary Archilochus]. Plant your feet and square your shoulders to the enemy. Meet him among the man-killing spears. Hold your ground. In victory, do not brag; in defeat, do not weep.

The ancients resisted innovation in warfare because they feared it would rob the struggle of honor.

King Agis was shown a new catapult, which could shoot a killing dart 200 yards. When he saw this, he wept. “Alas,” he said. “Valor is no more.”

The god who ruled the battlefield was Phobos. Fear.

CHAPTER 5   THE INSTINCT OF SELF-PRESERVATION

Some say that self-preservation is the strongest instinct of all, not only in humans but in all animal life. Fear of death. The imperative to survive. Nature has implanted this in all living creatures.

The Warrior Ethos evolved to counter the instinct of self-preservation.

Against this natural impulse to flee from danger (specifically from an armed and organized human enemy), the Warrior Ethos enlists three other equally innate and powerful human impulses:

Shame.

Honor.

And love.

CHAPTER 6   RIGHT AND WRONG

Concepts of shame, honor and love imply moral judgment. Right and wrong. Virtues and vices.

The natural, evolution-spawned instinct of self-preservation becomes viewed within the context of an ethical code—and indicted as wrong, evil, cowardly, depraved.

Its opposite—courage—is judged by that same code and declared to be good, brave and honorable.

The Spartan king Agesilaus was once asked what was the supreme warrior virtue, from which all other virtues derived. He replied, “Contempt for death.”

Courage—in particular, stalwartness in the face of death—must be considered the foremost warrior virtue.

A detachment of Romans was cut off in a waterless place. The enemy commander demanded their surrender. The Romans refused. “You are surrounded,” declared the enemy captain in exasperation. “You have neither food nor water. You have no choice but to surrender!” The Roman commander replied, “No choice? Then have you taken away as well the option to die with honor?”

The dictionary defines ethos as:

The moral character, nature, disposition and customs of a people or culture.

Ethos is derived from the same Greek root as ethics. The Warrior Ethos is a code of conduct—a conception of right and wrong, of virtues and of vices.

No one is born with the Warrior Ethos, though many of its tenets appear naturally in young men and women of all cultures.

The Warrior Ethos is taught. On the football field in Topeka, in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, on the lion-infested plains of Kenya and Tanzania. Courage is modeled for the youth by fathers and older brothers, by mentors and elders. It is inculcated, in almost all cultures, by a regimen of training and discipline. This discipline frequently culminates in an ordeal of initiation. The Spartan youth receives his shield, the paratrooper is awarded his wings, the Afghan boy is handed his AK-47.

To be continued …

Posted in The Warrior Ethos

18 Responses to “East of Eden”

  1. February 14, 2011 at 3:34 am

    I’m a bit concerned by some of the ideas floated in these posts today.

    Foremost, I’d like to address the problematic nature in which you present the premise of the Warrior Ethos. There are different contexts for it, and many here view it in a “artistic warrior” perspective. But as you’ve introduced it, this is an investigation of the literal warrior in the context of your upcoming book. The idea that a universal code exists which governs the conduct of all virtuous and professional warriors is not new, but still valuable. Likewise, the discussion presented here regarding the foundations of that code is territory already covered, but essential before enumerating the points of that code. However, I hope that in future posts you intend to address the sticky matter implied in the definition of “ethos” — namely, that warriors are a culture unto themselves.

    As I mentioned before, and as I suspect you investigate heavily in “The Profession,” the idea of warriors as a culture is dangerous. If they are a culture unto themselves, then they are separate from the people they represent. While the mercenary element in the history of warfare has never been large or organized enough to call itself a culture, modern military forces are. Fort Campbell, Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune, Camp Pendleton and their surrounding cities all bear the mantle of “military towns.” That term alone signifies they have their own culture. Does this mean that these posts are societies sequestered away from our collective society?

    If so, the consequence is that the warrior is gradually conditioned to believe he or she is of a civilization separate from the one they fight for. Because of the burdens they bear and the benefits the “other” culture reaps, it’s easy to make the leap that the warrior is above the society. That’s not healthy for anyone. This is the foundation of the argument against the warrior ethos.

    I’m somewhat doubtful that shame is an explicit tenet of the warrior ethos. While it is, as you’ve mentioned before, a fundamental principal of tribal societies, I don’t think it’s appropriate in the more specific warrior paradigm. I like to keep the topic more generalized beyond Greece and Rome, so I’ll refer again to the Samurai. Even in the writings of Zen Masters like Takuan Soho and Tsunemoto Yamamoto, shame is seen as the lowest form of “right-mindedness,” or virtue. An act committed for the purpose of avoiding shame is not necessarily virtuous according to them, because it necessarily involves thought for one’s own benefit or consequence. True virtue (courage, loyalty, bravery) springs from completely selfless thought. I think you’ve said as much here in the Spartan paradigm, so I’d conclude that shame has value as the antithesis of the virtue, but is not virtue in and of itself.

    With regard to the influence of standoff weapons on honor-based societies, I recommend “In Albanian Feuds, Isolation Engulfs Families,” a 2008 article that appeared in the New York Times. Harry Hodgkinson gives a little more background on how firearms changed this tribal dynamic in the preface of his biography on Scanderbeg. History seems to bear Agis out time and again.

    Finally, I’m quite troubled by your last passage equating an Afghan boy receiving a rifle to a Spartan or American soldier receiving a shield or badge. I do not consider a child soldier a warrior. I consider them a brainwashed slave. There is no honor in stripping a boy’s youth, and there’s no value in trying to contextualize his plight as some kind of “right of passage.” Whether he’s killed by a drone strike after being sighted with a weapon, in the heat of a firefight in which he’s killed men, or if he lives to be a hundred without firing a shot, he is no warrior– he’s a victim. In any case, trying to pair that figure with the idea of the warrior ethos does neither any good.

    • Jeffrey Tang
      February 14, 2011 at 10:51 am

      Whether or not a child soldier can be a warrior falls under the category of moral judgment. You might see him as a victim of brainwashing, stripped of his youth; another culture might see his station as an achievement of honor. (It’s worth asking, also, whether you can grow up within any culture without being “brainwashed” by it.)

      In any case, I doubt Steven is declaring a position on the morality of child soldiers. I read the passage as illustrating the different ways in which the warrior ethos can be interpreted in the context of various cultures.

      • February 14, 2011 at 11:43 am

        If you’re going to argue for moral relativism, then the whole proposition of a “universal warrior ethos” is shot to perdition, friend.

        I’ll agree that many wars, including those fought on American soil, have seen their share of troops pulling triggers before they were old enough to shave. I would argue that there were circumstances in those conflicts, imposed by either or both of the opponents, that breached the idea of the warrior ethos (I phrase it that way not because I deny it exists, but because I want to play devil’s advocate). That being the case, the occurrence of “young warriors” is a tragedy.

        I don’t know what the “appropriate age” is when a boy is no longer a boy and can thus freely choose to take up arms on behalf of his country/tribe/local gang chapter (and I mean that without sarcasm), but if you read anything by David Grossman you see that there’s just as much argument for it being a matter of individuality as one of culture. I think there’s a certain absolute threshold, though, and the kids in Afghanistan and Africa are well below it.

        “For children are innocent and love justice, while the rest of us are wicked and prefer mercy.” — G.K. Chesterson

        • Jeffrey Tang
          February 14, 2011 at 12:00 pm

          I’m not arguing for moral relativism. I’m arguing for the importance of moral judgment and the importance of recognizing that most cultures do what they consider to be right. That’s not to say they ARE right, only that in dealing with morality we deal with the “We are right, you are wrong” mindset.

          Specifically, I’m not arguing that we should condone a culture’s making of child soldiers out of a belief in moral relativism. We should, however, learn to interpret their actions in the context of their belief in the rightness of their actions, of how they apply the warrior ethos. If our goal is to understand and illustrate the universal concept behind the many interpretations, then we have to (temporarily) set aside our moral/cultural conflicts so that they don’t distract us from seeing the underlying pattern.

          • February 14, 2011 at 1:23 pm

            But the root of what you’re saying necessarily dabbles in the foundation of moral relativism. I must consider their actions and cast aside not only my own judgments, but the very idea that an absolute principle of justice exists. “Rightness” is open to interpretation, by your argument.

            The problem is that, if there is in fact to be a universal code, then what must be accepted is that some people really are going to be right and some people really are going to be wrong. If we can’t accept that out of a fear that we are judging people according to personal or culturally specific moral codes, then the exercise to establish the existence of a universal code is futile. We cannot even begin the investigation if we base the discussion on the assertion that we ourselves are culturally biased, and therefore haven’t the power to assume a moral high ground advantageous enough to range the entire cultural landscape.

            If I cannot say the impressment of children into the ranks of militias was a tragic breach of the warrior ethos in Revolutionary America just as it is on the Sudanese-Ugandan border today, then the entire dialogue here is doomed to eternally skirt the event horizon of its moral nexus.

            The defining trait of an ethos is its clarity. If it is given to such ambiguity that its moral codes can be applied differently across cultures, then it is not as sure a guide as it must be to keep that culture morally aligned. It is not for the culture to interpret the ethos, rather for the ethos to direct the culture.

            In the context of the afore-mentioned anecdotes, there can be no doubt that British troops, upon quartering in colonist houses and firing into unarmed crowds of protestors, understood that they had breached justice regarding civilians in combat, thus making all civilians, including children, unwilling combatants. Likewise, the actions of African rebels, to include kidnapping and outright brainwashing, demonstrate their acknowledgment of the nature of their actions as unjust and forcible. Whatever justifications may be presented are irrelevant, they breach the warrior ethos.

            I hearken to the titular assertion of this series. “Wars change, warriors don’t.”

    • AJ
      February 16, 2011 at 12:20 am

      Jim
      Firstly we are in agreement that the there is a military sub culture that exists in our society, both due to the ideas instilled in the Soldier or Marine when he first arrives at Ft Benning or Parris Island and in its geographic isolation from densely populated urban centers. These two points are a reality today because of the all-volunteer force we as a society choose to have.
      However I would like to know your thoughts on why this is so dangerous? Are you referring to the traditional American fear of a standing Professional army and the tyranny it could bring about to democracy? If that is the case I would refer to MacArthur’s Farewell Speech to West Point cadets in which they are reminded that “…These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution.” I would argue that this is also a part of the American military ethos.
      Furthermore while the conditioning maybe institutional, the divide between the warrior and the rest of America is further exacerbated by society as well. A Soldier returns from a yearlong rotation in Iraq or Afghanistan he more often than not will find that society holds very little value to whatever horrors suffered, achievements gained. The politics aside, Soldiers and Marines have been at war for the last decade America has not.

      • February 16, 2011 at 5:09 am

        AJ,

        You get my point exactly. The threat to the civilian sector does not necessarily come directly from the military as so many people believe. That’s a gross oversimplification. The threat comes from the civilian sector itself in a roundabout way.

        As our service members return from combat, they get a spectrum of reactions, many of which are bred of misunderstanding. They are either feared as uncouth, violent misfits, as shattered victims of war’s horrors, as mythic heroes, or “baby killers.” Some people express all of these views at once. Observe how the writer of the following piece opines that ROTC students are “victims” of the military establishment. He does not attempt to delineate the threshold between the hapless cadet and the manipulative general. I believe that’s significant, because any attempt to do so would fail.

        http://www.theeagleonline.com/opinion/story/au-shouldnt-give-in-to-phony-rotc-patriotism/

        Regardless of whether the “warrior” is viewed as if on a pedestal or in a pit, the one constant is that a distance exists between him or herself and society, and the typical context of that distance is some form of vertical stratification. Society is compelled to either exalt or excoriate the warrior– he is rarely received home as “one of us.” For her part, the warrior carries on and pays the dialogue little attention. His is a world of exigencies and practicality. It goes far beyond “theirs not to reason why…” but that’s a different discussion.

        The real cost is that society indirectly conditions itself to think of the warrior as “the other.” Whether he is more or less than the citizen, the paradigm maintains on a fundamental level that he is not one in the same. This is the danger. The citizen then feels less connection, kinship or familiarity with the soldier, and consequently the service that she renders. We come to a point where society can only conceive of war and warfare in abstract terms. This can be fatal to a democratic society.

        So it is that both the warrior and the citizen do great harm to their society by engaging in this kind if thought, and it all begins with the initial assumption that the warrior is different than the people. Not to be a shill, but I recently started a series on my own blog that will hopefully bridge this mental gap. It’s obviously a subject dear to my heart, and the reason I’m giving so much attention to contributing here.

        http://jim-gourley.blogspot.com/2011/02/ironman-goes-to-afghanistan-part-1.html

        • Justin Watson
          April 2, 2011 at 11:46 pm

          Jim,

          Well said. I’m currently on my third OEF/OIF tour, and you have very succintly summarized the varieties of reaction to me and my fellows when we come home and interact with civillians who are not familiar with us as individuals. Those who do not fawn over us act as if afraid we might suddenly lash out at them, or worse yet, as if we are ignorant dupes of the evil military-industrial complex.

          And the emnity grow on our side as well. How hard is it NOT to develop some contempt for the man who chooses, either through laziness or cowardice, not to serve his country in time of war? Exempting of course, medical unfitness for service, what good reason is there not to take your turn on the wall? Additionally, how much easier on all of us if everyone did their duty? Perhaps we would only have to serve one year-long combat tour per every six years instead of three. While many, perhaps even most, individuals join the military for reasons other than patriotism or other variations upon “honor,” almost all Soldiers, at least in the Combat Arms, end up inculcating the “Warrior Ethos,” to some degree. So, to men and women who have endured, literally, years of danger and seperation from their wives, husbands and children, how hard is it to respect a largely ignorant body of sheeple that alternately bleats annoyingly about how evil we are, or, acknowledges, or even lionizes our work, only to shirk it themselves? Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to be appreciated, but when a 20-40 year old man who has never served thanks me, it’s a little hard not to say, “you’re welcome, when are you going to do your part?”

          And remember too, by isolating the professional army from the normal populace, you’re isolating the one segment of the population which is extremely adept at the application of organized violence. No, this is not a good development for our country. I don’t think it will come to a head any time soon, because, as someone else posted, our deference to civil authority is so deeply ingrained in our training (especially for officers), but if things get bad enough, I can see it being a large problem for all of us.

          My solution? Quite simple. If you’re medically qualified, get off your ass and serve your country for three years. The more veterans we have, the more common service is, the greater the bond between the rest of the populace and its warriors.

          Just a modest proposal.

          Justin Watson
          From Herat, Afghanistan

    • andrew
      April 22, 2011 at 7:35 am

      Jim
      Your absolutely right! Our military is truly becoming a sub culture that no longer reflects the diluted and widely hedonistic course that western society is heading down. I’ve been a member of the military for over 10 years, the majority of that time within Special Operations. I’ve traveled extensively to countless countries during my career and the overall impression I get from the people of these countries is a respect and desire for the more virtuous qualities that our nation represents, but a resentment and disgust at the nature in which we ‘distribute’ those virtues and the accompanying culture that we bring.

      During my time I’ve seen myself and my crew called upon (ordered) to enter two nations, to attack and then to defend and rebuild, I’ve done many tours through both these nations. I then return stateside and go about my business,I’m exposed, as are most of our serving men and women, to these two wildy contrasting cultures. I find my self at times drawn to some of the ancient principles defined in the cultures of the places I serve in, I also see the contamination of these cultures by our own western culture. A certain contempt has developed in me and a lot of the men I serve with for the more undesirable elements of our culture we export. This contempt goes so far as resentment at being thanked for my service by people who I either hardly know or havnt been there.
      I learnt long ago that recognition and credit are overrated, my men have taught me that over the years. I could chew your ear off at the endless ironic and surreal scenario’s my men and I have found ourselves in. Over the years I’ve found myself dispensing quick sets of orders to my crew to get us out of sticky situations, these orders, though seemingly impossible yet necessary given the circumstances have been met with the utmost stoicism by my men, no hoohaa or bravado, just a quick nod of the head then the getting on with the job. Then after we’ve gotten ourselves out of said impossible scenario, I find myself sitting back in a fob or hooch debriefing and giving my dudes a pat on the back for getting through in one piece, again met with a nod and dry joke, meanwhile pictures of Paris Hilton at the academy awards flashing up on a satellite television in the background give you a unique perspective all at once that, noone will ever know about our collective experiences,and neither should they, yet everyone will know the next time Paris sneezes!

      I use this long winded analogy to hopefully highlight the inevitable divide that will occur between my culture, and yours. Regardless of your thoughts and concerns, it does exist, and in my mind rightly so.

  2. February 14, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Steven, Nicely written and thought provoking.
    I agree that the warriors ethos is taught. In my 32 year military career I saw it, felt it, learned it and lived it. And the entire time I felt a part of the community (Oceanside CA, miltown Camp Pendleton).
    I was never ” gradually conditioned to believe he or she is of a civilization separate from the one they fight for.” Never happened. On the contrary, we worked very hard to identify with the local community and that gave a “face” to who we were defending.
    Keep up the great work.

    • Justin Watson
      April 3, 2011 at 3:10 am

      Sir, it’s not a matter of purposeful indoctrination. It’s an unintended consequence of the current situation. I’ve only got six years in, so less than a fifth of your time, but I can tell you that many Soldiers, myself included, harbor a deep mistrust of the civillian population as a whole. Oh, there are individuals I like and love who have no association with the military, and I still love my country for her founding principles and the freedoms being an American citizen affords, but I do NOT trust “civillians” as a group. They are the other. Not the enemy, but clealry from the demonstrations they hold against the war I’m fighting, many of them are not allies either.

      As far as the local community- sure we like them! They’re our auxilliaries, our camp followers. They provide food, entertainment, companions of the opposite sex (or, very soon, of the same sex, if that’s your thing). I love Colorado Springs, I even like Lawton, Oklahoma. But again, my affection for those two communities and many of the civillians within those communities does not lessen my mistrust of the great American sheeple.

      And yes, whenever I look a Vietnam veteran in the eye, I know I’ve got it easy. But that’s also a part of the mistrust I’ve discussed with my comrades. We know that now all but the most frothing of Anti-American Nutjob at LEAST take the position of Support the Soldier but Not the War (which is a fallacy, if you really support me, help me win this damned war and quit bolstering the enemy’s confidence in our weakness), but we as a group have a slightly better than average appreciaiton for history, and we know what our forebears, literal and metaphorical, went through when the unprintable, expletive deleted civvies turned on them.

      No, we don’t mauraud through civillian communities looking for trouble. And I’ve never been harassed by anything other than individual jackasses for being a soldier, but the fact is, the divide is there and will continue to widen as American Soldiers continue to spend half their lives deployed while everyone else at home worries over who gets voted off the Bachelorette.

      Maybe it was different in your day, but that’s the way it is now.

  3. Joe Paskvan
    February 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    David Gemmel’s fictional series c/w “Druss, The Legend” articulated a “Warrior’s Code”. “Never violate a woman or harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the innocent weak against the evil strong. And never let thoughts of gain lead you into the pursuit of evil” I haven’t found a better one.

  4. Robert Hagedorn
    February 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Snakes may not talk human language and apples grow on apple trees. But what is the real fruit that grows on the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: The First Scandal.

  5. February 14, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    It has been said that the grunt in every war has more in common with the grunt on the other side than his own commanders and leaders back home. As long as these warriors are, in the modern western tradition, an arm of political policy, then they are being used. As long as the individual soldier is court martialed for putting his or her own judgment before those the commanders and politicians we have lost the egalitarianism of the small hunting band. And that band is hunting animals for food, not killing other human beings.

    I love this topic, I am all for finding what is good in the warrior ideal. But it is an ideal that no historic society and no current society has even come close to living up to. That is the danger of reading too much into those societies, spartan, samurai or whatever, we stop searching here and now, we give up our own judgment.

    • Michael
      February 25, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      Ken, you need to go back and read your Clausewitz. “We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means.” War has no point if it is not political in nature.

  6. February 14, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    “I do not love the bright sword for it’s sharpness, nor the arrow for it’s swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend”
    -JRR Tolkien

    • February 17, 2011 at 9:41 am

      That’s a great quote, Ken, and the (pardon the play on words) ethos of what Steven seems to be driving at here.

      I appreciated this line: “The Warrior Ethos evolved as a counterpoise to fear.”

      I think that the resistance goes beyond creative pursuits; resistance is a part of life.

  7. Thomas
    April 4, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Wittman & Peiper (Google them if necessary) were stalwart heroes by any military standard. By a political standard, they were supporting a crminal regime, and (according to the Nuremberg principle) “I was only following orders” is no defense. Stauffenberg was a traitor by any military standard, yet from a political perspective, he was a hero. And as to boys’ rite of passage into warriorhood by being given weapons and warrior ethos, how do we interpret the SS-Panzerdivision Hitlerjugend…?