Is the warrior spirit dead?
Jaded. This seems to be a familiar feeling of many soldiers in the Australian Army. However, I think this goes beyond just not feeling enthusiastic. I have been pondering the question and been asking others, both privates and NCOs if they feel the same as I do. Do you think the warrior spirit is dead? The answers are a resounding yes—all for various reasons. “The training doesn’t foster it”, “None of us have actually seen combat”, “It has been sidetracked by politics”, “People aren’t motivated to be warriors”. Even those who had deployed within my unit still say the Warrior Spirit is dead. While I agreed with many of the points my fellow soldiers made, I felt that there was more depth and complexity to these issues they raised. It even begged the question of what is the warrior spirit in the first place? My hope is that this article can help highlight some of these points that my mates brought up and what we can do to address them.
What is the ‘Warrior Spirit’?
To properly understand the warrior spirit, we have to look at the commonalities of those great warriors, we find inspiration in and others. Many think of the Warrior Spirit as merely a form of blood-lust or toxic masculinity. However, this is simply not the case. The Warrior Spirit is an Archetype. A deeply ingrained psyche and personality that embodies certain personality traits and characteristics.
Amongst all cultures, the warrior held to an ethos or Philosophy. For the Roman warrior, it was Stoicism perhaps expressed best by Marcus Aurelius in his book Meditations. It’s a book still recommended as compulsory reading by many Generals and respected soldiers around the world today. For the Samurai it was the Bushido code which stressed the virtues of Sincerity, Frugality, Loyalty, Mastery of Martial Arts and Honour until death. If these virtues weren’t upheld, the only way a Samurai would be able to regain his honour was through ritual suicide. For the Hindu Kshatriya (warrior), the Dharma is their ethos which in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna counsels the scrupulous Arjuna to uphold. For the Crusaders, their ethos was the chivalric code, which they as Catholic monastic warriors, would adhere to as an informal vow. This adherence to a strict set of values was more than just a mere value checklist. It was a source of deep contemplation about life, death and one’s own soul. Many of the Crusaders were religious monks who had taken up Military Orders and engaged both in religious asceticism, contemplation and warfare. The Samurai would often write Kisei (Death Poetry) to reflect on life and death in their final moments. All of these Warriors had a defining philosophy which structured their world view and was a source of great learning and contemplation.
The Warrior Spirit was also profoundly spiritual in nature. I’m not prescribing a particular religion by bringing up this point but merely stating there was something transcendent about it. Warriors didn’t just fight for their homelands or families, they also fought for glory on the battlefield, justice and a sense of immortality. For the Norse Pagans, they fought for Valhalla and their place in it if they died on the battlefield. The Crusaders fought for the immortal crown of eternal life in the New Jerusalem (Heaven). St Bernard, in a speech to the crusaders, said, “Christian warriors, He who gave His life for you, today demands yours in return. These are combats worthy of you, combats in which it is glorious to conquer and advantageous to die.” The Ancient Greeks and Romans fought for their place in the Elysium Fields if they were heroic enough to be chosen by the gods. For the Hindu Kshatriya, War was the Karma yoga (path of action) which was necessary for Moksha (Liberation from the cycles of death). In all these Warrior societies, there was a transcendent purpose to war and death. This Transcendent principal was what gave life its meaning, and dying heroically in war was a secure means of obtaining this immortal glory.
The Warrior Spirit Today
There are many of those who we would individually see as embodying a Warrior Spirit. They tend to display an exceptional level of mastery in several areas together with a robust underlying ethic they adhere to. However, these individuals seem rare. The modern army and the modern-day soldier has been left standing amongst the ruins of the former warrior archetype. Many of these principles have been watered down to seem more tolerable to the societies we defend. Many feel the army itself doesn’t encourage combat soldiers to be warriors. I think it’s essential to look in detail at each of these points and see where we have gone wrong. I will also propose some possible solutions to help the continued dialogue about soldiering moving forward.
Army and Modern Philosophy
The Australian Army’s ethos relies on its four fundamental values of Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork. In many cases, these values are thrown around more like empty platitudes than substantial beliefs. While these are good values to follow, they don’t really constitute an underlying philosophy. This is why you see many people support Stoicism in the Australian Army, such as Dr Michael Evans. Dr Evans argued in his Quadrant article in January 2010 that western professional armies lack a coherent moral philosophy. That their ethos is under threat from post-modern relativism, the self-esteem movement, and the cult of celebrity. He argues that Stoicism is the moral philosophy that should be more widely adopted by western professional armies. I agree that the problem is the lack of a cohesive philosophical identity.
We saw amongst these ancient warriors a homogenous philosophical belief. They all had a cohesive philosophical identity that was comprehensive, and that united them all. The only reason Post-Modernism, the self-esteem movement, and the cult of celebrity could have any real impact is because we have no defences against them.
Others have talked about introducing philosophy into PME such as Officer Cadet Chris Wooding in his Grounded Curiosity article, ‘Why We Need Philosophy In PME’. He makes an excellent case for promoting the idea of warrior-scholars. It reminds me of a great quote, “The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.”– Lt. Gen. William Francis Butler. While I personally would advocate for Aristotlean/Thomistic Virtue Ethics, this is a discussion I think needs to continue throughout the wider Army. Not whether we should adopt a cohesive philosophical identity, but which?
However, a philosophical identity isn’t just about philosophy, it’s also about identity. Many soldiers felt that the decision to remove ‘death symbols’ was an attack against this identity they had built up within their units. Many of these symbols may have had problematic associations, but many others seemed to have positive associations. The decision to remove Spartan symbology because of ‘extreme militarism’ is baffling. Soldiers don’t embrace Spartan symbolism because Spartans embody some psychotic militarism. They embrace it because many great virtues are associated with the Spartan mentality; self-sacrifice, fortitude, mastery, honour, etc. Even the controversial skull has historically been a stoic symbol encapsulating the idea of Momento Mori, which is certainly not a negative idea. It seems hypocritical that many officers would recommend stoic books but condemn stoic symbols.
The worst point about this political move was that no alternatives were offered. What identity would you like us to have? What symbols have a rich philosophical history and embody virtues like fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice? What about the heroic/warrior virtues of self-sacrifice, justice, courage, loyalty, honour, self-discipline, wisdom, mastery, magnanimity, perseverance, etc.? This symbolic identity is vital for warriors and units. Replacing them with bland symbols misses the point altogether. Warrior units need a strong identity, and when their symbols are replaced with less substantive ones, we start to become apathetic and jaded. The way we solve this is by starting a discussion around which symbols we should adopt that align with our philosophical identity and maintain a strong warrior ethos.
The second part of the Warrior Spirit is Warriors fighting for a Transcendent purpose. Most of the purposes were religious, indicating a sure way to a good afterlife. I think it’s vital that we don’t look at this ‘transcendent aim’ in purely religious terms but in terms of teleology. Teleology is the study of purpose. In this way, we should consider the question of what is the ultimate aim or purpose of being a warrior?
I’d argue that the purpose of being a warrior has two key components—the components being fighting for the sake of justice, and the growth in personal excellence. The reason for these two purposes is that the warrior is intrinsically tied to war, and the purpose of war is to satisfy some perceived injustice. Therefore, the purpose of the warrior is to carry out the purpose of war. The second component directly correlates to the efficiency of the first. Unless a warrior strives for personal excellence, they will become impotent in the fight for justice. What wars should be fought is not up to the individual warrior or the defence force, but to the state. Therefore, our attention should be directed towards what ways soldiers can fulfil their calling to grow in personal excellence.
Training exercises in the army, while they may be exciting the first time you do one, they quickly become repetitive. Individual soldiers don’t feel like there is much of an opportunity to test one’s personal excellence in its current state. The people who get the opportunity to test their excellence are the commanders whose job it is to manage the soldiers, not the soldiers themselves who may be doing an ‘up the guts’ platoon attack for the umpteenth time. When the commander rallies the troops at the end of an exercise and tells the soldiers what a great job they’ve done, this is more of a projection of the commander’s own accomplishment at testing his excellence. The soldiers are merely there as pawns to fill in the gaps as the commanders test their management skills. There is no growth for the soldiers towards true excellence. This has been brought about because of two things. First, it’s difficult to simulate real warfare while maintaining your responsibility for the safety of soldiers. Secondly, it’s assumed that training individual excellence should be left to barracks training or to lower-level field exercises that aren’t gifted with the same amount of resources as the more massive exercises.
This is something that is criticised unanimously by soldiers and is something just accepted by commanders. There will never be enough resources for good training. However, I don’t think we should just accept this mentality. Some of the best training I received was during my pre-deployment training. We were exposed to dealing with casualties in complex environments, more specific standard operating procedures for particular scenarios, more complex urban training, and more relevant theory lessons. I remember remarking to one of my colleagues during this training, “If we always did this sort of training in the Army, I think a lot fewer people would want to discharge.” That’s the point. This personal growth through better training gave us all more purpose. However, our current training comes from many restrictive mindsets about what can be done in training. “Excellence should be left to our special forces, infantry should just know the basics” is a common mindset I hear. However, why can’t the Infantry try to be as good as our special forces without the same resources? The answers are always unsatisfying. This lack of purpose through mundane training has hurt the warrior spirit, which always seeks to improve itself. We need to improve this sense of genuine purpose if we are to help rekindle the warrior spirit.
The Warrior Spirit is dead, and it is up to us to revive it. We can see that the Warrior Spirit incorporated a cohesive philosophical identity, a sense of transcendent purpose, and the dedication to excellence. There are plenty of practices we can put in place to help preserve these aspects. Discussions need to continue to identify a philosophical identity for the Army to adopt as well as looking at the symbology to help foster that identity in soldiers. Different ways we can improve the sense of purpose in soldiers need to be created through more opportunities and more progressive rather than repetitive training. We have a lot of great men and women serving in our Army who we should want to retain. We should want to instil this Warrior Spirit to make our Army better. This same warrior Spirit that we have seen through previous generations of Australian soldiers like our great Anzacs. However, soldiers can’t do it themselves when the Army hierarchy doesn’t nurture it. It’s up to us to revive the warrior spirit together.