Times Change — Warriors Should, Too
Arguments for and against a new warrior code
by DAVID AXE
A few years ago, novelist, screenwriter and amateur historian Steven Pressfield wrote a book all about what it means to be a warrior. According to Pressfield, that is.
U.S. Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos liked Pressfield’s The Warrior Ethos so much that he put it on his official reading list, in essence asking a couple hundred thousand Marines to internalize the book.
But there’s a problem. The Warrior Ethos is an awful book chock full of awful ideas. And now one Marine has written a short, incisive rebuttal—even rebuke.
Maj. Edward Carpenter’s The Warrior Ethos: One Marine Officer’s Critique & Counterpoint not only quickly demolishes Pressfield’s sloppy, silly tome—it succeeds in neatly proposing a definition of a warrior that’s far wiser than Pressfield’s.
Want to meditate on today’s warrior code? Toss Pressfield’s book in the recycling bin and read Carpenter’s slim volume, instead.
Pressfield tries to define a modern warrior’s philosophy by exploring one of his favorite historical epochs—ancient Greece. Specifically, Sparta. But Pressfield’s knowledge of history is cursory, at best. And the lessons he gleans from the Spartans are wrong-headed in the extreme.
God help us if Marines act on Pressfield’s ideas. For starters, the novelist “writes almost exclusively on the basis on Caucasian men of antiquity,” Carpenter notes. There’s no place for non-whites and women in this warrior code.
That assertion alone should render moot Pressfield’s entire book, as American society—and the U.S. military—is ethnically diverse and increasingly sexually egalitarian.
Carpenter helpfully summarizes Pressfield’s argument. “The warrior ethos, according to Pressfield, consists of courage, selflessness, love and loyalty to one’s comrades, patience, self-command [and] the will to endure adversity.”
All well and good. But the point of these attributes is to help a combatant resist his natural instinct to preserve his own life, and instead risk his life in order to kill his enemy.
Pressfield asks how a society inculcates the warrior ethos in its soldiers … and concludes that there are three forces at work. Shame, honor and love.
“In a shame-based culture, ‘face’ is everything,” Pressfield writes. “All that matters is what the community believes of us.” And that’s supposed to motivate the warrior to offer up his life, lest his community deem him a coward and reject him.
In his shallow reading of Spartan culture, Pressfield concludes that a whole society demanded selfless service and battlefield heroism of its warriors … and the honorable warriors obliged. In fact, as Carpenter points out, Sparta—a brutal slave-owning state—systematically abused and brainwashed a small class of young men in order to transform them into combatants.
The training included state-sanctioned murder known as krypteia. Authorities sent young military trainees into the countryside with nothing but daggers and a little food. They were expected to hide until dark then sneak up on and murder any serfs they could find.
To not ambush and slay some field worker was, well, shameful. The practice served two purposes. It was a rite of passage for soldiers. It also helped keep the slave-like helot class afraid and subservient.
Pressfield fails to mention slaves, serfs and krypteia, instead insisting that in Sparta, “a warrior culture (the army) existed within a warrior society (the community itself). No conflict existed between the two. Each supported and reinforced the other.”
But Carpenter explores Sparta’s brutality and internal conflict in some detail. “The society … which Pressfield uses as his model for soldierly virtues was one based economically on indentured servitude and slavery, where child abuse, a crude but effective eugenics program and ritualized theft and murder were the order of the day.”
“Times have changed,” the major points out. Bizarrely, Pressfield seems to wish times hadn’t changed.
Carpenter proposes his own warrior ethos that he doesn’t try to base on a selective reading of ancient Greek history. The major’s code grows out of just-war doctrine—which considers restrained violence to be justifiable in extreme circumstances—and hews close to international norms and law and respects racial and sexual diversity.
Courage, selflessness, love of and loyalty to one’s comrades, patience, self-command and the will to endure adversity all still lie at the core of this ethos. “But let us not be shamed or bullied into displaying these virtues,” Carpenter writes, “nor be misled into thinking that a Bronze Age version of honor is suitable for the Information Age warrior.”