What is the ‘warrior ethos?” Is one born with it? Can it be taught? Might it apply to the civilian world also? Author and former Marine Steven Pressfield takes on these questions in his newest book “The Warrior Ethos.”
This is a different sort of Pressfield book. Unlike the historical fiction genre in which he’s written such best-sellers as “Gates of Fire,” “The Afghan Campaign, and “The Profession,” “The Warrior Ethos” is the culmination of years of discussions Pressfield’s been having with Marines and others who were taken with the blend of courage-under-fire and humanity shown by Leonidas, Dienekes, Matthais, Gent, and the other characters in his books. “I wanted to give something back to our men and women fighting overseas,” Pressfield told Gazette, so I put together the best anecdotes and stories from all my research about the Spartans, Alexander's Macedonians, the Romans, and Rommel.”
Pressfield then printed 18,000 copies at his expense, which he donated to as many deployed troops as he could reach. Gen James Mattis assisted, as did LtGen George Flynn and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen Martin Dempsey. Copies were shipped to West Point and the Special Forces, while Marine Corps University received 6,000 so they could fulfill requests from any outfit within the Marine Corps. “My goal was to boil down what is the 'warrior ethos’ into a short book that can fit into the cargo pocket of utility trousers” he said.
The warrior ethos is a code of conduct, Pressfield writes, that embodies a life where integrity, loyalty, honor, and selflessness, and courage are one’s guide. Starting thousands of years ago with the hunters, these concepts evolved into the warrior societies where protection for the tribe was best achieved as a group working together. The rudimentary laws arising from the successful tribes evolved into the warrior ethos practiced by the Spartans and others where courage, cooperation, and acknowledging the strength of the group over that of the individual, enabled the tribe or the nation to survive.
At that point in history, the ability to fight was of paramount importance, he notes. Tribes and nations prospered or were conquered by the strength of the warrior culture existing within a warrior society – a far cry from today when the military is just a tiny fragment of a civilian society. But as Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great, Xerxes, and others marched into history as they fought their way across the Mediterranean and Central Asia, civilization was spread as conquerors and conquered traded goods, took wives, and exchanged ideas.
This sort of intermingling led to the Indian warrior epic “Bhagavad-Gita” expanding the warrior ethos to a loftier plane - from the war against one’s neighbor to an internal struggle to reach one’s better nature as Arunja, the Gita’s hero, battles against enemies whose names can be translated as greed, sloth, and selfishness – all moral weaknesses that must be overcome.
It’s that need to test oneself against both physical and moral adversity, coupled with the blunt Spartan courage in the face of overwhelming odds, Pressfield believes, that gives us the warrior ethos of today. But despite the military component of society being increasingly marginalized in the West, young men and women still flock to recruiting stations to challenge themselves and see how well they perform under adverse conditions.
Pressfield writes “each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence…to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.” This struggle might be Fallujah for a chosen few, or working the night shift for others. “The Warrior Ethos” does not provide a definitive answer as to what makes someone a warrior, but is rather a conversation guide to the warrior ethos. A most thought-provoking book, imagine the conversations it will start amongst those Marines on the midnight watch in Helmand and elsewhere in the world talking with their brother warriors.
The Warrior Ethos
By Steven Pressfield
Black Irish Entertainment, LLC. 2012
ISBN # 978-1-936891-00-9, $ 9.99
As I sat in chilly Manas at 0130 waiting to go to bag drop at 0415, I found myself not wanting to sleep, but to read. In a flurry of last minute purchases, I downloaded a few books onto my Kindle for the trip. I’ve always had a place in my heart for military leadership-type books, because I truly believe (through countless lectures) that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. I, however, subscribe to a different thought in the same vein. That is, leaders learn from their mistakes, great leaders learn from the mistakes of others. My philosophy has been to make those mistakes and learn constantly, but if you can learn from others and avoid some, you’ll set yourself apart from the pack.
I started with The Warrior Ethos, and being a short book, finished it in an hour or so. It has been a while since I have highlighted that much in a book (digitally, of course). It got me thinking about the prototypical question that we, as soldiers, receive all too often: Why do we do it?
The Spartans would argue that we do it for love. Love of one another. The Spartans had a phrase: What is the opposite of fear?
I remember my former squadron commander asking me that question while on patrol in Iraq, because he felt (and I agree) that everyone should read Gates of Fire (by Steven Pressfield as well). What this means, is that you overcome fear by love of your brothers.
That is why the punishment for losing your spear or helmet in Spartan culture was a whipping, but loss of your shield was punishable by death. Your shield protects the man to your left; the rest is for personal protection. This is why when you read interviews with Medal of Honor winners, or talk to them in person, their answer is universal: Why did you do it?
For my comrades.
Or, as Pressfield more eloquently put it: “Courage is inseparable from love and leads to what may arguably be the noblest of all warrior virtues: selflessness.”
But why do I have a platoon with men ranging from 19-42 years old? What causes a kid in our society to up and decide he wants to, willingly, enlist in a time of war?
The Warrior Archetype.
Pressfield wrote, “Archetypes are larger-than-life, mythic scale personifications of the stages we pass through as we mature.” He goes on to say, “Something inside us makes us want to jump out of airplanes and blow stuff up. Something makes us seek out mentors—tough old sergeants to put us through hell, to push us past our limits, to find out what we’re capable of. And we seek out comrades in arms. Brothers who will get our backs and we’ll get theirs, lifelong friends who are just as crazy as we are.”
Each of my guys has a different internal drive to serve; my platoon sergeant has a family history with 1-4 CAV dating back to the Civil War; guys were looking to get their lives on track…or back on track; others did it to support their families during the economic collapse. Regardless of what the motivation to join, they are here, and they are brothers in arms.
The Army has a Warrior Ethos that my soldiers have in spades: “I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit, I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
From a leader’s perspective, I feel this story about Alexander encapsulates what I aspire to emulate in my Ethos: