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Preserving the Warrior Ethos
U.S. soldiers patrol an area near Syria's northeastern Semalka border crossing with Iraq's Kurdish autonomous territory, on November 1, 2021. (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. soldiers patrol an area near Syria's northeastern Semalka border crossing. (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Preserving the Warrior Ethos

H.R. McMaster

The warrior ethos that emerged in the modern Western world has its origins in the warrior myth as embodied by Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War in the Iliad. In America, the warrior ethos evolved into a covenant that binds warriors to one another and to the citizens in whose name they fight and serve. It is grounded in values such as courage, honor, and self-sacrifice. The ethos reminds warriors of what society expects of them and what they expect of themselves.

One might wonder why this esoteric topic deserves attention, especially when our nation has experienced multiple traumas and faces many practical challenges at home and abroad. Understanding war and warriors is necessary if societies and governments are to make sound judgments concerning military policy. American citizens’ expectations help the military establish standards that guide recruitment, training, personnel policies, and even how forces organize and modernize to deter war and defend the nation. In democracies, if citizens do not understand war or are unsympathetic to the warrior ethos, it will become difficult to maintain the requirements of military effectiveness and to recruit the best young people into military service. The warrior ethos is what makes combat units effective. And because it is foundational to norms involving professional ethics, discipline, and discrimination in the use of force, the warrior ethos is essential to making war less inhumane.

The warrior ethos is at risk. If lost, it might be regained only at an exorbitant price.

The warrior ethos is normative, and it appears in various forms across the armed services. For example, the U.S. Army lists its values as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Recognizing the demands that protracted conflicts against brutal and determined enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq were placing on soldiers, the Army formalized the warrior ethos as the heart of a creed that every soldier is meant to internalize in basic training.

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Apparent in those four pledges are willingness to sacrifice for the mission and for one another.

Good combat leaders put mission accomplishment and the survival and well-being of those they lead before their own well-being, to inspire warriors to act in ways contrary to the natural drive of self-preservation. But warriors fight mainly for one another and to preserve their own and their unit’s honor. Good combat units are like a family whose brothers- and sisters-in-arms feel deep affection for one another. As Paul Robinson points out in Military Honour and the Conduct of War, “honour spurs men to fight in two ways: positively, through the desire to display virtue and win honour; and negatively, through a desire to avoid dishonour or shame.” Warriors expect to take risks and make sacrifices to accomplish the mission, protect their fellow warriors, and safeguard innocents.

The warrior ethos is a constant through changes in tactics and weapons. As John Keegan observed in The Face of Battle, his classic 1976 study of combat in the same geographic area across five centuries, from Agincourt (1415) to Waterloo (1815) to the Somme (1916), what battles have in common is human: “the behaviour of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honour and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them.” He observed that the study of battle is “always a study of solidarity and usually also of disintegration — for it is toward the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed.” The warrior ethos is foundational to maintaining the cohesion of one’s “human group” and generating the courage and combat prowess necessary to disintegrate the enemy’s. Unit cohesion derives from soldiers’ trust and confidence in their leaders and in their team.

The need to develop confident, cohesive teams to withstand the test of battle is timeless. In her book Stoic Warriors, Nancy Sherman quotes the Stoic philosopher Seneca to describe training as a form of “bulletproofing” warriors against the debilitating effects of fear: “A large part of the evil consists in its novelty,” but “if evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes.” Confidence is a necessary ingredient for courage because it serves as a psychological and emotional bulwark against fear. Fear is debilitating in battle because it can lead to hesitation and allow the enemy to gain the initiative. Fear can also lead to poor decisions that place fellow soldiers or noncombatants at unnecessary risk. Fear can erode discipline and, over time, cause the psychological, moral, and ethical disintegration of the small units (e.g., squads, platoons, and companies) that are the foundation of combat effectiveness.

Warriors fight mainly for one another, but their willingness to sacrifice and ability to overcome fear are based also on their knowledge that they are fighting to realize a worthy, just intention. Understanding that their efforts are meaningful bolsters resilience under conditions of hardship and persistent danger. “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” as Nietzsche observed. That is why flawed policies and strategies originating in Washington can have a debilitating effect on combat units fighting halfway around the world. A true test to determine the soundness of wartime strategy is to ask platoon leaders whether they can explain to their soldiers how the risks they will take or the sacrifices some may make on an operation will contribute to a worthy outcome. Unsound strategy is not only counterproductive; it can have a corrosive effect on the warrior ethos, as fighting becomes disconnected from a “right intention” for making war.

George Washington issued general orders to his troops at the siege of Boston on July 4, 1775, directing that “all Distinctions of Colonies will be laid aside; so that one and the same Spirit may animate the whole, and the only Contest be, who shall render, on this great and trying occasion, the most essential service to the Great and common cause in which we are all engaged.” Nearly 90 years later, in the midst of America’s most destructive war, President Abraham Lincoln exhorted the living to ensure that those who fell in the Battle of Gettysburg “shall not have died in vain.”

After Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, called the Academy Award–winning director Frank Capra to Washington. He said, “Now, Capra, I want to nail down with you a plan to make a series of documented, factual-information films — the first in our history — that will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting.” Capra produced a series of seven documentaries from 1942 to 1945. His approach was to allow America’s enemies to reveal what was at stake in the war. He used “the enemy’s own films to expose their enslaving ends,” to let “our boys hear the Nazis and the Japs shout their own claims of master-race crud,” so that “our fighting men will know why they are in uniform.”

Knowing that sacrifices made in war are in pursuit of a just and worthy end is important to preserving the warrior ethos, sustaining the will to fight, and helping combat veterans cope with the residual effects of physical and emotional trauma.

The lost war in Afghanistan evokes memories of the lost war in Vietnam. Sadly, the analogy goes beyond counter­­posed images of the evacuations of the Saigon embassy in 1975 and the Kabul airport in 2021. Today the warrior ethos is at risk as it was in the wake of the American experience in Vietnam. Flawed strategy during the Vietnam War, combined with destructive personnel and draft policies, eroded trust within the military while the war’s unpopularity eroded trust between the military, civilian leaders, and the American people. Military professionalism eroded, as did the quality of the force. Racial and social tensions, drug use, and loss of confidence in the officer corps led to breakdowns in discipline and unethical conduct. The bonds of sacred trust foundational to the warrior ethos reached a breaking point. In the 1970s multiple crises, including stagflation, oil shortages, the Watergate affair, the first resignation of an American president, and the 444-days-long hostage crisis that followed the Iranian Revolution added to the trauma of a lost war. Pessimism pervaded.

The experiences of recent years seem to rhyme with those of the 1970s. The traumas of a pandemic, a recession, vitriolic partisan political divisions, social divisions laid bare by George Floyd’s murder and the violent aftermath, an assault on the Capitol, and false claims of widespread election fraud reduced confidence in our democratic institutions and processes. The erosion of trust and America’s shrinking confidence are diminishing the trust that binds warriors to one another and to society at a time when dangers to our security are increasing.

Most Americans understand little about war or warriors. Because less than 1 percent of the population serves, fewer and fewer Americans are connected to our professional military. Unfamiliarity with the warrior ethos, the promotion of philosophies inimical to the sacred trust foundational to it, and leaders’ lack of commitment to achieve outcomes worthy of the risks, costs, and sacrifices in war are eroding America’s ability to fight and win.

Popular culture waters down and coarsens the warrior ethos. Warriors are often portrayed as fragile or traumatized human beings. Hollywood tells us little about the warrior’s calling or commitment to his or her fellow warriors, or about what compels him or her to act courageously, endure hardships, take risks, or make sacrifices.

The most damaging misconception of warriors and the warrior ethos may be the tendency to portray warriors as victims who enjoy no authorship over their future. Resilience in combat depends on soldiers’ confidence in their ability to exert agency over the enemy through a sustained effort. Reporting during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, focused mainly on U.S. and coalition casualty figures without an explanation of the purpose of military operations or their effects on the enemy. A lack of reporting about the enemy contributed to the idea that it was time to end an endless war; the American people had lost perspective on what was at stake. An imaginary Taliban was then presented as an organization willing to share power, to separate from al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, and to be sympathetic to Western priorities.

Fundamental misunderstanding of the warrior ethos is apparent even among those who command and have oversight of the military. A recent example is President Joe Biden’s April 2021 visit to Area 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, immediately after he affirmed the unconditional retreat from Afghanistan. As he stood where many of the fallen from the war in Afghanistan are laid to rest, he intended to honor their sacrifice, but he did not understand how many veterans and families of those who had fought and died in Afghanistan would see the gesture as an affront after the commander in chief had abandoned the cause for which those buried there gave their lives. The contrast between Biden’s words at a cemetery on grounds seized from Robert E. Lee’s family during the Civil War and Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg — the nation would remain “dedicated to the great task remaining” — reveals a postmodern tendency to assume that warriors want pity instead of leaders who will follow through politically and integrate the military with other instruments of national power to secure worthy outcomes.

Other leaders do not understand the values and ethical precepts that form the warrior ethos. As I testified before the Armed Services Committee in March 2021, Senator Tommy Tuberville asked me to affirm his understanding of the United States military as a “killing machine.” It is important to recognize, as Christopher Coker points out in his superb book The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror, that “ultimately warriors are defined through their relationship with death, their own and that of the enemy.” But it is also important to understand that warriors are not machines. Combat is a profoundly human experience. American warriors are also humanitarians, accepting risk for themselves to protect noncombatants, consistent with jus en bello theory and the laws of land warfare.

Some see the warrior ethos as a relic. They pursue exclusively scientific and technology-based solutions to the problem of future war. Misinterpretation of the lopsided military victory in the 1991 Gulf War gave rise to what became the orthodoxy of the “revolution in military affairs” (RMA), according to which American technological advantages would shift war fundamentally from the realm of uncertainty to the realm of certainty. The United States would use “dominant battlespace knowledge” to achieve “full-spectrum dominance” over any opponent. The U.S. military would “shock and awe” opponents in its conduct of “rapid decisive operations.” This flawed thinking ignored war’s nature as a human and political activity that is fundamentally a contest of wills. It was a setup for many of the difficulties we would encounter in the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The orthodoxy of the RMA is making a comeback, as many argue that new technologies, such as those associated with artificial intelligence, offensive cyber capabilities, and hypersonic weapons, will make future warfare fundamentally different from wars of the past. But, as the historian Conrad Crane has observed, there are two ways to fight: asymmetrically and stupidly. Potential enemies develop countermeasures to defeat what the United States might regard as the latest “decisive” capabilities. The RMA in the 1990s and today’s hopes for artificial-intelligence technologies are echoes of what the historian Mark Clodfelter has described in Beneficial Bombing as the “progressive doctrine” — it returns in a new guise every few decades — of rapid victory from a distance through airpower. But as Clausewitz observed in On War,

kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.

Others will argue that the warrior ethos is unnecessary since war itself will soon be made a relic by technology or America’s ability to opt out of armed conflict. Arguments that technology has fundamentally changed war and that war no longer has any utility are reminiscent of wishful thinking prior to World War I. In Europe, Jan Bloch, Norman Angell, and others believed in 1914 that war had become so irrational a means of settling disputes that sensible people would never again fight one. Vice President Joe Biden called President Barack Obama from Baghdad in December 2011 to thank the president for allowing him to “end this goddamn war.” Based on the conceit that wars end when one side disengages, the complete withdrawal from Iraq, however, set conditions for the rise of ISIS less than three years later. In an astonishing failure to learn from even proximate historical experience, the United States withdrew from Afghanistan under the assumption that surrender to the Taliban would be a step toward “ending endless wars.”

If ensuring the ability to fight and win is not the focus of the Defense Department, confused priorities threaten to dilute the warrior ethos and create uncertainty about what the military is for. As it was conducting the humiliating retreat from Kabul, the Pentagon was developing a climate strategy in response to the president’s guidance to “prioritize climate change considerations.”

As the historian Michael Howard has observed, while it is impossible to predict precisely the demands of future war, the key is not to be so far off the mark that it is impossible to respond to the actual demands of war once they are revealed. A failure to think clearly about future war and recognize the enduring need for the warrior ethos could also dissipate the military’s abilities to deter war and to recover from strategic surprise once the true contours of a war reveal themselves. But wishful thinking, fantastical theories of future war, and confused priorities are in fact not the greatest threat to the warrior ethos.

Once confined to academia, the categorization of people as hapless victims or privileged oppressors has infected the broader culture and has, under the Biden administration, made inroads into military institutions. For example, elements of critical race theory (CRT) blame power structures and intractable corrupting forces for a victim–oppressor dichotomy. But nothing could be more debilitating to combat effectiveness than adherence to CRT’s proposal that people be judged mainly by identity category rather than by character and ability to contribute to a team. Ibram X. Kendi’s belief that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination” would, if accepted by the military, destroy unit cohesion and perhaps even provoke white-supremacist bigotry in reaction. In an institution in which the stakes are life and death, the consequences would be particularly severe.

Such theories are incompatible with the warrior ethos in other ways. They valorize victimhood and view people as fragile creatures who must be protected from all threats, including injurious and offensive words. They advance a culture of “safetyism” and risk aversion that robs warriors of their agency, cedes the initiative to the enemy, and stifles the bold action, creativity, and innovation that are essential to winning battles at the lowest possible cost.

Other theories also amount to expressions of societal self-loathing and have harmful effects. Postcolonial theory, which sees the ills of the world today in part as derivative of the political, economic, and social impact of European colonial rule across much of the world in the 18th through the 20th centuries, has reinforced the New Left interpretation of history, which gained influence across much of the academy during and after the Vietnam War. While the writing and teaching of history from different perspectives is valuable in recovering lost voices and providing a fuller understanding of human experience, postcolonial and New Left history is often warped by the desire to support social and political agendas in the present such as advocacy of social-justice activism and demands to “decolonize” everything from academic curricula to scientific research to hairstyles. In the arena of international relations, postcolonial and New Left historians are often joined by those in the so-called realist school, who see assertive U.S. foreign policy and military engagement as a form of imperialism that generates enemies and perpetuates conflicts.

The result is that many college and secondary-school students learn that the ills of the modern era prior to 1945 were due to colonialism and that the ills of the world after 1945 are due to “capitalist imperialism.” The New York Times’ 1619 Project and accompanying curriculum resources meant for use in middle school and high school are driving an interpretation of history in which the Framers, rather than being celebrated for inaugurating an unprecedented and enduring experiment in democracy, must be condemned for complicity in the evils of slavery and the dispossession of indigenous peoples. If children in our free society are taught that their nation is not worth defending, why should they volunteer to defend it? An observation that Chesterton made in the Illustrated London News in 1911 holds true today: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

As postmodernist theories threaten to weaken the bonds of sacred trust among warriors, strategic incompetence and lack of commitment to winning in war erodes trust between warriors and their civilian and military leaders. If, as in Afghanistan, leaders send men and women into battle without dedicating themselves to the achievement of a worthy outcome, how can warriors be expected to volunteer for service, take risks, and make sacrifices? Winning in Afghanistan meant achieving the just intention of ensuring that Afghanistan never again became a haven for jihadist terrorists. For much of the war in Afghanistan, military efforts were not aligned with political and diplomatic efforts. For example, multiple administrations stopped actively targeting the Taliban, gave the enemy a timeline for U.S. withdrawal, and then pursued a negotiated settlement. Winning in war still means convincing the enemy that he is defeated, but America’s short-term approach to the long-term problem of Afghanistan and the persistent promises of imminent withdrawal lengthened the war, made it more costly, weakened our Afghan allies, and strengthened the Taliban, their jihadist terrorist allies, and their Pakistani sponsors.

In contrast to the mass mobilization of World War II and the mainly draft armies of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, today’s small volunteer armed forces leave many Americans without a direct stake in the fighting. As three consecutive presidents told the American people that the war in Afghanistan was not worth continued sacrifice, it was typical for many citizens to profess support for the troops but not the war. Although their sentiment was preferable to the scorn many people directed at those who did their duty in Vietnam, it will prove difficult for American warriors to maintain bonds of trust with citizens who do not believe that they are engaged in an endeavor that justifies killing others and risking their own lives.

The stain of a lost war that ended in ignominious surrender to a terrorist organization is an affront to the honor of those who fought in Afghanistan. The lack of a commitment to defeat enemies and achieve a favorable political outcome consistent with America’s security and vital interests is not limited to civilian leaders. Senior commanders visited us in Iraq when I was in command of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. I showed them our mission statement, which contained the purposes of defeating the enemy (al-Qaeda in Iraq), developing capable and legitimate Iraqi forces, and setting conditions for sustainable security and stability. When our visitors questioned the use of the word “defeat,” I explained that we defined “defeat” as the enemy’s no longer having the capability to accomplish his objectives (i.e., establish an Islamist caliphate) through the use of violence. The senior officers, unconvinced, told me that I was exceeding what was expected under a strategy that emphasized a rapid transition to immature Iraqi forces.

All Americans have a role in preserving the warrior ethos. Members of the professional all-volunteer force are distant from their fellow citizens and little understood. Preserving the warrior ethos will require efforts to better understand war and warriors, a rejection of the destructive elements of critical theories, and a concerted effort to improve not only our nation’s strategic competence but also our confidence in our democratic principles and institutions.

The study of military history and ethics can help Americans understand war and warriors. Unfortunately, during the divisive Vietnam War many universities confused the study of war with advocacy of it and tended to view military forces and weapons as propagators of violence rather than protectors of peace. Those who confuse the study of war and strategy with militarism might be reminded that thinking clearly about the problem of war is both an unfortunate necessity and the best way to prevent it. “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace,” as George Washington observed.

Military and diplomatic history can also help improve strategic competence and strengthen trust between warriors and those responsible for consolidating hard-won military gains into political outcomes. One of the patterns of American military history is to be unprepared for war because of either wishful thinking or a failure to consider continuities in the nature of war — especially war’s political and human dimensions. Revival of military and diplomatic history is important because some social-science theories tend to oversimplify the complex causality of events and to obscure the cultural, psychological, social, and economic elements that distinguish cases from one another. Strategic studies might adopt Richard Betts’s definition of strategy as not only the “link between military means and political ends, the scheme for how to make one produce the other,” but also the “essential ingredient for making war either politically effective or morally tenable.”

Military and civilian leaders in the Department of Defense and those in Congress with oversight of the department must insulate the armed forces from all forms of bigotry and racism, including the principal elements of critical race theory. Leaders should view the history of black military service in the context of black participation in public life and of the long, ongoing struggle for equality of opportunity and equal treatment. Long before the Civil War removed the blight of slavery from our nation and even longer before the struggle for civil rights secured key victories in the 1960s, African Americans fought for their nation in every war. After the Civil War, the U.S. military reflected inequalities in American society while also playing a vital role in dispelling the myths and eroding the racism that underpinned those inequalities. The U.S. military must continue to evolve toward an institution in which all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, can fully belong and enjoy equal treatment, because nothing is more destructive to teams than racism or any form of prejudice. But civilian and military leaders must not allow reified postmodernist theories to erode the sacred trust between warriors or diminish the meritocracy and objective realities that are essential to preserving the warrior ethos as the foundation of combat effectiveness. Warriors should be judged by their integrity, trustworthiness, physical toughness, mental resilience, courage, selflessness, and humaneness.

Leaders must also explain to the American people the nature of the wars and conflicts in which their sons and daughters fight. Citizens need to know what is at stake and what is the strategy to achieve an outcome worthy of costs, risks, and sacrifices. As General Marshall observed in an address to the American Historical Association in 1939, “in our democracy, where the government is truly an agent of the popular will,” foreign policy and military policy are “dependent on public opinion” and our policies and strategies “will be as good or bad as the public is well informed or poorly informed regarding the factors that bear on the subject.”

Restoring confidence in our common identity as Americans and in our democratic institutions is crucial to attracting young men and women to serve. George Floyd’s murder and the protests and violence it sparked, as well as the assault on our Capitol, exposed deep divisions in our society. Those divisions have sapped confidence in our common identity as Americans.

Study of history can play a role here as well. Divisions in our society and the civil unrest associated with them are not new. A broad historical perspective leads us to the conclusion that we are still coping with the legacy of slavery. As bias and vitriol contaminate the information environment today, the manipulation of history remains an important tool for those who want to sow division and conflict rather than foster unity and goodwill. Ignorance of history compounded by the abuse of history saps our national pride and undermines our ability to work together and improve our nation and our society. Pride in the nation should derive not from a contrived happy view of history but rather from a recognition that the American experiment in freedom and democracy always was and remains a work in progress. It is possible to celebrate the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — and also to recognize that much of our history has cut against those principles and that work remains to realize them fully.

Veterans Day is an opportunity to reflect on the ethos that binds American warriors to one another and compels them to act courageously, endure hardships, take risks, and make sacrifices. As they end their service, many veterans miss that military family and find it challenging to reintegrate into their civilian communities. Understanding better the warrior ethos, why it is important, and what we could all do to preserve and strengthen it might restore pride in the republic that they fought to preserve and help build a better future for generations to come.

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