Death of the warrior ethos

Weaving a path from Achilles to Rambo via Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Christopher Coker’s insightful new book captures the increasing demonisation of war – even ‘good wars’ – and the denigration of honour, duty and glory.

In his 1998 BBC Reith lectures, ‘War and Our World’, the military historian and journalist John Keegan described war as ‘collective killing for a purpose’ (1). It is hardly surprising, then, that societies in which a spirit of solidarity has been diminished, the necessity to fight dismissed, and attempts to impart a sense of direction or meaning discredited, are unable to celebrate their wars and their warriors.

Primarily, of course, it is the ‘killing’ part of Keegan’s definition that contemporary societies feel uncomfortable with, or reject outright, rather than the ‘collective’ or ‘purpose’ elements, which many would dearly like to rediscover while remaining sceptical about some of their earlier incarnations. But it is precisely the absence of these latter factors that have served to create confusion about the former.

Anyone wishing to pay tribute to warriors today, or to compose a paean to war as ‘a test of, and testament to, a nation’s resilience’, would be ill-advised to do so. Christopher Coker, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, has done the next best thing. His book The Warrior Ethos, while imbued with a sense of loss, also appropriately captures the ambivalence and ambiguity of our times.

Despite copious notes and references, this is far from being an academic text. In parts The Warrior Ethos feels more poetic than polemic, as Coker endeavours to weave a path from Achilles to Rambo via Shakespeare and Tolstoy. His sense that the spirit of an age can be captured through its literature and culture, rather than historical and political analysis alone, proves most rewarding, especially in revealing what has changed.

It is not simply a lost world that is unravelled, but lost words, too. ‘Honour’, ‘Duty’ and ‘Glory’ lose their meaning, and their use, if we forget the past, dismiss the present and refuse to face up to the future. ‘Heroism’, stripped of its subjective factor, appears merely to be bred-in, or institutionalised. Alternatively it is pathologised, as a self-serving and dangerous obsession, or worse, as the sad struggle of trauma victims.

Henry V’s decisive defeat of the French at Agincourt in 1415, as well as Shakespeare’s account of it with the infamous ‘band of brothers’, can now be portrayed as being about people suffering from ‘a centuries-old “deception” about the glory of war’. Inverting this new orthodoxy, Coker reveals brilliantly how ‘we tend to deprive them of the fullness of their lives in order to support and sustain the smallness of our own’.

It is our contemporary construction of events that can transform these historic episodes from being ‘full of meaning’ to being seen as a ‘futile waste’. In that sense, the postmodern disposition towards not taking anything too seriously is quite disabling, even in the absence of any enemy we may face. But we should be clear, that this ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ (2), stems from an interpretation of the world rather than being inherent.

‘All of us in the Western world come from a culture which doubts its own first principles’, rails Coker. So freedom must be fought for afresh in each generation. Stuggle, too, despite its rejection by those of sensitive dispositions, is also a necessity in nature. ‘Only in the last thirty years have we begun to imagine living at peace with nature’, he notes, yet increasing numbers seem to be forgetting this at their peril.

War, like all struggles, is transformative, both for the individuals concerned and for society. Little wonder then, that societies which – despite their rhetoric – fear change, rejecting the uncertainties it creates and endlessly seeking to control risks, should have such qualms about it. Fighting forces them to take a view of the future, regardless of whether they prefer the present or believe in any particular cause.

This transcendental element of existence is most acutely felt by warriors, who are asked to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the ‘greater good’ – another unfashionable concept, and one invoked by The Military Covenant that has only relatively recently been codified and released (3). But again, a ‘greater good’ presumes a ‘collective’ with a sense of ‘purpose’, despite these being noticeable by their absence today.

Coker does not romanticise killing, although, like a recent report accusing the British Army of glamorising warfare (4), he notes a growing reluctance in military circles to use the ‘K’ word. The preference for euphemisms, such as ‘engage’ or ‘suppress’, can rightly be interpreted as defensive. As in animal testing laboratories, when researchers avoid the ‘K’ word, or claim to prioritise ‘welfare’, their evasion allows opponents to run riot.

It was enlightened modernity itself that put paid to Homeric heroes such as Achilles who, living in an unfettered Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, could go about butchering their opponents with little sense of remorse. The modern warrior is accountable to society, choosing to fight for a shared interest. We are not driven mindlessly into feuds through genetic blood ties, but determine our course by our own reason.

But society, suggests Coker, by sanctioning its warriors’ actions, simultaneously removes the determination of their destiny from them. This suppression of the one to the many works so long as there are many who wish to be one, and so long as all parties trust one another and themselves. If these bonds are broken, a vast array of legal codes is imposed upon would-be warriors to patrol their actions and even their thoughts.

In addition, the American cultural historian Paul Fussell suggests that the attenuation of religious belief in the modern world contributed to making modern war and especially death much harder to bear than in the past (5). ‘How does a society cope with death when it no longer dreams of eternity?’ asks Coker, noting how it has been turned into a risk to be avoided, thereby robbing it, and life, of their significance.

The error is to measure life in terms of risk at all. Life, argued Freud, loses its interest when death may not be risked (6). Another way to put it is that there is more to life than mere existence through risk management. As Coker argues, ‘Reason serves the passions; it doesn’t suppress them.’ Yet, in recent years, the military has tied itself in knots assessing risks, thereby encouraging its detractors to do likewise (7).

Take one example, the tragic deaths from gunshot wounds of four young soldiers at the Princess Royal Barracks in Deepcut, England, between 1995 and 2002. This has now led to, by one count, 17 separate inquiries, including those by members of parliament, the Ministry of Defence, the Official Review, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and a two-year independent review of the various re-investigations (8). No wonder the military feels paralysed.

Meanwhile, the West’s enemies in the ‘war on terror’ claim to embrace death. But suicide bombers are not warriors, proposes Coker, because they are not accountable to society. The problem here is to take them at face value, or to view them as that different to us in the first place. It is not just the Ummah that is not consulted nowadays, but the self-disenfranchised millions in Western democracies, too.

Maybe, in the absence of a cohering society, we are all afflicted by a form of nihilism to some degree. Coker cites Nate Fick in his memoir of the Second Gulf War exclaiming: ‘Death before dishonour. Marines tattoo it on their forearms, but these fuckers [the Iraqis] live it.’ (9) Other, more dispassionate observers, however, characterise self-styled jihadists as making a lot of noise but saying very little, and as having a passion for self-publicity.

Image influences reality, but is limited too, notes Coker. He sees how today’s ‘Jarheads’ are more likely to style themselves upon one-dimensional Hollywood heroes, hip hop and the lyrics of Marilyn Manson, than to have read or appreciated the psychological depth of Greek epic poetry, and bemoans the ‘bad ass’ influence within the US military of those for whom Tupac Shakur is a more familiar figure than Abraham Lincoln (10).

This is a lazy caricature, for while not describing Iraqis as ‘motherfuckers’ or themselves as ‘cool because we’re so good at blowing shit up’, it is the elites who are confused in the current period. They fail to lead for lack of purpose or belief in themselves. And contrary to Coker’s assertions, films do capture mythical dimensions and transcendence, as epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Pan’s Labyrinth prove.

He is also in danger of overstating the role of technology. Coker seems mesmerised by the world of cybernetic warriors and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). Quite how much he knows of the ‘hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis’ is anybody’s guess. True, such developments impact on the conduct of war, but it is the loss of confidence in humanity that drives these developments, rather than the other way around.

Technology need not erode tradition and myth, as he suggests. If, for myth, we read a self-affirming narrative that inspires, instructs, enables and connects, as he proposes, then this necessitates the engagement of human passions. For tradition, we could prioritise the truth, as we see it, one that has to be fought for and engaged with, not just imparted. This is the business of politics, not technology or management.

‘Theory’, wrote Marx, ‘becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses’ (11). It is the inability of the elites today to appreciate the material power of ideas, let alone fight for them, that leave them unarmed, looking to technology or management to fill the gap. Ensuring ideas ‘grip the masses’, and become the truth, combining objective evidence with subjective will, is a labour of love entirely alien to them.

There is a real irony, then, in the US military having now introduced a ‘Warrior Ethos’ programme across its force, from basic training to the Army War College, to remind its personnel as to what is expected of them. Like ‘citizenship classes’ in the UK, this seems doomed to fail where it is most needed – at the level of lived ethos as opposed to paper exercises where, unlike on the battlefield, targets are readily met.

The British military is not immune to such instrumental trends. Reports highlight how a career in the Armed Forces ‘equips people with skills and qualifications that can be transferred to civilian life’ (12), or provide ‘an opportunity that may have been denied in civilian life’ (13). In general, the approach is one that emphasises what people can get out of the military, rather than what they will need to give.

Unsurprisingly, then, with such confusion at large across society, as well as embedded in the ranks of the military, Coker identifies how a ‘Therapy Culture’ further confuses matters. It acts as an ‘invitation to infirmity’, he proposes, noting ‘we heal psychic wounds when we are able to give meaning to our experiences. Clearly, if an experience is deemed ‘meaningless’, then ‘so is the pain and suffering that results’.

We are now a long way away from George C Scott’s portrayal of the great American General, George Patton. Talking about war at the start of the 1970 movie, he is depicted as confessing, ‘I love it. God help me, I do love it so. I love it more than my life’. Nowadays, it is journalists who self-depict themselves as the real heroes of war, risking it all in search of ‘the truth’ and without killing anyone to boot (14).

There is no glory in killing but, as Plato reminds us, ‘What makes us human … is not nature or nurture but our capacity to rise above both’. If we do not want, as Nietzsche warned, to find the abyss looking into us when we look into it (15), then it is high time we were reminded of these few basic truths. The fight for truth and for freedom is essential, and Coker’s book goes some way towards highlighting this.

The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror by Christopher Coker is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

First published on spiked, 29 February 2008

(1) War and Our World: The Reith Lectures 1998, John Keegan, Hutchinson, 1998, p.2

(2) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard, Manchester University Press, 1984, p.xxiv

(3) Soldiering – The Military Covenant, Army Doctrine Publication Volume 5, 2000

(4) Informed Choice? Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the United Kingdom, David Gee, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, 2007

(5) The Bloody Game: An Anthology of Modern Warfare, Paul Fussell, Scribner, 1991, p.24

(6) Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, Paul Ricoeur, New Haven, 1970, p.329

(7) Informed Choice?, op. cit.

(8) Breaking the Covenant: Governance of the British Army in the Twenty-First Century, Anthony Forster, International Affairs, 2006, Vol.82, No.6, p.1048

(9) One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, Nathaniel Fick, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p.82

(10) Generation Kill: Living Dangerously on the Road to Baghdad with the Ultra-Violent Marines of Bravo Company, Evan Wright, Bantam 2004

(11) A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx, 1844

(12) Ministry of Defence Responds to Independent Report ‘Informed Choice?’ on Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the UK, Government News Network, 7 January 2008

(13) House of Commons Defence Committee, Duty of Care (Vol.1), The Stationery Office 2005, p.5-6

(14) This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Line of the War on Terrorism, Andrew Exum, Gotham, 2005, p.233

(15) Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886