Collections: The Universal Warrior, Part I: Soldiers, Warriors, and…

This is the first part of a three part (II, III) discussion of an idea I am going to term (borrowing from one of its proponents) the ‘universal warrior’ – the idea that there is a transcendent sameness about either the warrior experience or warrior values which provides some sort of useful blueprint for today or a fundamental truth about viewing the past (it is generally presented as both).

Of course the ‘universal warrior’ is not meant literally; no one, save George S. Patton, is claiming that a single warrior was reincarnated through a host of battles, always the same in each case. Rather, the claim that there is a ‘universal warrior’ is really a claim that there is a universal war experience, which all combatants in all wars take part of and which remains largely unchanged or that there is fundamentally a universal set of warrior values, behaviors or attributes which define combatant through the ages and through different kinds of armies, different kinds of service.

And that notion is a popular one, appearing equally at home in anti-war songs and military recruitment propaganda (along with lava monsters). Most recently, my attention was drawn to it by a series of what are effectively self-help videos framed around the idea by best-selling author Steven Pressfield and I am going to use those videos as the clear form of the argument I want to engage. In part, this is because Pressfield makes the argument in almost all of its fullness, making many of the implications (‘warrior societies,’ the life advice, the transcendent connection between ‘warriors’ past and present, the implication that ‘warrior’ life is more morally pure and so on) explicit and clear. And also because Pressfield’s books – his fiction I should note, for his historical fiction works have at best a tenuous relationship with the historical record – are, among other things, on officer training reading lists making it a rather important thing if he is peddling an utterly bunk notion of the past.

And it is not hard to see why the idea of a universal warrior value set or a universal warrior experience is an attractive notion; it offers a transcendent connection, linking the experience of combat – whether that is understood positively, as Pressfield does, or negatively as the famous song does – across generations, centuries and cultures. And it offers the promise of turning that feeling of transcendent connection into a sense of heroism in everyday life, a blueprint for self-improvement, or a timeless model for political consciousness.

And it feels true. After all, we call people who fought in wars even at the beginnings of written history ‘soldiers’ and ‘warriors,’ and we call our own war-fighters ‘soldiers’ and (unfortunately) ‘warriors.’ That suggestion of equivalence is built right into our linguistic systems. Students often marvel at the ludicrous tendency for historical artists to represent conflicts in their own deep past (like medieval manuscript illustrators depicting conflicts from classical antiquity) using present (to them) day arms, armor and tactics. But those same students will often almost immediately fall into the mistake of assuming that combatants of the past shared the same attitudes and motivations about war as they do.

Of course a lot of things feel true which aren’t. Standing on the ground, the Earth feels flat, it seems the Sun moves across the sky; of course in reality, the Earth is a ball and in a real sense the sky moves across the Sun. Many things are intuitive, they feel true, without being true. So is there a universal combat experience?

To probe that question, we are going to examine it in two ways. This week, we’re going to look at the kinds of people in war, what the distinctions are between them and whether their experience really can be universally applied or not. Then next week, we’re going to look at this question culturally and chronologically, asking if the experience of the same kinds of people in war was really the same in different wars, drawing heavily on the social-military-history lens which concerns itself with the experience of battle (often called the Face of Battle-school after J. Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976)). Then the week after that we’ll take a look at the implications (particularly for how manliness and masculinity are understood) that this historical theory and its failures have on the broader cultural constructs built around it.

Because – spoiler alert – there is no universal warrior (in case some of you were concerned that I was going to spend two weeks carefully explaining different categories only to conclude that they were meaningless!) and there is no universal combat experience.

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Alright? Let’s soldier on!

Soldiers and Warriors

We want to start with asking what the distinction is between soldiers and warriors. It is a tricky question and even the U.S. Army sometimes gets it badly wrong (Pressfield, I should note, draws a distinction which isn’t entirely wrong but is so wrapped up with his dodgy effort to use discredited psychology that I think it is best to start from scratch). We have a sense that while both of these words mean ‘combatant,’ that they are not quite equivalent.

I suspect many of my readers (specifically the native English speakers) will immediately agree, for instance, that this fellow is a warrior, but not a soldier:

While these fellows, volunteers enrolled in an army for just a single conflict, are soldiers but not warriors:

But why? The etymologies of the words can actually help push us a bit in the right direction. Warrior has a fairly obvious etymology, being related to war (itself a derivative of French guerre); as guerre becomes war, so Old French guerreieor became Middle English werreior and because that is obnoxious to say, modern English ‘warrior’ (which is why it is warrior and not ‘warrer’ as we might expect if it was regularly constructed). By contrast, soldier comes – it has a tortured journey which I am simplifying – from the sold/sould French root meaning ‘pay’ which in turn comes from Latin solidus, a standard Late Roman coin. So there is clearly something about pay, or the lack of pay involved in this distinction, but clearly it isn’t just pay or the word mercenary would suit just as well.

So here is the difference: a warrior is an individual who wars, because it is their foundational vocation, an irremovable part of their identity and social position, pursued for those private ends (status, wealth, place in society). So the core of what it is to be a warrior is that it is an element of personal identity and also fundamentally individualistic (in motivation, to be clear, not in fighting style – many warriors fought with collective tactics, although I think it fair to say that operation in units is much more central to soldiering than the role of a warrior, who may well fight alone). A warrior remains a warrior when the war ends. A warrior remains a warrior whether fighting alone or for themselves.

By contrast, a soldier is an individual who soldiers (notably a different verb, which includes a sense of drudgery in war-related jobs that aren’t warring per se) as a job which they may one day leave behind, under the authority of and pursued for a larger community which directs their actions, typically through a system of regular discipline. So the core of what it is to be a soldier is that it is a not-necessarily-permanent employment and fundamentally about being both in and in service to a group. A soldier, when the war or their term of service ends, becomes a civilian (something a warrior generally does not do!). A soldier without a community stops being a soldier and starts being a mercenary.

Incidentally, this distinction is not unique to English. Speaking of the two languages I have the most experience in, both Greek and Latin have this distinction. Greek has machetes (μαχητής, lit: ‘battler,’ a mache being a battle) and polemistes (πολεμιστής, lit: ‘warrior,’ a polemos being a war); both are more common in poetry than prose, often used to describe mythical heroes. Interestingly the word for an individual that fights out of battle order (when there is a battle order) is a promachos (πρόμαχος, lit: ‘fore-fighter’), a frequent word in Homer. But the standard Greek soldier wasn’t generally called any of these things, he was either a hoplite (ὁπλίτης, ‘full-equipped man,’ named after his equipment) or more generally a stratiotes (στρατιώτης, lit, ‘army-man’ but properly ‘soldier’). That general word, stratiotes is striking, but its root is stratos (στρατός, ‘army’); a stratiotes, a soldier, for the ancient Greeks was defined by his membership in that larger unit, the army. One could be a machetes or a polemistes alone, but only a stratiotes in an army (stratos), commanded, presumably, by a general (strategos) in service to a community.

Latin has the same division, with similar shades of meaning. Latin has bellator (‘warrior’) from bellum (‘war’), but Roman soldiers are not generally bellatores (except in a poetic sense and even then only rarely), even when they are actively waging war. Instead, the soldiers of Rome are milites (sing. miles). The word is related to the Latin mille (‘thousand’) from the root ‘mil-‘ which indicates a collection or combination of things. Milites are thus – like stratiotes, men put together, defined by their collective action for the community (strikingly, groups acting for individual aims in Latin are not milites but latrones, bandits – a word Roman authors also use very freely for enemy irregular fighters, much like the pejorative use of ‘terrorist’ and ‘insurgent’ today) Likewise, the word for groups of armed private citizens unauthorized by the state is not ‘militia,’ but ‘gang.’ The repeated misuse by journalists of ‘militia’ which ought only refer to citizens-in-arms under recognized authority, drives me to madness).

(I actually think these Greek and Latin words are important for understanding the modern use of ‘warrior’ and ‘soldier’ even though they don’t give us either. Post-Industrial militaries – of the sort most countries have – are patterned on the modern European military model, which in turn has its foundations in the Early Modern period which in turn (again) was heavily influenced by how thinkers of that period understood Greek and Roman antiquity (which was a core part of their education; this is not to say they were always good at understanding classical antiquity, mind). Consequently, the Greek and Roman understanding of the distinction probably has significant influence on our understanding, though I also suspect that we’d find distinctions in many languages along much the same lines.)

The idea of the ‘universal warrior’ erases these important distinctions, instead supposing that there is really only one way that combatants relate to their societies, often by anachronistically retrojecting the values of modern soldiers onto pre-modern warriors (as Pressfield does, assuming that modern soldiers share a value system with the Spartiates; they do not). Of course this poses real problems for historical understanding (if you want to see some of those real problems in motion, I live-tweeted my reactions to the first few of Pressfield’s “Warrior Archetype” videos, I, II, III; this assumption that there was a universal warrior archetype repeatedly tripped him up).

As you might well imagine warriors and soldiers have quite different values and a very different relationship to their societies. It is perilous to generalize overmuch, but generally, warrior-classes tend to sit at the top of their social hierarchy, ruling the rest by a mix of force and legitimacy born from their military success. The honor or glory of a warrior’s actions derive from their unique excellence and combat skills. Consequently, in societies with warriors we often see a strong emphasis on personal identifiablility for those warriors, often in stark contrast to the ‘lowlier’ soldiers in their employ, either in the form of personal banners or a high social value placed on the gathering of specific spoils or trophies (or similar acts, such as counting coup).

Via Wikipedia, a 13th century Mongol horse archer. This fellow was a warrior, though it is important to note that the Mongols were excellent at fighting in groups. The reason we call them warriors is that they fought because fighting was a core part of their identity. Every adult male Mongol was expected to be able to fight on horseback.

(As a quick aside, because this is a point we will come back to, it is important to note the place of ‘warriors’ within their societies. Within non-agrarian societies – hunter-gatherers, Steppe nomads, etc – it is generally the case that all free adult males are expected to fight and are thus warriors. By contrast, ‘warriors’ within agrarian societies appear as an aristocratic elite. There is no ‘all elite warrior’ society, despite this being a common trope in the public thinking about the Spartans or Vikings or what have you (and one, I should note, Pressfield explicitly invokes). There are societies where every male, from the most fearsome to the most incompetent, is expected to be a warrior (these societies have at best an indifferent track record against more specialized societies) because those societies lack significant amounts of specialization within gender roles (these are generally non-agrarian societies) and there are societies with a small aristocratic elite that consider themselves warriors, where the real strength of the society comes from the great masses below them. Put a pin in that point for a couple of weeks, we’ll come back to it.)

Soldiers, by contrast, are – almost by definition – never at the top of their hierarchy, because they must be in service to a community which can give them orders. That isn’t to say soldiers are not honored – in many societies they are (although in many societies they were not; the professional soldiers of Early Modern Europe were very poorly thought of by their officers and civilians), but that honor derives from duty and service. The importance of individual exploits never wholly goes away (these are humans, after all) but is often far more strongly leavened with the importance of group-belonging (unit cohesion). And of course, being not generally wealthy aristocrats whose position of social dominance generates large rents with which to maintain them, soldiers must often be paid (though in conscription based systems, often quite poorly out of an understanding that soldiering was a civic duty and also a civic honor).

To be clear, this is not to flatten out the distinctions between different warriors and soldiers! As we’ve seen, a Mongol warrior was not the same as a Sioux warrior, nor was a Roman soldier the same as a Han Dynasty soldier or a Macedonian soldier. It is also not, by the by, to suggest that the two types cannot coexist in the same society either; quite the opposite – complex, specialized societies with warrior classes almost always also include a soldiery which serves that aristocratic warrior class (indeed, the word ‘sergeant’ – now a military rank – comes via French from the Latin serviens, ‘a serving man,’ as the term for the lower-social-status soldiers who served the knightly aristocrat in his army).

But as a system of classification, we may safely conclude that there are soldiers, there are warriors, and there is – as a product of their definition – no real overlap between these two groups. Attempting to treat them as a single undifferentiated whole is sure to make a giant mess of their motivations and social roles because they occupy such different places in their societies. But this ‘universal warrior’ and the attendant glorification of a ‘warrior ideal’ isn’t merely a problem for understanding the past. It is a problem in the present.

Via Wikipedia, a Sumerian heavy infantry formation of spear-and-shield troops forming a shield wall from the Stele of the Vultures (c. 2600-2350). Contra Wikipedia, I do not think we should term this a ‘phalanx’ as I think that term is best left to Greek contexts (I prefer ‘shield wall’ as the culture-neutral term).
These are soldiers, and artwork like this is a good reminder that there is nothing uniquely ‘western’ about soldiers.

Warriors Not Wanted

Alright, so that is a nifty linguistic distinction. Soldiers and warriors are somewhat different. Does it matter?


Today, most – though by no means all – free countries (along with a number of rather unfree ones) have shifted from mass conscription based militaries to professional, all-volunteer militaries. The United States, of course, made that shift in 1973 (along lines proposed by the 1969 Gates Commission). The shift to a professional military has always been understood to have involved risks – the classic(al) example of those risks being the Roman one: the creation of a semi-professional (I tend to think that the Roman army before Augustus is only truly semi-professional; the true professional Roman army only comes with the creation of permanent standing legions and fixed service lengths) Roman army misaligned the interests of the volunteer soldiers with the voting citizens, resulting in the end (though a complicated process) in the collapse of the Republic and the formation of the Empire in what might well be termed a shift to ‘military rule’ as the chief commander of the republic (first Julius Caesar, then Octavian) seized power from the apparatus of civilian government (the senate and citizen assemblies).

It is in that context that ‘warrior’ – despite its recent, frustrating use by the United States Army – is an unfortunate way for soldiers (regardless of branch or country) to think of themselves.

Encouraging soldiers to see themselves as ‘warriors’ means encouraging them to see their role as combatants as the foundational core of their identity. A Mongol warrior was a warrior because as an adult male Mongol, being a warrior was central to his gender-identity and place in society (the Mongols being a society, as common with Steppe nomads, where all adult males were warriors); such a Mongol remained a warrior for his whole adult life. Likewise, a medieval knight – who I’d class as a warrior (remember, the distinction is on identity more than unit fighting) – had warrior as a core part of their identity. It is striking that, apart from taking religious orders to become a monk (and thus shift to an equally totalizing vocation), knights – especially as we progress through the High Middle Ages as the knighthood becomes a more rigid and recognized institution – do not generally seem to retire. They do not lay down their arms and become civilians (and just one look at the attitude of knightly writers towards civilians quickly answers the question as to why). Being a warrior was the foundation of their identity and so could not be disposed of. We could do the same exercise with any number of ‘warrior classes’ within various societies. Those individuals were, in effect born warriors and they would die warriors. In societies with meaningful degrees of labor specialization, to be a warrior was to be, permanently, a class apart.

Creating such a class apart (especially one with lots of weapons) presents a tremendous danger to civilian government and consequently to a free society (though it is also a danger to civilian government in an unfree society). As the interests of this ‘warrior class’ diverge from the interests of the rest of society, even with the best of intentions the tendency is going to be for the warriors to seek to preserve their interests and status with the tools they have, which is to say all of the weapons (what in technical terms we’d call a ‘failure of civil-military relations,’ civ-mil being the term for the relationship between civil society and its military). The end result of that process is generally the replacement of civilian self-government with ‘warrior rule.’ In pre-modern societies, such ‘warrior rule’ took the form of governments composed of military aristocrats (often with the chiefest military aristocrat, the king, at the pinnacle of the system); the modern variant, rule by officer corps (often with a general as the king-in-all-but-name) is of course quite common. Because of that concern, it is generally well understood that keeping the cultural gap between the civilian and military worlds as small as possible is important to a free society.

Instead, what a modern free society wants are effectively civilians, who put on the soldier’s uniform for a few years, acquire the soldier’s skills and arts, and then when their time is done take that uniform off and rejoin civil society as seamlessly as possible (the phrase ‘citizen-soldier’ is often used represent this ideal). It is clear that, at least for the United States, the current realization of this is less than ideal. The endless pressure to ‘re-up‘ (or for folks to be stop-lossed) hardly help. But encouraging soldiers (or people in everyday civilian life; we’ll come back to that in the last post in this series) to identify as warriors – individual, self-motivated combatants whose entire identity is bound up in the practice of war – does real harm to the actual goal of keeping the cultural divide between soldiers and civilians as small as possible. Observers both within the military and without have been shouting the alarm on this point for some time now, but the heroic allure of the warrior remains strong.

Samurai in battle from the Gosannen War Scroll. The war was c. 1085 and the scroll was produced c. 1171.
Samurai provide a good example of a warrior class within a complex, specialized and stratified society. The development of the Samurai class during the Heian period (794-1185) is instructive as to the danger of having a warrior class within such a society: the bushi (‘warriors’) who began as samurai (‘attendants’) of the traditional Kyoto-based aristocracy used their military position to usurp control, supplanting their former masters as the true ruling class.

And Everyone Else

Of course, blurring the distinction between warriors and soldiers when thinking historically also makes it difficult to think clearly about the different ways those combatants were attached to their societies, how their role in warfare and their role in society was understood. I am struck that Pressfield thinks that he can transition almost seamlessly from discussing the values and social position of Spartiates to those of Macedonian Phalangites (or United States Marines). But – and to an extent you will have to take my word for this (but for more, read J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts) – Spartans, Macedonians and Marines thought about their place in society very differently. The Spartiate was a military aristocrat, with an entire society (mostly of slaves) built to support his lavish lifestyle, while the soldiers of Alexander’s army were hard-marching semi-professionals held to service by a direct relationship (albeit a sometimes distant one) with their king (transferred from his father), with expectations of service and reward (in loot, land and cash more than warm patriotic feelings) completely alien to the Spartans. The citizen-Marine serving in the military of a democratic country (regardless of what they may think of the current elected leader) and swearing an oath to the constitution, rather than to a person, is even more alien to both.

But as I noted above, we’ve discussed on this blog already a lot of different military social structures (mounted aristocrats in France and Arabia, the theme and fyrd systems, the Spartans themselves, and so on). And they are very different and produce armies – because societies cannot help but replicate their own peacetime social order on the battlefield – that are organized differently, value different things and as a consequence fight differently. But focusing on (fictitious) ‘universal warriors’ also obscures another complex set of relationships to war and warfare: all of the civilians.

When we talk about the impact of war on civilians, the mind quite naturally turns to the civilian victims of war – sacked cities, enslaved captives, murdered non-combatants – and of course their experience is part of war too. But even in a war somehow fought entirely in an empty field between two communities (which, to be clear, no actual war even slightly resembles this ‘Platonic’ ideal war; there is a tendency to romanticize certain periods of military history, particularly European military history, this way, but it wasn’t so), it would still shape the lives of all of the non-combatants in that society (this is the key insight of the ‘war and society’ school of military history).

To take just my own specialty, warfare in the Middle Roman Republic wasn’t simply a matter for the soldiery, even when the wars were fought outside of Italy (which they weren’t always kept outside!). The demand for conscripts to fill the legions bent and molded Roman family patterns, influencing marriage and child-bearing patterns for both men and women. With so many of the males of society processed through the military, the values of the army became the values of society not only for the men but also for women as well. Women in these societies did not consider themselves uninterested bystanders in these conflicts: by and large they had a side and were on that side, supporting the war effort by whatever means. And even in late-third and early-second century (BC) Rome, with its absolutely vast military deployments, the majority of men (and all of the women) were still on the ‘homefront’ at any given time, farming the food, paying the taxes, making the armor and weapons and generally doing the tasks that allowed the war machine to function, often in situations of considerable hardship. And in the end – though the exact mechanisms remain the subject of debate – it is clear that the results of Rome’s victory induced significant economic instability, which was also a part of the experience of war.

In short, warriors were not the only people who mattered in war. The wartime social role of a warrior was not only different from that of a soldier, it was different than that of the working peasant forced to pay heavy taxes, or to provide Corvée labor to the army. It was different from the woman whose husband went off to war, or whose son did, or who had to keep up her farm and pay the taxes while they did so. It was different for the aristocrat than for the peasant, for the artisan than for the farmer. Different for the child than for the adult.

And yet for a complex society (one with significant specialization of labor) to wage war efficiently, all of these roles were necessary. To focus on only the warrior (or the soldier) as the sole interesting relationship in warfare is to erase the indispensable contributions made by all of these folks, without which the combatant could not combat.

It would be worse yet, of course, to suggest that the role of the warrior is somehow morally superior to these other roles (something Pressfield does explicitly, I might add, comparing ‘decadent’ modern society to supposedly superior ‘warrior societies’ in his opening videos). To do so with reference to our modern professional militaries is to invite disastrous civil-military failure. To suggest, more deeply, that everyone ought to be in some sense a ‘warrior’ in their own occupation sounds better, but – as we’ll see in the last essay of this series – leads to equally dark places.

A modern, free society has no need for warriors; the warrior is almost wholly inimical to a free society if that society has a significant degree of labor specialization (and thus full-time civilian specialists). It needs citizens, some of whom must be, at any time, soldiers but who must never stop being citizens both when in uniform and afterwards.

Next time, we’ll turn to the question of a universal combat experience. Does war really never change?

276 thoughts on “Collections: The Universal Warrior, Part I: Soldiers, Warriors, and…

  1. Very gooed essay! However, there’s a minor linguistics error concerning the word “war”. War does not come from guerre but from Norman French “werre”, and ultimately from the Germanic Frankish word “werra”. Old French in the Parisian region went through a sound change /w/ > /gu/, but Norman French did not. In the same way “warden” is more original than “guardian”, even though both exist in English today.


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