Collections: The Universal Warrior, Part IIa: The Many Faces of Battle

This is the second part of a three part (I, IIa, IIb , III) discussion of the idea of a ‘universal warrior’ – the assumption that there is a transcendent sameness about either the experience of war or ‘warrior values’ which might provide some sort of fundamental truth for understanding war, either in the past or present, or else a useful blueprint for current life more generally. In investigating this question, we are using Steven Pressfield’s recent video series as our foil, since it is a more completely explained expression of this idea and one should always try to debate the stronger form of the opposing argument.

Last time we took a look at the social place of people involved in war. We found that, far from there being a universal combatant, distinctions between soldiers and warriors are both significant for the present and important for understanding the past. Moreover, beyond that simple dichotomy, the idea of a universal war experience in turn conceals the basic fact that many people who were neither warriors nor soldiers, not properly combatants of any kind, experienced war in unique ways, be they victims of warfare, homefront supporters, or economically invested in the enterprise. Already we have seen that there’s far more than just one sort of person with a war experience.

This week (and next), we’re narrowing our focus just to the combatants and asking to what degree is even the experience of combat and soldiering (or ‘warrioring’) common. Does it evoke the same emotions or require the same kinds of character? Is it conditioned on the same values? Does it involve the same activities or experiences? Is combat understood the same, from one society to another?

Even so narrowed, our topic is necessarily massive, since we are considering the experience of all wars at all times. But fortunately (for the wear and tear on my keyboard, if nothing else) our thesis – that there are quite a lot of broad universals in the war experience – does not need to be tested everywhere if it can be shown to fail in many places. Consequently, we are going to bounce around a bit here; I hope the reader will understand that I mean these examples to be broadly representative, rather than exhaustive.

If that method seems a bit patchwork, it is important to remember just how expansive the argument implied by this notion of a ‘universal’ warrior or war experience is. In arguing for a ‘warrior archetype’ that recurs in all cultures (as Steven Pressfield does), or more obliquely in arguing that some given sort of long vanished ‘warrior culture’ (like the Spartans) provides material for emulation today, they are making a claim for a human universal, and a profound one at that. After all, the suggestion is not that, for instance, some particular Spartan (or knightly, or Viking, or Samurai, or Apache, or…) tactic or weapon should today be used, but that the ethos and worldview of those ‘warriors’ is valuable because it taps into a true human constant.

Because after all, a lot has changed! We no longer fight with spears, or muskets. Our wars are, in some obvious ways, vastly different from the conflicts of the past. Yet for these past values, social systems, or habits to be directly applicable to the present, something would have to be fundamentally constant, at a deep and fairly profound level, in human conflict. And it has to be something rather more than ‘people die in war, and that is sad for some people.’ After all, people die in logging, and you don’t hear all of these fellows waxing lyrical about the ‘universal lumberjack’ (though I can assure you, if it does exist well…then he’s a lumberjack and he’s ok). It has to be something more than ‘war is scary’ because after all so too is running into burning buildings, but we’re not discussing patterning our lives around the ‘universal firefighter’ either. There would have to be some more profound truth to the phrase – to abuse the Fallout series – that ‘War, war never changes.’

And that is a thesis we can test! Does war change from one culture to the next? From one period to the next? From one place to the next? Let’s find out!

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Raids and Battles

So what is the experience of combat like? Well, first we have to ask, what sort of combat do you mean?

As I’ve noted before, the branch of military history most focused on the experience of combat is what is sometimes called the ‘Face of Battle’ school, after John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976). Taking three battles from English history (Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme), Keegan aimed to reconstruct the experience of those battles in its own long chapter, beginning with the campaign that led to them, then discussing the interaction of men and weapons (infantry vs. cavalry, cavalry vs. cavalry and so on) seeking to use the physics of the battlefield to explain how these interactions would go. He then focuses on how men cohered in the face of terror; then on to the casualties and the aftermath.

We might imagine that this standard order (replicated, I might add, in The Western Way of War (1989), albeit with more problems of evidence) implies a standard sequence of events, moments and emotions in a battle.

Except that for most of the human experience, this sort of battle was rare and generally indecisive when it did happen (a point which leads to the marvelous title of the upcoming, The Other Face of Battle). This ‘Face of Battle’ kind of war – formally constituted field armies meeting in set-piece battles out on open fields, with a clearly defined ‘peace’ before and after the war, along with a zone of conflict and a ‘home front’ – is the kind of war modern folks tend to be quickest to imagine, because in most of the industrialized world, we imagine this as our way of war. But it not the oldest, or most common, or original way of war.

The oldest way of war was what Native North Americans called – evocatively – the ‘cutting off’ way of war (a phrase I am borrowing from W. Lee, “The Military Revolution of Native North America” in Empires and Indigines, ed. W. Lee (2011)), but which was common among non-state peoples everywhere in the world for the vast stretch of human history (and one may easily argue much of modern insurgency and terrorism is merely this same toolkit, updated with modern weapons). The goal of such warfare was not to subjugate a population but to drive them off, forcing them to vacate resource-rich land which could then be exploited by your group. To do this, you wanted to inflict maximum damage (casualties inflicted, animals rustled, goods stolen, people captured) at minimum risk, until the lopsided balance of pain you inflicted forced the enemy to simply move away from you to get out of your operational range.

The main tool of this form of warfare (detailed more extensively in A. Gat, War in Human Civilization (2006) and L. Keeley, War Before Civilization (1996)) was the raid. Rather than announcing your movements, a war party would attempt to advance into enemy territory in secret, hoping (in the best case) to catch an enemy village or camp unawares (typically by night) so that the population could be killed or captured (mostly killed; these are mostly non-specialized societies with limited ability to incorporate large numbers of subjugated captives) safely. Then you quickly get out of enemy territory before villages or camps allied to your target can retaliate. If you detected an incoming raid, you might rally up your allied villages or camps and ambush the ambusher in an equally lopsided engagement.

Only rarely in this did a battle result – typically when both the surprise of the raid and the surprise of the counter-raid ambush failed. At that point, with the chance for surprise utterly lost, both sides might line up and exchange missile fire (arrows, javelins) at fairly long range. Casualties in these battles were generally very low – instead the battle served both as a display of valor and a signal of resolve by both sides to continue the conflict. That isn’t to say these wars were bloodless – indeed the overall level of military mortality was much higher than in ‘pitched battle’ cultures, but the killing was done almost entirely in the ambush and the raid.

We may call this the first system of war. It is the oldest, but as noted above, never entirely goes away. We tend to call this style ‘asymmetric’ or ‘unconventional’ war, but it is the most conventional war – it was the first convention, after all. It is also sometimes denigrated as primitive, but should not be judged so quickly – first system armies have managed to frustrate far stronger opponents when terrain and politics were favorable.

Via Wikipedia, a Mesolithic painting of a battle from Morella la Vella, Spain (c. 10,000BP), showing what looks to be an ambush, a normal occurrence in first system war.

What changed? Very briefly, agriculture, cities and the state. Agriculture created a stationary population that both wouldn’t move but which could also be dominated, subjugated and have their production extracted from them. Their wealth was clustered in towns which could be fortified with walls that would resist any quick raid, but control of that fortified town center (and its administrative apparatus of taxation) meant control of the countryside and its resources. Taking such a town meant a siege – delivering a large body of troops and keeping them there long enough to either breach the walls or starve out the town into surrender. This created a war where territorial control was defined by the taking of fixed points.

In such war, the goal was the deliver the siege. But delivery of the siege meant a large army which might now be confronted in the field (for it was unlikely to move by stealth, being that it has to be large enough to take the town). And so to prohibit the siege from being delivered, defenders might march out and meet the attackers in the field for that pitched battle. In certain periods, siegecraft or army size had so outpaced fortress design that everyone rather understood that after the outcome of the pitched battle, the siege would be a forgone conclusion – it is that unusual state of affairs which gives us the ‘decisive battle’ where a war might potentially be ended in a stoke (though they rarely were).

Via Wikipedia, a siege successfully delivered. This relief is one of the Lachish reliefs from the palace of Sennacherib in Ninevah showing the Assyrian capture of the town of Lachish in the Kingdom of Judah in 701 BC.

We may term this the second system of war. It is the system that most modern industrial and post-industrial cultures are focused on. Our cultural products are filled with such pitched battles, placed in every sort of era of our past or speculative future. It is how we imagine war. Except that it isn’t the sort of war we wage, is it?

Because in the early 1900s, the industrial revolution resulted in armies possessing both amounts of resources and levels of industrial firepower which precluded open pitched battles. All of those staples of our cultural fiction of battles, developed from the second system – surveying the enemy army drawn up in battle array, the tense wait, then the furious charge, coming to grips with the enemy in masses close up – none of that could survive modern machine guns and artillery.

What replaced it we may term the third system of war, though longer readers may know it by Biddle’s term, the Modern System (more here). Armies in this modern system still aim to control territory, as with second-system war, but they no longer square off in open fields. Rather, relying on cover and concealment to mitigate the overwhelming firepower a modern battlefield covered with machine guns, artillery and airpower, they aim to disorient and overwhelm the decision-making capabilities of their enemy with lightning mechanized offensives.

Passchendaele, before and after the Third Battle of Ypres (also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917). Only the faint outline of the road and a handful of buildings are still visible after the artillery barrage. The impact of modern firepower on the physical battlefield is utterly unlike anything in the pre-modern period.

What happens when two current-day modern systems meet? We don’t really know, though there is a lot of speculation. One of the things which made the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia so closely watched last year (in 2020, for those reading this later) was that it provided a chance to see two sides both with (sometimes incomplete) access to the full modern kit of war – not only tanks, jets and artillery, but cyber warfare, drones and so on. The results remain to be much discussed analyzed, but it may well be that a fourth system of war is in the offing, defined by the way that drone-based airpower combined with electronic surveillance and cyber-warfare redefined the battle-space and allowed Azerbaijan in particular to project firepower deep into areas where Armenian forces considered themselves safe.

But I shouldn’t get too off track. The point of all of this is that these systems of war are not merely different, they are so radically different that armies created in one system often fundamentally fail to understand the others (thus the tendency for second and third system armies to treat first system war as some strange new innovation in war, when it is in fact the oldest system by far). As we’re going to see, the aims, experiences and outcomes of these systems are often very different. They demand and inculcate different values and condition societies differently as well.

Courage

Well, but at least the fragile balance of courage and terror in combat, that has always been the same, right? Well certainly, combat has always been frightening; people are trying to kill you, after all. But the moment we get into how courage (and showing courage) was understood in these cultures, both the idea of a universal battle experience and also a universal notion of ‘warrior courage’ break down. To take just a few examples…

Among Great Plains Native Americans, the sign of great courage was the individual act (on this, see A.R. McGinnis, Counting Coup and Cutting Horses (2010), which is replete with examples), particularly touching an enemy combatant (‘counting coup’) or stealing enemy horses from their camp, typically by night and by stealth. It is sometimes asserted that counting coup means touching an enemy without killing them, but McGinnis fairly handily debunks this – not only could the enemy be killed, he could be already dead, killed by someone else and in some cases up to four warriors might count coup on the same fallen foe, none of whom need be the person who did the killing (McGinnis, 44, 63). These acts were fundamentally individual and the honor that resulted from them was entirely from the daring, rather than, necessarily, their direct efficacy. As McGinnis notes at multiple points, it was not the killing of an enemy, but the actual act of rushing forward to touch the body that was rewarded with honor.

Of course in many cases, counting coup in this way was followed by swift retreat, since the body in question was likely to be amongst the still living and dangerous enemy, which was the point since the purpose of the act was to show supreme daring and skill to rush forward among the enemy and get back out after touching one. The same of course was true of ‘cutting horses,’ a task which could generally only be done by sneaking into an enemy camp, literally surrounded by (hopefully unaware) enemy warriors, before grabbing their horses and riding off (there is a first person account of such a raid in Black Elk Speaks (1932) which has always stuck with me, but McGinnis provides several other examples).

(I should note that the last Great Plains Native American to achieve the complete set of military honors and be made a war chief was Joe Medicine Crow who quite famously managed to lead a war party, take an enemy’s weapon, count coup (on a live opponent!) and steal some fifty horses from the Nazi SS during the Second World War)

That understanding of courage was itself almost utterly alien to, for instance, the classical Greeks. While Greek notions of military excellent had their roots in Homer (on this, see J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (2005)) and an ethic of individual combat where honor was gained by killing notable enemies, by the fifth century this had been replaced by an ethic almost entirely focused on holding position in a formation. As Tyrtaeus, a Spartan poet, writes (trans. M.L. West):

I would not rate a man worth mention or account
either for speed of foot or wrestling skill,
not even if he had a Cyclops’ size and strength
or could outrun the fierce north with of Thrace;
I would not care if he surpassed Tithonus’ looks,
or Cinyras’ or Midas’ famous wealth,
or were more royal than Pelops son of Tantalus,
or had Adrastus’ smooth persuasive tongue,
or fame for everything save only valour: no,
no man’s of high regard in time of war
unless he can endure the sight of blood and death,
and stand close to the enemy and fight.
This is the highest worth, the finest human prize
and fairest for a bold young man to win.
It benefits the whole community and state,
when with a firm stance in the foremost rank
a man bides steadfast, with no thought of shameful flight,
laying his life and stout heart on the line,
and standing by the next man speaks encouragement
This is the man of worth in time of war.

This is not a daring courage, but a stoic (in the general sense) courage – the courage of standing a place in the line. And note for Tyrtaeus, that courage is more important than skill, or strength or speed; it matters not how well he fights, only that he “bides steadfast” “with a firm stance.” There is no place for individual exploits here. Indeed, when Aristodemus (another Spartan), eager to regain his honor lost by having survived the Battle of Thermopylae, recklessly charged out of the phalanx to meet the Persian advance at the Battle of Plataea, Herodotus pointedly notes that he was not given the award for bravery by the Spartans who instead recognized those who had held their place in line (Hdt. 9.71; Herodotus does not entirely concur with the Spartan judgement).

This was a form of courage that was evolving alongside the hoplite phalanx, where either shameful retreat or a reckless charge exposed one’s comrades to danger by removing a shield from the line. While, as Lendon is quick to note, there was still a very important aspect of personal competition (seeking to show that you, personally, had more bravery to hold your position than others), this is a fundamentally collective, not individual style of combat and it has values and virtues to match. Indeed, the Greeks frequently disparaged the fighting style of ‘barbarians’ who would advance bravely but retreat quickly as cowardly.

And so the man who holds his place in the group and does not advance recklessly is the bravest of Greeks, but among the Crow Native Americans would seem a coward, while the bravest Crow who cleverly and daringly attacked, raided and got away before the enemy could respond would in turn be regarded by the Greeks as a reckless coward, unworthy of honor. These notions of courage aren’t merely different, they are diametrically opposed demanding entirely different actions in analogous circumstances!

The translator will call both of these ideas ‘courage,’ but clearly when one gets down to it, they demand very different things. And these are just two examples. As Lendon notes (op. cit.), the virtus of the Roman was not the same as the andreia of the Greek, though both words might well be translated as ‘courage’ or ‘valor’ (and both words, etymologically mean ‘manliness,’ lest we forget that these are very gender-stratified societies). Roman virtus was often expressed in taking individual initiative, but always restrained by Roman disciplina (discipline), making that system of military values still different from either the Crow or the Greek system.

And both of those standards of courageous behavior are quite different from the way that courage was thought of in Early Modern Europe (on this, see Lee, Waging War, 239-40, n. 33 for further reading). The pike and the musket shifted the center of warfare away from aristocrats on horses towards aristocrats commanding large bodies of non-aristocratic infantry. But, as comes out quite clearly in their writing, those aristocrats were quite confident that the up-jumped peasants in their infantry lacked any in-born courage at all. Instead, they assumed (in their prejudice) that such soldiers would require relentless synchronized drilling in order to render the complex sequence of actions to reload a musket absolutely mechanical. As Lee points out, this training approach wasn’t necessary – other contemporary societies adapted to gunpowder just fine without it – but was a product of the values and prejudices of the European aristocracy of the 1500 and 1600s.

Via Wikipedia, a 17th century manual showing musket drill. It should be noted this represents only a few of the endlessly drilled steps to rapidly ready, fire and reload a musket.

Such soldiers were, in their ideal, to quickly but mechanically reload their weapons, respond to orders and shift formation more or less oblivious to the battle around them. Indeed, uniforms for these soldiers came to favor high, starched collars precisely to limit their field of vision. This is not the man who, in Tyrtaeus’ words (elsewhere in his corpus), “bites on his lip and stands against the foe” but rather a human who, in the perfect form, was so mechanical in motions and habits that their courage or lack thereof, their awareness of the battlefield or lack thereof, didn’t matter at all. But at least, the Greek might think, at least such men still ought not quail under fire but instead stood tall in the face of it.

After all, as late as the Second World War, it was thought that good British officers ought not duck or take cover under fire, in order to demonstrate and model good coolness under fire for their soldiers. The impression I get from talking to recent combat veterans (admittedly, American ones rather than British, since I live in the United States) is that an officer who behaved in that same way on today’s battlefield would be thought reckless (or stupid), not brave. Instead, the modern image of courage under fire is the soldier moving fast, staying low, moving to and through cover whenever possible – recklessness is discouraged precisely because it might put a comrade in danger.

Instead, the courage that is valued in many of today’s armies is the courage to stay calm and make cool, rational decisions. It is, to borrow the first line in Rudyard Kipling’s “If-,” “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” Which is not at all what was expected of the 17th century infantryman, whose officers trusted him to make nearly no decisions at all! But, as we’ve discussed, the modern system of combat demands that lots of decisions be devolved down further and further in the command hierarchy, with senior officers giving subordinates (often down to NCOs) the freedom to alter plans on the fly at the local level so long as they are following the general mission instructions (a system often referred to by its German term, auftragstaktik).

Far from each of these combatants being at home in each other’s military systems (as Pressfield suggests explicitly and this ‘universal warrior’ trope implies more broadly), even the definition of courage varies greatly from one to the next, at point being so different as to be utterly alien. This is a point where I think students of history can be mislead by translation: they read “courage” in a translated text and assume they know what it means, that it means their definition of courage. But it may well not! The same is true, by the way, of ‘virtue.’ Latin virtus, despite frequently being translated as virtue (its cognate) has precious little to do with humility, charity, honesty or the other ‘virtues’ as contemporary society often imagines them.

Instead, a society’s notion of courage is, as we seen, contingent. It depends on the way they fight, the structure of their society, and the weapons they use. The courage of standing one’s place is the line with bitten lip is not the courage of cutting horses, nor is it the courage of mechanically reloading under fire, nor the courage of calmly but quickly seeking cover as the mortar siren sounds. And indeed there is a fair bit to suggest that the terror of being shot at is not quite the same mental experience as the terror of being charged by cavalry, or the terror of being shelled for two weeks straight. Which brings us to…

The Fearful Face of Battle

The Face of Battle (1976) is in some ways an oddly titled book. The title implies there is a singular face to battle that the author, John Keegan, is going to discover (and indeed, to take his forward, that is certainly the question he looked to answer). But that plan doesn’t survive contact with the table of contents, which makes it quite clear that Keegan is going to present not one face of battle, but the faces of three different battles and they will look rather different. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I am going to follow Keegan’s examples to make my point here (although I should note that of course The Face of Battle is a book not without its flaws, as is true with any work of history).

Keegan’s first battle is Agincourt (1415). While famous for the place of the English longbow in it, at Agincourt the French advance (both mounted and dismounted) did reach the English lines; of this the sources for the battle are quite clear. And so the terror we are discussing is the terror of shock; not shock in the sense of a sudden shock or in the sense of a jolt of electricity, rather shock as the opposite of fire. Shock combat is the combat when two bodies of soldiers press into each other in mass hand-to-hand combat (which is, contrary to Hollywood, not so much a disorganized melee as a series of combats along the line of contact where the two formations meet). The advancing French had to will themselves forward into a terrifying shock encounter, while the English had to (like our hoplites above) hold themselves in place while watching the terrifying prospect of a shock engagement walk steadily towards them.

There is actually quite a bit of evidence that the terror of a shock engagement is something different from the other terrors of war (to be clear, not ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ merely different in important ways). There are numerous examples of units which could stand for extend periods under fire but which collapsed almost immediately at the potential of a shock engagement. To draw a much more recent example, at Bai Beche in 2001, a force of Taliban with stood two days of heavy bombing and had repulsed an infantry assault besides, but collapsed almost immediately when successfully surprised by a cavalry charge (yes, in 2001) in their rear (an incident noted in S. Biddle, “Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare” Foreign Affairs 82.2 (2003)).

And so our sources for state-on-state pre-gunpowder warfare (which is where you tend to find more fully ‘shock’ oriented combat systems) stress similar sequences of fear: the dread inspired by the sight of the enemy army drawing up before you (Greek literature is particularly replete with descriptions of teeth-chattering and trembling in those moments and it is not hard to imagine why), followed by the steady dread-anticipation as the armies advanced, each step bringing that moment of collision closer. Often in such engagements one side might break before contact as the fear not of what was happening, but what was about to happen built up. And only then the long anticipated not-so-sudden shock of the formations coming together – rarely for long given the overpowering human urge not to be near an enemy trying to stab you with a sharp stick. There is something, I think, quite fundamental in the human psyche that understands another human with a sharp point, or a huge horse rapidly closing on a deeper level than it understands bullets or arrows.

Via Wikipedia, The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler, 1815.

Which brings us to Keegan’s second battle, Waterloo (1815), defined in part by the ability of the British to manage to hold firm under extended fire from artillery and infantry. The French artillery in an 80-gun grand batterie opened fire at 11:50am and kept it up for hours until the French cavalry advanced (hoping that the British troops were suitably ‘softened’ by the guns to be dislodged) at 4pm. In contrast to Agincourt (or a hoplite battle) which may have ended in just a couple of hours and consisted mostly of grim anticipation, soldiers (on both sides) at Waterloo were forced to experience a rather different sort of terror: forced to stand in active harm for hours on end, as bullets and cannon shot whizzed overhead.

The difference of this is perhaps most clearly extreme if we move still forward to the Somme (1916) and bombardment. The British had prepared for their assault with a week long artillery barrage, in which British guns fired 1.5 million shells (that is about 148 shells fired a minute, every minute for a week). At the first sound of guns, soldiers (in this case, the Germans, but it had been the French’s turn just that February to be on the receiving end of a bombardment at Verdun) rushed into their dug-out bomb shelters at the base of their trench and then waited. Unlike the British at Waterloo, who might content themselves that, one way or another, the terror of fire would not last a day, the soldier of WWI had no way of knowing when the barrage would cease and the battle proper begin. Indeed, they could not see the battlefield at all, only sit under the ground as it shook around them and try to be ready, at any moment when the barrage stopped to rush back up to the lip of the trench to set up the machine guns – because if they were late to do it, they’d arrive to find British grenades and bayonets instead.

Via Wikipedia, a picture of the remains of the countryside after extended shelling at the Battle of the Somme (1916)

We will get into wounds, both physical and mental, next week, but it is striking to me that repeatedly there are reports after such barrages of soldiers so mentally broken by the strain of it that they wandered as if dazed or mindless, apparently driven mad by the bombardment. Reports of such immediate combat trauma are vanishingly rare in the pre-modern corpus (Hdt. 6.117 being the rare example). And it is not hard to see why the constant threat of sudden, unavoidable death hanging over you, day and night, for days or in some cases weeks on end produces a wholly different kind of terror.

And yet, to extend beyond Keegan’s three studies, in talking to contemporary veterans, it seems to me this terror of fire – being forced to stand (or hide) under long continuous fire – is not always quite the same as the terror of the modern battlefield. Of course I can only speak to this second hand (but what else can a historian generally do?), but there seems to be something different about a battlefield where everything might seem peaceful and fine and even a bit boring until suddenly the mortar siren sounds or a roadside IED goes off and the peril is immediate. The experience of such fear sometimes expresses itself in a sort of hypervigilance which seems entirely unknown to Greek or Roman writers (who in most cases could hardly have needed such vigilance; true surprise attacks were quite rare as it is extremely hard to sneak one entire army up on another) and doesn’t seem particularly prominent in the descriptions of ‘shell-shock‘ (which today we’d call PTSD) from the First World War, compared to the prominence of intense fatigue, the thousand-yard-stare and raw emotional exhaustion. I do wonder though if we might find something quite analogous looking into the trauma of having a village raided by surprise under the first system of war.

War has always been terrifying, but not terrifying in the same way. Reading first person accounts of the feelings of battle it is hard not to come away concluding that the emotions of working one’s self up for a charge into shock combat are not the same as the emotions of trying to hold together under prolonged musket fire, which are not the same as the emotions of suffering an artillery barrage, which are not the same as the emotions of scanning a crowd wondering which, if any of these innocent looking people is secretly thumbing the switch for an IED hidden nearby.

Via Wikipedia, The Two-Thousand Yard Stare, by Thomas Lea (1944).

Intermission

While I have focused here mostly on the context of a battle and the emotions of the battle, I think by this point it should be equally obvious (also from the images) that the actual physical reality of a battle could be very different as well. It is a different thing to march into battle shoulder to shoulder with your comrades than it is to sneak alone into an enemy camp to steal the horses or to shelter alone in a foxhole as shells land around you. But in the end we are discussing the universal warrior not the universal war so it seemed apt to focus on the combatant not the combat.

And so far, we have not seem much to suggest that there is a universal warrior. Instead, we have found systems of war so alien to each other that armies encountering even the oldest kinds of war often find them seemingly incomprehensible. We have found that even something as basic as ‘courage’ can be defined and understood in radically different ways from one culture to the next, such that a brave warrior in one culture might make for a cowardly soldier in the next and vice versa. And we’ve seen that while battle is always scary, even the terror is not universal, but rather is shaped and molded by the conditions of the peril.

Next week, we’re going to keep on this, looking at the elements of war which surround the battle. Battle, evidently does change, but does war?

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