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?

239 thoughts on “Collections: The Universal Warrior, Part IIa: The Many Faces of Battle

  1. You could glide over the differences in courage by using a simpler definition.

    “A courageous person is one who does what is expected them by their warfighting system… regardless of their personal fear.”

    It becomes a statement of mastery of fear without specifying exactly what the ultimate end is.

    1. One could even generalize further, “A courageous person is one who does what they should (or perhaps what is hard and admirable, beyond the minimum of should) in the face of fear and perceived danger.”

    2. But if those persons wouldn’t recognize *each other* as courageous, that definition resolves nothing as far as finding a “universal warrior”.

      From our vantage we can certainly label all as courageous in their own way, but that’s not what’s being argued against.

      The post observes that it’s trivially true that some things are universal: battle is scary and violent; soldiers are often brave, under whatever definition their context demands. But the “universal warrior” works *backwards* from there to say that if “courage” is universal, these specific examples of courage, chosen (or invented) for a specific rhetorical purpose, must *also* be universal. And that’s just sophistry.

    3. Except not really. “Courageous acts” and “acts expected by a warfighting system” are not the same. For instance, marching is a critical part of many warfighting systems, and yet it is rare to see someone acclaimed as unusually courageous for being very good at marching, or even being especially eager to march. We might see them called “a good soldier,” but not likely “le Brave des Braves.”

      In contrast, I’m not sure how essential counting coup actually is to victory in Great Plains warfare: it seems quite possible that Group A, with the better archers and stealthier raiding parties, could quite likely triumph over Group B, with worse archers who get ambushed more but then count coup more often.

      Keegan also discusses the question of what “courage” meant to British officers at Waterloo. He concludes that it did not lie in killing the enemy (an act which they were very willing to delegate to subordinates and seemed to consider somewhat plebeian, and indeed many officers were effectively unarmed) but specifically in exposing oneself to danger: being wounded was the acme of courage. (We can also compare the attitude of the same British upper classes to dueling and verify this notion: the shift from sword to pistol, in dueling, was welcomed because it supposedly gave even the unskilled a chance to show their courage.) Yet the British warfighting system did not require being wounded, and the necessity of officers exposing themselves to danger was not that central: one can think of many duties of an officer which were more important, like effectively directing the actions of his unit, or understanding and implementing the intent of his commander.

      The most you could say is that “a courageous person is one who performs *a certain subset* of actions expected, and does so in a societally-approved manner.” And that’s assuming that there are no “courageous acts” that fall outside the warfighting system (and yet are understood to be soldierly or warriorlike acts).

      1. But marching can be tedious, exhausting, mind numbing, painful, but unless it’s in the middle of a bombing or on extremely dangerous terrain it’s generally not dangerous. Courage refers specific to the ability to control one’s mind and actions in a situation in which one’s instincts are triggered by danger and would suggest completely different actions (usually running away). Being able to suffer in silence through hunger, pain and fatigue is stoicism – which is also an oft praised quality in combatants, just a different one.

        1. But then is, say, a berserker courageous? They’re certainly noted noticed for control over their instincts.

      2. My Grandfathers (both WW II veterans) would occasionaly comment ‘ We’re marching ,not fighting’ when facing a tedious/annoying task.

    4. I tend to agree. I’m going to have to mull over Brett’s article, because while, as usual he presents a wonderful mastery of history to present his argument, I find myself thinking yes, but…

      This where the theory versus practice gap adage holds true.

      Experiential evidence is the hard data, the theory has to fit the evidence or explain the evidence in a way that is useful. So the argument boils down to the usefulness of the universal warrior theory versus the usefulness of Brett’s there is no universal warrior theory.

      I agree that assumptions are used to create meaning about an experience, filtered through layers of prior experience that has lead to the creation of core beliefs, underpinned by emotional reactions to said experiences.

      So my immediate reaction, besides it’s complicated, is to ask a question of Brett. What evidence would convince him to challenge his conclusion?

      I say this, not to be argumentative, but to come back to the basis of evidence based theories. Always look to the Null hypothesis.

      1. I am not sure what the null hypothesis is here. Either ‘x is a cultural universal’ or ‘x is not a cultural universal’ can be seen as the null hypothesis depending on your background assumptions about the number and nature of cultural universals.

        I’m also not sure what sort of evidence would refute a position of the form Not All X is Y that is already based on a survey of a range of evidence.

        There is a universal colour of swans is refuted by finding swans of different colours; it’s not quite meaningful to ask what further evidence would lead one to believe that all swans are the same colour after all.

          1. That just privileges whoever proposed an idea first.

            The Bayesian approach weighs the evidence for all hypotheses under consideration. No “null hypothesis” needed.

            What evidence would convince the universal warfare people?

          2. Without argument it can, but a theory has to prove it values to be accepted as valid. Also, while Bayesian probabilities are a wonderful tool, my understanding is their use is when there’s a problem with discerning what evidence to weigh; I may be wrong and I’m happy to be enlightened.

          3. I think trying to apply statistical terminology here muddies the issue more than it clarifies it. We will never be able to assign useful probabilities to the assertions or evidence here, either Pressfield’s or Brett’s, so all the terminology does is cloak our priors and arguments in the trappings of objectivity.

            At the end of the day, a more Bayesian-ish approach (which is much more the standard in non-experimental fields than in benchtop science; but note that simply invoking Bayes will not help us make this any more quantitative – we can no more readily calculate the BIC here than we can run a t-test) will look at the question at hand – “can we argue for a universal experience in war?” – weigh the available evidence, and decide which is better supported. The mere fact that Pressfield “went first” and insisted that the answer is yes has no bearing on the process of evaluation.

            I think the point you raise of the “usefulness” of the theories is interesting, largely because it leads towards where I suspect Brett is heading: the “universal warrior” theory is not a question of history (even if Brett is humoring it by patiently examining its claims) so much as it is a social and political assertion about the present day which is being retrojected onto history to summon support that will convince a non-specialist political audience.

            (By the way, the choice of a null can be quite a bit more subtle than just “the original hypothesis has not been proved.” To be able to construct a statistical test comparing H_1 and H_0, you have to be able to clearly express what the situation looks like under H_0. Sometimes it is as simple as “these two samples are not drawn from different distributions and therefore have the same sample statistic”, but outside of textbook applications of a t-test, it is very often not that simple.)

          4. Thank you. Yes you are right, my bad for not explaining it right.

            Your reply is so good I’m going to save it as a reference answer. Are you by any chance a statistician?

      2. Yeah, I have a similar feeling. Bret’s entire argument is inherently undermined by the simple fact that all his examples are things that we call “courage” today, in early 21st century North American English.

        One way to counter this would be to examine whether the definition of English-language “courage” has changed over time to incorporate new aspects of war after the fact; if that were the case, then it would seem likely that (to anthropomorphize for a moment) our culture is “trying” to construct a universal idea of “courage” in war, which would imply that such a thing doesn’t exist by default, and that when we encounter new types of warfare, we will not automatically recognize the required actions as “courage”. (This happens to be my personal opinion: that while there’s some underlying truth to the idea of a “universal warrior”, we’re largely incapable of recognizing it in the moment, and therefore in practice it’s largely the domain of armchair mystics.)

        Another way to counter it would be to present examples of actions undertaken by warriors in other times and cultures, which they viewed as “courageous” or “appropriate for a warrior”, but which we do not, not even taking into account cultural relativism. The example of the Spartan from Herodotus is a good start, but suffers from being almost completely explained by the previous essay’s distinction between “soldier” and “warrior” (as a case of a culture in transition). What are some other examples?

        The third way that comes to mind, would be a linguistic and cultural examination of what is meant by things like “warrior” and “courage”, by us today, as well as in several different cultures. If we can identify aspects that one culture includes but another does not, and point to actual examples of how this played out in real life and real war, that would go a long way toward showing that there’s no “universal warrior”. It’s quite possible that some of our words and concepts are so vague and broad that we automatically lean toward a simplistic form of universalism. Like you said about “virtue”, it’s literally “manliness”, but what *exactly* did this imply to Romans? Did it change over time? Were there things that they regarded as manly but other societies didn’t, and vice versa? (OK, anyone versed in classics knows the answer to *that* one…)

        1. This is a case, I think, where – as I said – translation deceives. We translate many words into English as ‘courage’ because that is our closest equivalent, but that doesn’t mean that our definition of courage is the same as theirs.

          So for instance, the Greek word for ‘courage’ is ‘andreia’ which more correctly means ‘manliness.’ It is the behavior appropriate to men. But of course what behavior is appropriate to men differs from culture to culture. The Greeks spend a LOT of words declaring conduct the Gauls and Thracians clearly believe to be courage as unmanly (that is, inconsistent with andreia, ‘cowardly’).

          English ‘courage’ by contrast – while a virtue perhaps associated by some with men – is ungendered. It comes from Old French ‘corage’ meaning ‘heartfulness’ (from Latin, ‘cor,’ heart). In its older usages, it could mean more than just what we today define as ‘courage’ too – it could mean one’s inner thoughts or intentions, or even spirit and liveliness.

          And of course as I noted above, the expectations of the corage of the knight were not the expectations of andreia for the hoplite. Sure, these words are sometimes used as translations for each other but that does not mean they have the same meaning. I’ve seen ‘bushido’ translated as ‘chivalry’ but oh boy those are very different concepts!

          And to be clear, we don’t always call ‘courage’ courage. Look at how English speakers write of their enemies – we describe terrorists who blow themselves up as ‘cowards’ because they don’t fit our definition of courage. But they certainly fit their own definitions of courage! Go back further and you’ll find the same label of cowardice placed on irregular fighters, from the North Vietnamese to Native Americans, accused by Anglophone sources of ‘cowardice’ because they would not fight the way we do/did.

          1. “Look at how English speakers write of their enemies – we describe terrorists who blow themselves up as ‘cowards’ because they don’t fit our definition of courage.”

            But they do fit our definition of courage. If they had done something similar for a good cause we would call them heroes. In the movie Independence Day, made just a few years before 9/11, one of the heroes sacrifices himself by flying his plane into the alien spaceship. But the terrorists are our enemies, and their cause is reprehensible, so we must insult them. And we don’t care about the actual meaning of our words when we’re insulting people. If I call someone a bastard it’s not because I actually care whether his parents were married.

          2. So what term did the ancient Greeks use for Polyxena? In the versions where she was sacrificed at Achilles’s tomb, nobly refused to be held to ensure that she kept still, and impressed the Greeks so much that every warrior brought a grave offering to add to her pyre?

          3. People call suicide bombers “coward” because they are sloppy thinkers. If you asked them to define “courage” in a way that would exclude the bombers, they would not be able to do so.

          4. That’s pretty much what I think, yeah. Down to the bits about bushido and cowardice.

            That suggests a different comparison: “honor”. We have a word for the concept, but we don’t seem to have much of an implementation in our culture these days. The concept lets us recognize “honor” when we see it, usually, even if different implementations from different cultures can differ so wildly as to be completely contradictory. It may be possible to talk about universal effects of “honor”, and extract some commonalities, but doing so at any level besides vague generalities would require a lot of serious academic work. And if some self-help guru wants to talk up the importance of living an “honorable” life, he’s basically rediscovered virtue ethics, and has run up against the age-old problem of having to figure out what that actually means in practice. And I have a great deal more respect for the universal human ability to delude oneself into thinking one has the right answer, than I do for our feeble attempts to extract universal truths from the tiny part of the world that we can perceive.

          5. In For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James M. Mcpherson, he notes that while letters from the Confederates were more likely to cite honor as a reason, it was in the officer corps; letters from Union soldiers cited it less, and it distributed throughout the ranks.

          6. As others said though, calling terrorists and kamikaze “cowards” is purely a matter of political propaganda (the likes of which probably permeates those old texts too). Sure, people can keep telling themselves that their enemies are brutes and barbarians and cowards based on arbitrary nitpicking, and may even succeed in convincing themselves so. But take out the context and they’d call the same actions brave. The hero sacrificing his own life to kill a powerful enemy is a trope all our fiction is immensely fond of.

            And conversely, consider how long has it been since individual heroism has become fundamentally pointless if not harmful in most war scenario – millennia, at this point – yet our stories for ALL this time have still been full of brave heroes who fight overwhelming odds alone. I remember studying in school a series of heroic anecdotes from Roman legend, including stuff like Horatius Cocles, the guy who supposedly held up a whole host of invaders, alone, on a bridge, eventually cutting it to drag them in the river with him (which is basically what Gandalf did in Moria, for a modern reference point. We both think of them as very brave heroes!). An individual act of bravery that only made sense in incredibly specific and hardly repeatable circumstances, considered an example in a civilisation whose armies perfected teamwork in battle to a form of art. A legionnaire abandoning formation to go all Horatius Cocles on the enemy’s ass would have been a disgrace and a weakness for his unit. But that doesn’t mean people couldn’t see both things as courage, or didn’t dream of individual heroism.

        2. Had a thought, like one does, and remembered one of the various definitions of translation amounted to traitorous.

          Vladimir Nabokov said, “There are three grades of translation evils: 1. errors; 2. slips; 3. willful reshaping”

          My personal leaning would favour more to the idea of things lost in translation, because people’s mileage varies on meanings.

    5. This was my question too. I agree with Brett that the ideas of courage in each society are very different but my intuition would be that the person who can stay calm in the foxhole and accomplish their task would, all other things being equal, also be better at staying calm and counting coup than a person who breaks and runs away. That’s not to say they are exactly the same but it seems in any culture, the elite warrior is one who can make peace with the risk and continue to function. It’s obviously hard to test though–you would need to find examples of people who participated in two very different combat environments.

      1. Aristotle notoriously said that all virtues / excellences lie between two extremes of behaviour. The courageous person doesn’t give way out of fear, but also doesn’t take inappropriate risks. That’s not an aspect of courage that I think is universally emphasised; and it fits in with the idea that while there are broad brush reasons for translating relevant terms as courage, there are specific differences depending on the cultural contingencies of the practices from which they arise.

      2. I could see there being a difference in terms of what one person is suited to. For example someone who is by nature more boastful and restless might find it harder to stay in line and suppress their individuality while counting coup and showing off might suit them more. In that way, it could be that they would be more “brave” in the second case not because of a inherent better ability at suppressing fear, but because they derive more pleasure from the act and can thus offset their fear with it.

        1. I reckon *I* would be a lot better at staying in formration as a hoplite than striking out alone on a raid.

    6. That’s kind of beside the point? This series is specifically rebutting the idea that there is a universal warrior archetype which transcends culture and time. Along with that would necessarily be a universal courage, but making the meaning of courage culturally-dependent would obviously make it less than universal. The point is not whether or not there’s a definition of courage we could apply to all forms of courage, but whether there is a definition of courage we could apply to a Universal Warrior Archetype, which also applies to every individual fighter who would need to conform to that archetype.

      1. Yes, but if there IS a universal definition of courage (which remains even after seeing the nuanced ways of courage required in different situations of danger and applies to all courageous persons) then this definition applies to all fighting persons as well, regardless of there being a universal warrior archetype or not. And I’m still not sure that all these different forms of courage aren’t connected at a deeper (or more abstract) level.

        1. The universal definition proposed isn’t actually universal, because it references the culture of the person whose character is being described. If courage is defined in a culturally contingent manner, it can’t be universal.

          If you think there’s a universal thing connecting all forms of courage across cultures, say what it is and why it matters rather than just saying “Eh, this could exist.”

          1. “Willingness to undergo danger” (in practice, if not in thought) is exactly what the hoplite system did not respect, and for good reason. Once you’re in a hoplite formation in or near battle, the safest thing you can do is stick with your formation.

            Is it “courageous” to do the safest thing, knowing that it’s the safest thing?

          2. Courage is about overcoming fear, not necessarily facing danger. Hoplites knew it was safest not to flee, but their fear still told them to flee.

          3. The fact that people keep needing to revise the simplest possible definition of “courage” when it’s held up against evidence does not suggest that the True Meaning of CourageTM is a particularly profound concept.

      2. We could then pose the same question applying it to a different problem: is there a Universal Lover?

        Surely, romantic and erotic love have taken on many forms throughout history as different cultures had vastly different ideas on what love was acceptable or not, what the gender roles ought to be, and so on. When we read of a young man pining for the girl he’s in love with in one or Aristophanes’ or Terentius’ comedies, we’re reading about people who only seemingly feel the exact same sentiments, palpitations and desires we may remember from our own youth! After all, they had entirely different notions of what love was or how family ought to work, and often considered women substantially inferior rather than their equals, so how could they possibly feel the same towards them?

        And yet, there does seem to be some pretty obvious shared feelings at the core of it all there. So I think if there was a Universal Warrior it would be something like that, in the more instinctual, gut-level of experience, after you peel off all the social layers. Obviously this is entirely another matter from claiming that the Universal Warrior is a model to aspire to (after all, there might as well be a Universal Serial Murderer, and we don’t exactly pine after that one either).

        1. The issue here is that “universal lover” implies a sentiment, a feeling or a combination of feelings. “Love” is fundamentally an emotion. While the way different people in different times and places express that emotion varies, it is reasonable to suppose that it has existed throughout history, if only because we can see it all over the world in many cultures in the present day.

          If we wanted to say “there is a universal Very Angry Person,” then we might be on firmer ground. It is reasonable to suppose that among the ancients there were people who experienced rage the way we do now. They may have acted differently in response to it, but they existed. Likewise we might talk about a universal or near-universal “Very Scared Person,” even if the nature of the expression of being Very Scared is context-bound and varies over time. The emotions seem, at least, to be so firmly rooted in our biology that humans in different times and places would have to be able to feel them to be recognizably human.

          But “universal warrior” implies a vocation, a more complex knot of feelings, character traits, personal habits, and ongoing activities.

          The ‘warrior’ is not presented as being merely a person who experiences anger, fear, and so on. They are presented as having certain other traits, as relating to society in certain ways, as being virtuous for doing certain deeds. And all of those are things much more sensitive to cultural context than “feels anger at enemies and fear of being hurt.”

          At some point, we have abstracted so much out of our “universal warrior” template, stripped it so far down in the name of making it truly universal, that it no longer has any real cultural relevance to the present day.

          And quite frankly, no one seriously promoting the universal warrior template would be interested in it, if it lost that cultural relevance. They’re not in it because they’re composing some kind of unified field theory of emotions; they have a message and an agenda, and being able to talk about “warriors do this” and “warriors do that” is part of the agenda.

          1. Then the answer should be, appropriately, to criticize that attempt to use the notion as a political cudgel, not to deconstruct the notion itself by hook or crook.

            Consider that of the two most closely related primate species to us, one, chimpanzees, regularly goes to war with each other over similar reasons as us (resources and territory). It’s not that weird that there might be a war instinct as primal to humanity as our sexual instinct. It might make sense to look into that. But then the problem moves to another level – just because there IS an instinct doesn’t make the instinct GOOD. Naturalistic fallacy, ought from is and all that. But the urge to deny the instinct outright to remove all ground from the assertion risks being self-defeating, especially if the arguments grow thinner and more hinging on technicalities than anything.

        2. I would argue there isn’t a Universal Lover. We wouldn’t accept today for instance that the perfect wife can only go outside for baptism, mess and inhumation. And beating up your spouse isn’t seen today as it was 50 years ago. There is a spectrum that goes from the brute to the modern idea of love, but there are huge differences between both ends of that spectrum, and not recognizing this will lead you to the same problem as trying to be the “universal warrior”.

          1. Don’t confuse love and marriage.

            Your points are that there is no Universal Spouse across time or space. Which is, I think, trivially accepted as true.
            (The wider point is that there is not a Universal Love across time or space – what it means to be “in love” is an expression of culture)

          2. I was thinking more of the experience of infatuation, passion, and sexual desire. Descriptions of that seem pretty universal! IMO what happens in families is a lot different; in the past or today, assuming that just because two people are married they are also in love is a pretty long stretch.

    7. The interesting question in this case would be more: would the same people be able to possess that quality in all contexts, or rather, are some TYPES of fear more likely to break one than others, and thus, the bravest hoplite at Thermopilae might run away screaming if faced with a shell bombardment? And I don’t mean it in a “literally pluck him from Ancient Greece and drop him in an unintelligible technological future” sense, but if in some way we could imagine just the same person well-adjusted to a different time. And then again… would they BE the same person? Probably not, yeah.

        1. Brett: Yes, no, and maybe.

          I can actually speak to why PTSD is tricky to discern in literature and historical testimonies, but given my STEM sensibilities this is probably a topic you might want to discuss with me first before me posting anything here.

          I’m searchable by name, fairly high profile on the internet and have a professional LinkedIn page too.

        2. In the end the only thing that would make sense to translate through time is genetics – everything else is so shaped by nurture and environment it’s impossible to disentangle it from its era. So I guess the best question I could imagine is, suppose we cloned some ancient soldier with an inclination to courage-in-a-phalanx, would he also display courage-in-modern-war? If yes, then maybe therein could lie a bit of the very core essence of the “universal warrior”, so to speak. But sounds both like a very hard and very unethical experiment to carry out, and I wouldn’t say it’s worth it.

          1. Yes, but this supposes that actual behavior (courage, in whichever context you choose) is determined solely by genetics (nature) and not by life experiences/training (nurture) which is another far-reaching debate.

          2. Not solely, but partly. I guess my point is that if there is a “Universal Warrior” feeling it ought to reside in whatever basic instinct or brain function some of us possess (on a genetic basis) that can be then sharpened and adapted to the given social context by training and other experiences.

    8. This is too broad, because it also encompasses the kind of courage found in non-warriors. A fireman surely has this same kind of courage, but few would call him a warrior. To support the idea of a universal warrior, there needs to be a quality that all warriors have and non-warriors don’t. Brett’s point is that if you try to define a more specific “battlefield courage”, you find that what that entails varies greatly over time and culture.

      1. Is that true? I feel like if I saw a fireman run into a burning building, grab a baby, and come out, and he started talking about his warrior instincts or whatever… would that be weird?

        It’s not as if most of the people discussing and trying to apply the universal warrior concept are intending to inflict violence. They’re talking about a mindset that allows them to work through fear and exhibit virtue. A fireman doing his job in such a manner is totally consistent with this as I understand it.

        Obviously a subjective judgement on my part though.

        1. I my experience, people use “warrior” to mean just “admirable person”. A firefighter calling his courage “warrior instinct” is actually closer to the proper meaning of “warrior” than what I’m used to seeing.

          1. Let’s move outside the realm of direct physical danger, then. If an accountant turns up evidence of embezzlement and confronts their boss about it or turns whistleblower and risks their career, would you say that person had “warrior courage”? They’re putting potentially years of professional reputation on the line in order to do what society tells them is the correct thing. Is that accountant being a warrior?

  2. I think it’s worth pointing out that shell shock isn’t exactly the same as PTSD. Modern studies on people exposed to IED blasts have found that these individuals suffer damage to the brain that accounts for some of the physical symptoms of shell shock rather than simply chocking it up to trauma.

  3. Another point might be that there is no pre-modern experience comparable to the repeated concussive effects of high explosive, with associated brain trauma. There is a growing body of evidence that PTSD is not a psychological residue of the terror of combat but actual physical damage to the brain from repeated shock.

    1. Unless that evidence becomes absolutely incontrovertible … than this physical damage explanation won’t take hold.

      Too many people have PTSD from emotional traumas and there is investment in emotional PTSD being seen as equivalent to combat PTSD.

      1. We are at the early stages of understanding and implementing the treatment of minds that have suffered trauma, with new technology opening doors to understanding how the brain and body interact and affect the mind.

        TBI: Traumatic Brain Injury diagnosis is based on a better understanding of how shock can damage the brain without necessarily showing an external sign of injury to the head.

        This does not in and of itself invalidate emotional trauma, which is just another way the brain can be damaged without there being clear signs of external injury to the head.

        Both produce symptoms in common, which is currently called PTSD.

      2. Possibly there needs to be a split between two conditions that present identically. After all, diabetes has been known to have two forms since at least medieval times, and they have different causes.

      3. I was very hesitant about the diagnosis myself, but prazosin made the nightmares go away, and EMDR helped with the “flashbacks”, so eventually I came to accept that I do have PTSD.

        Not everyone is alike. People are strong in different places and weak in different places. One person may shrug off something that cripples another, but that second person may in turn be able to easily handle something that would wreck the first. Life is funny like that.

    2. You might want to re-think that. There is at least one pre-Contact culture that relied almost exclusively on clubs (wooden and stone) for combat – the New Zealand Maori; the tohunga, village priests, medical staff, etc, had by the time of Contact with the European explorers, declared that the head was where a person’s mana resided. To me it is obvious that this – in comparison with the Levantine-European insistence that the breath and the blood was where the soul resided – was the result of several hard centuries of seeing young men surviving battles with little obvious injury except for bruising around the head. And becoming useless in a village economy where proverbs illustrate the value placed on hard work: Moe atu nga ringa raupo – Marry a man with calloused hands; Hōhonu kaki, pāpaku nana – A deep neck, but a shallow outcome; and a whole pile of others.

      1. There is a theory that it is the effects of blast waves (that is, “concussion” in a physics-class, not medical, sense) that have some special involvement in some kinds of PTSD. Blunt trauma to the head is obviously not a new phenomenon (nor unique to the Maori; it was a very common battle injury everywhere), but concussive blast is.

        I’m agnostic on the question, myself: I don’t find it convincing as a sole cause (if it was, you’d see a lot more PTSD among people with explosives exposure but without accompanying psychological trauma, like miners or even peacetime vets, and you would also expect the symptoms of people who have experienced trauma or violent trauma with little or no blast exposure to be more sharply divergent from blast+trauma cases) but as Peter Thompson says, there is increasing evidence of something going on, and it seems more and more likely that there is some kind of link or interaction between the effects of blast and the effects of psychological trauma.

        1. One piece of evidence I’ve read on the PTSD question is van Creveld’s ‘Fighting Power’. He examines the likely causes for the difference in WW2 psychiatric casualty rates between the German Army (low) and the US army (high). His main explanation is that the German Army put a huge premium on keeping groups of men together between recruitment and discharge/death, while the American Army tended to train men in huge camps in the US and ship them as replacements to existing units in ones and twos. As a result Americans often faced combat for the first time without any real friends or comrades around them, and it was this that overcame them. The other reason was that Americans once they were ensconced in units were basically committed to the front until they became casualties – physical or psychiatric – and this was again too much to bear. The Germans, despite their maniacal reputation, tried to cycle units away from the front as often as possible.

          I don’t know if van Creveld’s work is still accepted but it does seem to suggest that even the social details of someone’s battlefield experience hugely affects their psychological response to it.

          1. Since one of the causes of PTSD seems to be doing something contrary to your value systems, it might also be relevant that Nazi Germany valorised warfare and fighting to a much greater degree than any of the Allied nations.

          2. Keeping people in their friendship/comrade group is thought to be effective in limiting PTSD – both in itself and in aiding recovery.

          3. The Wehrmacht did not call it “battle fatigue”, “shell shock”, or any such thing, they called it cowardice in the face of the enemy, and either executed the poor sod, or stuck them in a punishment battalion, which tended to be used for tasks too dangerous for good soldiers. Unsurprisingly, where a US soldier might report himself (or a buddy) as combat-ineffective due to battle fatigue, Wehrmacht soldiers did so far more rarely, and then only if a fellow soldier reliably failed to fight (and thus endangered everyone).

          4. I have heard there is evidence that they actually suffered less “battle fatigue” — the mind is a wonderful and peculiar thing and even in insanity can calculate some odds.

          5. Wehrmacht had less psychiatric cases but a huge pool of gastro-intestinal casualties. They even created entire batalions of soldiers with ulcer and other stomach conditions soi that the rations could be modfied. The expectation was that a German soldier will hold his problems within, develop a respectable ulcer or some other physical problem and stnad for some kind of duty.

      2. But the thing is that both these explanations – the Maori and the European – are wrong. There isn’t a human soul located in the head, any more than there is one located in the breath or blood. Not as far as we can tell, anyway.

        And it is not sensible to suggest that the Maori, because of their club-based combat, had arrived at an insight unknown to Europeans, viz. if you hit a man hard enough on the head, he will be gravely and permanently injured. I mean no insult to the Maori when I suggest that the Europeans had probably worked that one out as well – not least because European warfare had also involved a lot of blunt force trauma.

    3. It might be the case that physical shock explains part of the PTSD soldiers suffer, but it cannot be all.
      After all, there are many documented cases of people with PTSD who never ever were under artillery fire or any other kind of fire. From sailors who served on ships that were engaged in combat but never really hit (submarines, carriers), to officers who were never really in a foxhole, to nurses, doctors, or logistics officers. That is why the term shellshock was abandoned in favor of battle fatigue, which was in turn abandoned in favor of PTSD.

      1. The argument, AFAIK, is not that “blast trauma explains PTSD”, but rather that there are several different things going on, with different pathologies, and that the effects of blunt trauma might be different than PTSD (even though we have tended to sort them under the same umbrella)

        1. There are absolutely people taking it as “PTSD doesn’t exist” and unfortunately I got into an argument with one on twitter.

    4. Although a life of getting hit on the head even with a metal helmet and felt lining is equally apt to produce trauma even the training wooden swords, etc. Re NFL with much better helmets.

      1. My understanding of an NFL type brain injury is described as Diffuse Axonal Injury, the causes being from rotational forces or sudden stopping.

  4. Brilliant post, as always. It amazes me that you need to write this. I’m a strictly amateur history buff (a few college classes, a bunch of books) but it all seems so glaringly obvious from everything I’ve ever learned about military history. Clearly not so obvious if there’s a prominent author claiming otherwise so it’s great that you’re doing this but a shame you need to.

    1. If you learn about warfare not from history classes but from Hollywood and YouTube, then it’s less obvious.
      I guess this is analogous to the (to me) odd custom in Renaissance paintings of depicting Biblical scenes in which the people wear then-modern clothing. It’s natural to project one’s own point of view backward in history, and then to find points of congruence which exist only in one’s own imagination.

      1. It’s hardly limited to the Renaissance. Back in the Old Times, before Covid, I went to visit Rome. Among other things I saw there were some of the old Jewish catacombs, most of the tombs there being from the 2nd-4th centuries. One of them had a relief that was clearly David vs Goliath, but there were a bunch of soldiers around as “Extras” watching the duel. They inevitably had a huge square shield and a much shorter sword and a couple of javelins. I’m not sure what biblical era Philistines and Israelites fought with, but at a guess it’s not the same kit as then contemporary legionnaires.

        1. Realizing that people in the past had different clothes and culture than the present is a very modern cultural trait.

          1. I think it’s more that people in the past had several notions of ‘truth’, rather than one. Homer describes his warriors and battles in great detail, and they are very different to the lives of classical Greeks, yet still be role models and therefore present in their lives. In the same way, Jesus and biblical figures were present to medieval people, so there was no incongruity in portraying them in ‘modern’ garb. Something could be figuratively or metaphorically true without being literally true.

          2. Yeah, imagine someone from the future watching Jesus Christ Superstar or Romeo+Juliet and making the same deductions about us. It’s probably just that they didn’t CARE all that much about being literal, plus probably they lacked at least some information or references (easy to speak today that we can just look up stuff on the internet, try painting a historically accurate siege of Troy in the 14th century). I doubt they couldn’t get the gist of it, even looking at older medieval art would have been enough to see how people’s clothing and weaponry changed with time.

          3. Also, many of these images (especially in stained glass) were supposed to be a means of teaching the stories to people who couldn’t read, so people needed to be able to tell who was who. Dressing people in first-century Galilean garb might be more accurate than dressing them in contemporary clothing, but the latter would make it easier to tell who was who and what their position in society was, and therefore fulfil the picture’s didactic function better.

            It’s probably just that they didn’t CARE all that much about being literal, plus probably they lacked at least some information or references (easy to speak today that we can just look up stuff on the internet, try painting a historically accurate siege of Troy in the 14th century).

            Perhaps a good analogy would be with the way people in the past spoke a different language — we all know that Jesus’ disciples or the Greek army at Troy didn’t speak modern English, but we nevertheless imagine them as doing so, and shows which present characters speaking the “proper” language (The Passion Of The Christ, for example) are notable for their rarity.

      2. “the (to me) odd custom in Renaissance paintings of depicting Biblical scenes in which the people wear then-modern clothing”

        Or modern movies about Vikings, medieval knights, etc., which typically manage to add a woman warrior. Because every modern action/adventure team has a smurfette, so surely they did the same in the Middle Ages, right? (Interestingly, this doesn’t apply to dramas about the Civil War or WWII, where historical memory is fresh enough to prevent such anachronisms.)

        1. The irony is that they often did: Chivalric romances are full of lady knights. Women warriors has been a figure of fascination in patriarchal societies for as long as they have written stuff down.

          Whether or not these are historical or not, the *literary trope* of the woman warrior is pretty common in at least european literature since a very long time ago.

          1. “Full” is overstating it. They existed, of course — Bradamante or Britomart — but the vast majority of chivalric romances have exclusively male knights and often in situations where any woman who could fight what she faced, would.

            (I note the two that popped to mind are fantastical. The hippogriff in Orlando Furioso was in particular intended to be absurd and underscore that the events are unreal.)

          2. Not full of lady knights, indeed the only one who comes to my mind is Spenser’s Britomartis. But damsels in medieval romances tend to be a lot more pro-active than one might expect. They rarely fight but they often aid their knight with their cunning, knowledge and occasional physical action.

          3. “they often aid their knight with their cunning, knowledge and occasional physical action.”–That’s a little different from Brienne, Yara, et al.

          4. they often aid their knight with their cunning, knowledge and occasional physical action.”–That’s a little different from Brienne, Yara, et al.

            It’s considerably different. Brienne is a woman trying to live as I knight errant. I know of no real life counterpart and darn few fictional ones. Yara/Asha is less unprecedented as there are several accounts of aristocratic women leading troops though these ladies did not personally fight as Yara does. After Asha is captured one of her late opponents apologizes for using the C word. Trying to kill her was appropriate. Sexual slurs were not.

          5. [i]After Asha is captured one of her late opponents apologizes for using the C word. Trying to kill her was appropriate. Sexual slurs were not.[/i]

            Reminds me of a hilarious bit in the new Harley Quinn show, where the Legion of Doom, including mass murdering villains like Lex Luthor and the Joker, publicly disavows and expels Doctor Psycho for publicly calling Wonder Woman the C-word. Obviously there are some lines that can’t be crossed!

            (US specific lines, by the way; UK and Australia are a lot less fussy or gender-specific about the same word)

        2. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/female-soldiers-civil-war

          “In July of 1863, a Union burial detail at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania made a startling discovery near Cemetery Ridge. Among the bodies covering the ground–the wreckage of the Confederate attacks during the battle–the Union men found a dead woman wearing the uniform of a Confederate private. … conservative estimates of female soldiers in the Civil War puts the number somewhere between 400 and 750.”

          Wikipedia “Women in WWI” mentions one known women fighter in each of Austria and British armies, the Finnish Women’s Red Guards, Russia’s Women’s Battalions, various Serbian women. There are all actual fighters, not the many more numerous nurses and other support.

          1. conservative estimates of female soldiers in the Civil War puts the number somewhere between 400 and 750.

            To put that number into context, around three million people served in that war, so even taking the high-end estimate of 750 female soldiers, men still made up 99.975% of all combatants.

          2. This being a conflict in which both sides legally barred women from serving in the armed forces- so the number of women present reflected the percentage of women who, in addition to desiring to join the military, were prepared to ignore the relevant regulation, cross-dress as men for an extended period of time, and avoid discovery by any of the hundreds of men in close contact with them on a daily basis (barring any in the ranks who would help them- there probably were some).

            If for most of human history, law and custom had mandated that all men over six feet tall spend all their time going around with one foot in a bucket full of cement, we would observe very few successful historical track-and-field athletes over six feet tall.

            We might rationalize that height is inherently bad for prowess in track-and-field, and that tall men are naturally better suited for other pursuits that do not require running. And if a portrayal of a historical track team includes a tall man (with or without cement bucket), we might object that this is “ahistorical.”

            Strictly, this is true… for a spectacularly unhelpful value of ‘true.’

            Because declining to portray these tall characters means that we lose the opportunity to communicate some important slices of the historical record. And the result is often no more or less counterfactual than it already would have been anyway.

            Historical accuracy that consists of replicating all the ways in which history’s old propaganda writes out of the narrative anyone who “doesn’t fit,” and then saying “well, we have no evidence they were ever [i]IN[/i] the narrative because they don’t fit,” is not worthy of much respect.

          3. This being a conflict in which both sides legally barred women from serving in the armed forces- so the number of women present reflected the percentage of women who, in addition to desiring to join the military, were prepared to ignore the relevant regulation, cross-dress as men for an extended period of time, and avoid discovery by any of the hundreds of men in close contact with them on a daily basis (barring any in the ranks who would help them- there probably were some).

            I really don’t know what point you’re trying to argue here. Sure, there were laws barring women from joining the army — which underscores how unhistorical it is when films set in the past show women fighting without making the slightest effort to hide their true sex.

            If you want to argue for more shows about women who pretend to be men in order to fight, go right ahead. But that’s not the same story as one about a woman who gets accepted into the army as a woman because everyone in her medieval town espouses 21st-century gender norms, which is what ey81 was complaining about.

          4. As a Finn, I’d like to comment on the Finnish Red Guards’ women. They were an actual phenomenon. The Finnish labour movement had had very active female participation before our civil war, and when the war started to go awry for the Reds, female Red Guard units popped up more or less spontaneously. The units consisted, for the large part, of teenage industrial workers, and were actually reputed, by both sides, as having a very high combat morale. On the red side, it became a common wisdom that “if men had fought like the women, the war would have been won.”

            For the Whites, these female Reds were an abomination, and they suffered extraordinary amounts of extrajudicial executions when the Reds finally surrendered, in a war where terror tactics were a rule, not an exception. For example, a formerly pacifist novelist Ilmari Kianto called for the total extermination of these “wolf-bitches”. (The translation is bad: Finnish language does not usually compare women to bitches, so this wording is particularly dehumanizing.)

          5. If terror tactics were the rule, and the women were particularly fierce fighters, the logical deduction is that they were extreme terrorists.

          6. BTW, the translation you want is “she-wolves.”

            “Bitch” does not carry the connotation you want, as nowadays it is a term of abuse as generic as “lousy” — which nowadays does not mean “lice-ridden.” And when it was less generic it was not a reference to being ferocious but being, well, in heat.

          7. Your deduction is otherwise correct, but the female units sprung up only when the war started to go badly for the Reds. The majority of red terror had already taken place, and it was largely committed by special units dedicated for the purpose. It is quite possible that the female units would have great potential for extreme cruelty, but they participated in only a single victorious battle (a skirmish between the German army and the red guard, with 300 red and 50 German casualties), so their practical chances of killing prisoners were limited.

          8. “She-wolves” isn’t an insult, though. It sounds pretty cool, actually.

            Maybe a less literal translation is the way to go. “Animals”, maybe.

        3. Or modern movies about Vikings, medieval knights, etc., which typically manage to add a woman warrior. Because every modern action/adventure team has a smurfette, so surely they did the same in the Middle Ages, right?

          Or which populate the upper echelons of medieval society with black or Asian noblemen, because reasons.

        4. I mean. There were female soldiers and sailors who participated in Early Modern warfare; we have documentation of this. A lot of them got outed and sent home after their biological sex became apparent (e.g. “they got wounded and a doctor took a look at them” or “someone who wasn’t inclined to help them keep the secret saw them with their clothes off.”). Presumably, not all got caught, though.

          The catch is that because this went so strongly against the accepted gender roles of the time, women in combat were generally heavily cross-dressing and presenting as men. And society at large did not want to lionize their actions unless it could repackage them as a “safe” mythologized form (Hua Mulan dressing as a man and joining the army so that her father won’t have to, out of filial loyalty or some such).

          So this is one of those cases where you have to look carefully if you want to find the evidence, because the absence of obvious evidence in a cursory survey of the contemporary literature proves less than you might expect.

          It’s like arguing that there weren’t any gay people in Regency Britain because oh hey, none were documented! Well actually quite a few were, and many more were hushed up, and when we actively look for the proof we find it… but because there was an official consensus that Decent People Don’t Think Or Talk About This, there’s a lot of information that was redacted or missing and where we only find out about some lesbian member of the gentry writing about her liaisons with various local women in her diaries a hundred years after the fact, when some distant descendant of a relative is going through her papers or whatever.

          1. The complaint wasn’t about fictional women pretending to be men in order to fight, but about women fighting as women.

            Similarly, a Regency gentleman having a secret liaison with another man would be historically accurate, whereas a Regency gentleman openly going around kissing his boyfriend and making it clear that they’re having sex wouldn’t.

          2. There were many cases of women fighting in open view: Arab women defending the camp during Muslim conquest of Palestine, Scythian or Turk noble womens, women fighting during sieges, etc. These were all desperate conditions so nobody felt ashamed about the women fighting.
            There was no actual gender problem. A woman would have children by the age she could be combat capable and had to take care of them. Supposing that the she didn’t have children or a farm to take care of there was the issue of war realities: heay wounds, exhaustion, captivity. It made the war attractive only to the most adventurous or desperate people.

          3. There were many cases of women fighting in open view: Arab women defending the camp during Muslim conquest of Palestine, Scythian or Turk noble womens, women fighting during sieges, etc. These were all desperate conditions so nobody felt ashamed about the women fighting.

            There’s an ambiguity about the word “many” here. There are a huge number of recorded battles and sieges, so there could be hundred or even thousands of examples of women fighting in open view, without these examples being more than a tiny fraction of total battles.

            (And as a point of fact, women fighting in sieges wasn’t very common, at least not in Europe. More often they’d either be assigned to non-combatant roles like caring for the wounded, or else kicked out to make the provisions last longer.)

        5. I don’t have a problem here. Medieval romances are wildly anachronistic: plate armour, heraldry, Muslims, a British conquest of Rome (and that’s just the Arthurian cycle). Siegfried whips together 5th century Huns, 8th century Burgunds and some pagan myths and moves them all 1000 kms. Shakespeare does the same (seacoast of Bohemia, clocks in classical Rome). Surely Hollywood is allowed the same license?

        1. I looked this up because I hadn’t heard that one before, and apparently the camel was domesticated in Mesopotamia well before—perhaps hundreds of years before—Abraham’s time near the end of the Middle Bronze Age (~1600 BC). So it’s not improbable that his family, emigrating from Ur to Haran and later to the Levant, could’ve brought domesticated camels with them even if no one else in the region had them yet.

  5. Typo:

    “or could outrun the fierce north with of Thrace;”

    Should that be “wind of Thrace;”?

    1. Another:

      “This is a point where I think students of history can be mislead by translation”

      Should be “misled”

  6. Hi Bret,

    Thank you very much for all your excellent writing. I’ve read most of the articles on your blog, they’ve all been very informative and well written.

    Do you intend to write anything about PTSD during this series? I’ve often wondered if/how PTSD affected pre-modern combatants. I read an article many years ago which claimed that Roman soldiers experienced something the author called ‘PTSD’, but only after experiencing dishonor in battle – for example, a soldier who showed cowardice would imagine being hounded by the ghosts of his dead comrades.

    I wondered if the ‘PTSD’ the Roman soldier experienced was due to failing the expectations of his society. Since reading the article, I’ve thought of PTSD as being a modern phenomenon; that it arises from the tension of a person from a rich and safe country having to go to war and adopt a way of being that isn’t respected in civilian life. PTSD in the modern soldier is from the trauma of coming to terms with actions that their upbringing taught were immoral; PTSD in the Roman soldiers was the same – just that the Roman’s upbringing taught them a different morality!

    This isn’t a view I’m particularly confident on, just something I’ve had in the back of my head for a while. I’d be very interested in your perspective on this!

  7. “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.”

    Or villages beyond bombed from the air in present-day warfare. I recall reading an article several years ago (I believe it was around the last couple years of the Obama administration) talking about evidence of widespread psychological trauma among the population of the Pakistani region of North Waziristan, a region heavily bombed by Obama’s predator drones. The civilian population lived in perpetual fear of that buzzing sound appearing in the sky, not knowing exactly when and where the inevitable explosion would happen, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is probably a lot more intense, though, than the experience of being raided in ancient times, because such raids weren’t nearly so common and omnipresent as the death machines now flying through the sky, even in the worst of wars.

  8. You said that drilling of musket infantry isn’t ‘necessary’, but my (admittedly limited) understanding is that it was quite helpful; my hazy knowledge of Gustavus Adolphus is that one reason he was so good at warfare was because of the relentless drilling of his army. Or perhaps that was a different kind of drilling, or this was a bit later on, historically? I’m just curious what you meant by this as it goes against what little I thought I knew of early-modern gunpowder warfare.

    1. The Ottoman janissaies, Russian strelitsy and Polish and Russian cossacks were not noted for extensive drilling or complicated maneuvers. They were quite redoutable and were defeated only by better usage of artillery, pike formations and strategic actions like cutting the lines of supply. Unit cohesion was mor important compared to formation tactics if both sides had the same level of individual skills with the musket.

      1. The examples you mention seem to have had access to previous training in comparison to what I believe in the early modern period where mostly conscripts, they likely would have had cohesion from their civilian lives which they could rely on while european armies likely had to use drill to build up cohesion on the unit level.

      2. One possibility is that, while the Janissaries had social prestige and an identity as a military unit to promote cohesion, making the actions of battle mechanical and rote may have merely been an alternate route to create cohesion. Habit may keep you in line and firing where fervor doesn’t.

        1. This theory is consistent with a thesis advanced by Wiliam McNeill, that drill, quite without regard to its operational necessity, created bonds of cohesion which rendered military units dramatically more effective. That cohesiveness could explain the effectiveness of Adolphus’s troops or those of other notable commanders of the early modern era. Units drawn from social strata with other sources of cohesion might not need the drill-induced bonds to fight effectively.

          1. My understanding was always that the purpose of drill was more to allow units to execute (relatively) complex orders. (Note: Because of the chaos of battle, as even Tolstoy noted, those were often fairly simple, but something like what Gustavus pulled off at Breitenfeldt where the swedes managed to redeploy the second line of troops to cover the flank left open by the routing saxons)

    2. I think it’s a details argument. It’s not “drill bad, no-drill good.” It’s more “the exact and regimented form of the musket drill was unnecessary, even though some elements of the manual of arms were necessary and even though “drill” in the sense of “rehearsal” was essential.”

      So, for instance, do you need to practice falling out from column to line until you can do it rapidly and without confusion? Yes indeed! Do you need some parts of the manual of arms? Also yes! (If you’re waving a lit match off to your left while the guy next to you is priming his pan, it’s gonna be a bad time. Likewise some parts of pike drill are pretty necessary to keep everyone’s pikes from interfering with each other or whacking somebody upside the head.)

      But does it matter if you pull your scouring stick out halfway, then grab the middle and pull it the rest of the way out (instead of, as the de Gheyn manual depicts, drawing it fully out of its place beneath the barrel and then pressing the end against your body to slide your grip to the middle)? Nope, that would be just fine. If you want to tuck your musket rest under your cartridge belt while you load, instead of holding it in your musket-supporting hand? Doesn’t matter, so long as it doesn’t fall or poke your neighbor. The choice to drill a precise sequence of motions instead of a more “three rounds a minute in any weather” approach is indeed a cultural one, not one dictated by the weapons or some consideration of effectiveness.

      Even with what we might call an “anti-robotic” doctrine, a well-drilled army will have major advantages over one with little practice time. If your captain and your sergeants leave you to figure out what works for you and just call “forward march” and “form line” and the volleys, having lots of practice loading quickly by whatever method suits you best is going to be better than trying to figure it out on the big day…

    3. I was under the impression that at least in the earlier years of gunpowder warfare, significant drilling was required because reloading a matchlock firearm required at least three hands, and handling very fine gunpowder whilst holding a piece of lit match was a recipe for not only blowing oneself up, but also blowing up your fellow infantrymen or worse, your officers. Performing the correct sequence of actions under conditions of stress, such as when someone else is trying to kill you and you’re in a cloud of thick smoke and you’ve gone half deaf is likely to be harder if you couldn’t reload your arquebus in your sleep.

      Relatedly, it is possibly to load your firearm incorrectly in a way that is much harder if you were an archer or crossbow-user… too little powder renders your gun more or less ineffective, for example. Again, getting it right under stressful conditions is hard if you don’t train til it is second nature.

      Furthermore, being able to execute moderately complex manoeuvres, like volley fire and countermarching, does require some non-trivial amount of practise, and forces which could perform these manoeuvres tended to do better than ones which could not, right?

  9. On drill, William McNeill (Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History) noted that rhythmic movements of the major muscles generated a feedback loop of brain chemicals that promote social bonding – a key element in military cohesion in close infantry warfare (and a promoter of social peace in civilian life, where group dances were a common feature). Certainly armies that practiced drill regularly beat those that did not – often against long odds.

    1. Not to mention early guns where fairly complex in the reloading stage, so committing all those mentions to muscle memory was certainly a benefit especially if they where conscripts who might not have ever used a gun before.

    2. I was thinking along similar lines, with the example in my head of small forces of European or European-trained regulars sweeping all before them in 18th century India. But – as Durnea pointed out – Janissaries did more than ok for rather a long time while deriving their unit cohesion and skill-at-arms from a different culture and approach.

      1. But Janissaries were kind of recruited as kids, Strelitsy were afaik part of a hereditary group. Having trained since a very young age, could simply have replaced the need for drill.

  10. I wonder where the Chatham Islands Moriori would fit in the samples of different cultural expressions of courage?

    https://teara.govt.nz/en/moriori/print
    “Hundreds of years ago, the Moriori of the Chatham Islands took a solemn vow of peace known as Nunuku’s Law. Their decision to uphold this sacred law in the face of Māori aggression in 1835 had tragic consequences. Moriori were slaughtered, enslaved, and dispossessed of their lands. Nevertheless, the Moriori people survived.”

    Pacifism is usually considered to be something that occurs in heavily “civilized” cultures. Yet here it is occurring in a stone age culture – where Nunuku had drawn the obvious conclusions, that if they were to fight amongst themselves, they would not last very long. And the elders insisted that it was something they could not afford to lose in the face of terror.

  11. Is there a non-firearm word for the concept of “fire”? As in, “weight of fire”, or the shock-vs.-fire distinction.

    Hoplites show that even “get inside the opponent’s OODA loop” isn’t universal. They don’t do it on the operational level (raids/ambushes), nor on the battlefield, nor (apparently) on the personal level of weapons training.

    1. The Byzantines and Sassanid Persians worked on arrow volleys. The Byzantines preferred larger arrow heads , carefull aiming and a reduced rate of fire while the Sassanids went for huge and fast repeating arrow volleys. Both sides armored their mounted archers and used shield walls for their infantry. Overall the Byzantines kept the upper hand and were not very impressed by the Avar archery tactics. They commended the Avar’s cavalry for use both as very competent mounted archers and mounted lancers/swordsmen.
      The Byzantines had easy days with the Vandals and Ostrogoths by sending small groups of mounted archer to harass larger enemy units until the discipline broke down and they ran away or attacked in piecemeal fashion.

      1. Byzantines also trained for shooting several salvos in a way, that all hit at the same time. Witch shows that they did understand the concept of weight of fire. But I don’t know if there is a word for it.

    2. Late medieval English chroniclers used “shot” as a collective noun. A chronicler of the battle of Towton wrote about the massed archery duel at the start “the northern men, feeling the shot … but all their shot was lost”.

  12. I realize you’re focusing on the combatant here, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful to discuss the concepts of nature of war versus character of war here.

    (Disclaimer: I’m a graduate of the Army War College at Carlisle, so my education tends to the Clauswitzian.)

    The basic theory is that the nature or essence of war is largely unchanging: “War has an enduring nature that demonstrates four continuities: a political dimension, a human dimension, the existence of uncertainty and that it is a contest of wills.” The character of war, on the other hand, is shaped by the times, technology, tactics, and so on. An individual’s experience will be very different based on the character of was, but there is an underlying commonality due to the nature of war. (Quote from an essay on the character and nature of war from the Maneuver Self Study program at: https://www.benning.army.mil/mssp/Nature%20and%20Character/)

    1. Yes! To be clear, I am not saying ‘war’ as a concept is useless, or that there are not some constants in war beyond the soldier’s experience. I am pretty much all-in on Clausewitz’ definition and understanding of war in this sense and I think it can be applied usefully backwards to even very early conflicts.

      But of course ‘war is a useful category of analysis’ is not the same argument as ‘ the experience of war or the values that make good soldiers never change.’

      1. Well, yes.

        Though I suspect there are a few universals in warfare experience. Fear, chaos, and confusion certainly are largely universal — though admittedly today we have some “warriors” who operate in an environment of minimal fear and limited chaos (UAS “drone” operators flying from Nellis … are they combatants?)

        As Keegan and others have pointed out, the increasing dispersion of modern battlefields has introduced separation and loneliness that was not an experience of war before. And certainly there are elements of uncertainty and chaos in modern warfare that were not the same 400 years ago (supersonic high explosive projectiles suddenly detonating without warning).

        Is everything in the experience universal? Clearly not due to the changing character of war.

        I’d argue the evidence also suggests the nature of war could change. If all the combatants are robots, does war remain a human experience that is a clas of wills?

        1. Can’t answer the question, but the nature of robotic warfare is being studied at more than pop culture level. The book “Armed Drones and the Ethics of War” by Christian Enemark for example.

  13. I think Indian military history 1750-1916 is probably interesting in this regards, as it featured many different modes of war and many different types of warriors/soldiers, mixed . Certainly my cursory reading suggests that the more raiding-type of fighters (the Pindari) were often brave enough man to man, and busy raiders, but thought any idea of standing around to be shot down was insane. (most notably in the Battle of Assaye, where many thousands of Pindari stayed well away from the much smaller British army while the latter duked it out with Indian musketeers who were notionally part of the same army as the Pindaris). Which makes total sense – it’s intuitive that you are contributing if you gather up your courage to assault an enemy individual man-to-man. It’s counter-intuitive that it’s brave and helpful to stand in a line getting shot so that you can later inflict communal (not individual) violence on the enemy.

    In WW1 it became even more extreme: on the one hand Indian regiments pioneered the terrifying trench raid, where they would sneak through barbed wire at night to attack the enemy hand to hand. On the other hand apparently they were very demoralised by the core task of the WW1 Western Front infantryman, which was simply to stay with a rifle in a trench to help fix the enemy infantry so the latter could be blown up by your unseen artillery. Whilst yourself being regularly blown up by unseen enemy artillery. This is all simply so inhuman that in retrospect it is incomprehensible that men could have been motivated to stand it at all.

    1. Depends on when. Musket war involved a lot of standing in line while being shot at. This demanded leaders who demonstrated personally the ability to do so (at one battle in the Italian wars French company commanders stood in front of the line joking and laughing under artillery fire – the line held and the French won). In the same way, captains had to command from the exposed quarterdeck, and had to set an example of calmness under fire.

  14. As a potential counterpoint to your as-usual excellent article, what of the men that HAVE been in “multiple types” of battle? Texts from, say, Native Americans that found themselves in “modern” wars who had experience with “tribal” warfare as well? (I’m thinking mainly of the American Civil war and potentially WWI, since in the American Revolution tribes tended to fight in their “traditional” style.) Or Iraqi soldiers who fought the Iranians in a WWI-style slugfest for years only to come up against American armor and airstrikes in Desert Storm? Or those same american Desert Storm veterans when faced with the IEDs and ambushes of the Global War on Terror? Or any of the various “tribal” peoples drafted to fight in European armies in pitched battle/modern wars from the 1700s to WWII? Extrapolation based on the various cultural writings and the physical differences of battles and tactics are all well and good, but surely there must be some first-hand accounts of soldiers/warriors who HAVE fought “different” types of wars. It would be very interesting to see what they had to say about the sameness/difference of their experiences.

  15. This reminds me of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. There’s a gang war in town that where the two gangs are mostly knifing each other in dark alleys at night, and glaring menacingly at each other at day. Then the main character, the nameless yojimbo, manipulates the two gangs into having a big sword battle in the town square at noon. The result is a comical affair, where everybody is visibly shaking from fear. One side would take a few tentative steps forward and the other hastily retreats.

    Anyway, great essay. It doesn’t seems to account for overlap between the types of battle experience. Raiding and skirmishing were huge in the ‘decisive battle’ era. For example, Rome’s Fabian strategy in the second Punic war consisted of avoiding decisive battle and instead applying pressure through raiding supply lines, ambushing foraging parties and attacking settlements where the main armies weren’t. Rome’s conquest of Spain had few decisive battles and seemed to be mostly a long slog of small skirmishes and pacifying villages. Speaking of Spain, there was the famed guerilla strategy used to great effect against Napoleon. Also, I don’t know if you count the Hundred Years’ War as ‘decisive battle era’, but I believe that war was more characterized by giant raids and sieges than it was big battles.

    In the more modern era, as well there would have been plenty of overlap. The Nazis on the Eastern Front had to deal with both the terror of fighting tanks and artillery, but also the hypervigilance of having to contend with partisan attacks behind the lines. I haven’t read too much about the psychological effects this had on German soldiers, though. The Allies didn’t deal with too much behind the lines attacks in WWII, I don’t think, but the threat of U-boat attacks while at sea might have been psychologically similar, maybe. And possibly having to deal with Japanese infiltration tactics in jungle fighting.

    Anyway, my point is that I believe your thesis that there are fundamentally different types of terror that come from different types of fighting, but many soldiers/warriors in different wars had to deal with more than one.

    1. If you’re not into Japanese Cinema, Yojimbo was all but remade as A Fistful Of Dollars, and was itself inspired by a couple of Dashiel Hammett novels.
      (All of which were reblended by David Drake in a novel)

  16. I had a look this week at some of the Steven Pressfield video transcripts, and as far as I can make out, Steven Pressfield seems to be interested in psychology, and his ‘Universal Soldier’ is a character called ‘Telamon’ whom he writes about a lot…
    Plus there’s some stuff thrown in the recent video series about genetics/DNA, and ‘how we can all use our own inner warrior to be better people.’
    The transcripts I looked over seem to me to be of a ‘self help’ variety, and which emphasise the importance of the positive (including love for enemies) over the negative.
    But, I’m British, and maybe I’m missing some subtext…

    Anyway: to comment on this week’s blog, here on ‘A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry’, it seems to me that regardless how war changes there’s something which I can half-glimpse, which involves ‘taking a decision/making a choice’ that might be said about how a person acts in war, but I’m groping for words as to how to convey it, and I concede I do not see it very clearly at the moment.

  17. Reading this article makes me want to read and/or write a story about warriors and soldiers from different times and places being dragged to one place and forced to work together against some outside foe despite their clashing ideas about, among other things, warfare. It sounds like a pretty decent match for shonen-battle-manga-style storytelling, with a cast of distinctive characters, each with a unique fighting style, design, and personality.

    One of the things which made the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia so closely watched last year…

    …along those who weren’t distracted by the everything else last year. BRB, researching a war I didn’t realize happened.

    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.

    Worth pointing out that there are other reasons PTSD might not be recognized in premodern (well, pre-late-modern…pre-Edwardian?) texts. Let’s start by acknowledging that there are fewer, and even fewer relating to individual experiences of lower-class soldiers. Let’s also acknowledge that susceptibility to “shell shock” was thought of as a weakness of moral character until psychiatry got less awful, and prominent people in earlier periods would be even less likely to want to admit it in any lasting for. And, of course, most people weren’t interested in reading about PTSD until it became the “cool character flaw”; there’s probably some preservation bias in there.

    I have no doubt that trench warfare was more stressful than a typical war. I do, however, doubt that it was so profoundly worse as this passage implies. I would be willing to bet any of my limbs that PTSD was not significantly rarer among ancient veterans than modern ones, assuming we weren’t being too stringent about what counts as “significant”.

    1. There’s a British army figure I’ve often seen quoted, although I don’t know the actual source, that the average infantryman in WWII was able to function usefully in combat for about 90 days. I’m guessing the average hoplite probably wouldn’t see 90 days actual combat in a lifetime.

      Although, as Bret pointed out, the stress of standing directly in front of somebody who is trying to stick a spear in you is different from the stress of knowing 24/7 that you might be randomly sniped or mortared at any moment by somebody you didn’t even see, so any attempt at a quantitative comparison is probably pointless.

      1. You don’t need months to get PTSD. You can get it in one traumatic night.

        I guess I was mostly objecting to the “Ancient sources don’t mention PTSD” —> “Ancient soldiers didn’t get PTSD” —> “Ancient warfare was less traumatic” logic chain because of the first link.

        1. You are correct with certain caveats.

          Post traumatic stress disorder is really a descriptor by a doctor that acts as a diagnosis and the likely outcome. Post trauma doesn’t imply type of trauma (it sort of did, but the diagnostic criteria for the disorder have changed over the years from its use for Vietnam veterans to survivors of sexual abuse.

          The stress component of the disorder really signifies that the person has been overwhelmed by the trauma, basically non-trivial. The symptoms listed in the DSM or ICD are different, for reasons to do with the drivers behind each manual (research versus intervention – T&CA).

          Now, the first thing to understand is that 99% of all people who are subject to a traumatic event recover in a period of 6 months or so, and those who are diagnosed are therefore the outliers.

          Bret said “I tend to think that different kinds of training, values and conditioning prepare people for different sorts of fears.”

          And this is where the yes, no, and maybe of this is a complex problem comes in.

          Modern military training has been refined to stage where soldiers training effectively conditions them to face battles that in the past the majority of people wouldn’t have. This was readily apparent during the Gulf War and the Invasion of Iraq, and prior to that the Falkland Islands war.

          The other major confounding variable is survival rates from battles. If you die from your wounds you don’t live long enough to develop PTSD, which is one of the reasons why I predict that it is likely that we will see more psychiatric casualties from battles.

          If Bret wants to converse further on this subject I’m happy to oblige.

          1. I sometimes ask myself, if PTSD was just so much more prevalent in old societies that nobody noticed?
            We know that acient societies were often more violent than today, accidents, fires, and all kinds of nasty stuff were also more often. Maybe things we consider morbidly abnormal, were just how half the population acted.

          2. Maybe things we consider morbidly abnormal, were just how half the population acted.

            But then, we have plenty of accounts from a range of pre-modern societies, and the people described in them don’t generally seem to be displaying PTSD-like symptoms.

          3. Sure, what we would call morbid was probably endemic.

            However, I disagree with with your latter observation for a couple of reasons. The first being PTSD is a diagnosis with formal descriptions using language in a way that the general populace doesn’t. For example how lay people describe sadness and depression etc is only correlated with a formal diagnosis of depression.

            Secondly, time. PTSD is something that 99% of the time is not something people develop. Most people recover in about 6 months.

            My argument therefore is that if you don’t have enough people surviving the sort of trauma that lead to PTSD, then the lack of people displaying symptoms is down to the fact that they died.

            The reason we’re seeing an increase of PTSD is that we have far higher survivor rates from trauma. And yes, I am aware of the sexual abuse side of this disorder, I treated women who presented to the NHS suffering from the trauma of sexual abuse. Their number far exceed the number of service personnel I saw.

      2. In Shaw’s The Chocolate Cream Soldier the Swiss mercenary of the title claims that no man can withstand three days of steady bombardment. The play is all about the contrast between romantic views of war and the reality.

    2. It should also be noted that while trench warfare was on a much larger scale, the individual experience (of bombardment, of trenches, etc.) are much older, though largely in the context of sieges.

      1. Indeed, Keegan suggests at one point in his writings that trench warfare involved the displacement of the ethics and experience of open field battle by those of the siege, but on a continental scale.

    3. > Reading this article makes me want to read and/or write a story about warriors and soldiers from different times and places being dragged to one place and forced to work together against some outside foe despite their clashing ideas about, among other things, warfare. It sounds like a pretty decent match for shonen-battle-manga-style storytelling, with a cast of distinctive characters, each with a unique fighting style, design, and personality.

      The good news is, that manga exists. It’s called Drifters, by Kouta Hirano. Not very realistic and sadly very slow to update, but a lot of fun. It features, among the others, Oda Nobunaga, Sundance Kid, and the great pair of Scipio Africanus and Hannibal Barca.

  18. The quote from Tyrtaeus pretty much encapsulates my view of the difference between ‘Warrior’ and ‘Soldier’ which I don’t think quite matches Bret’s.

    But that plan doesn’t survive contact with the table of contents, 🤣🤣🤣🤣!

  19. Did the early modern commanders think of the troops they had drilled as possessing courage? Or was courage a term they reserved for their own ranks? (And how did they conceptualise their own courage?)

    Also, I was under the impression that the well-drilled military machine was one of Frederick the Great’s military innovations, or at least of his predecessors in Prussia. Is there some truth to that as an oversimplification of something?

    1. In Holland, at least, credit is usually given to Maurice of Nassau, who in the late 16th century, inspired by Roman writers, used drill and drilled marching as a big part of his toolkit to oppose the larger and more respected Spanish army with a Dutch army that was a mess of mercenaries and militia

  20. … 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.

    You missed a trick – you linked to the wrong Monty Python sketch!

  21. Why do raids, pitched battles, meeting engagements and modern battles all count as battles but sieges don’t?

    1. The siege is basically a campaign on itself and it will comprise several battles – the assaults and sorties.

  22. I’ve been reading everything on this blog, and eagerly looking forward to Friday for each new post, and this is the first time I’ve disagreed with an article.

    Yes different systems of warfare will change what actions are considered laudable. But the kid in Fallujah who hid under a humvee during a firefight is also the kid I wouldn’t trust to hold position next to me in a phalanx. Nor would he rush forward to count coup, or keep steady hands under fire to reload his musket.

    The guys who I respected and performed well in modern warfare in Iraq are also the ones who performed a midnight raid on another Marine unit to steal a large BBQ grill to roast a pig. They are people who would pull of a horse or cattle raid. The would rush forward to count coup. They wouldn’t duck under musket fire, if they were told that was cowardly, and they’d reload their muskets quickly and efficiently. They would be the same people to hold a shield wall if that’s what the system of warfare prioritized, and the would charge the legion howling if they were Gauls.

    The system of warfare dictates which ACTIONS are considered brave or cowardly, but the individual considered brave in one system will be considered brave in another system. Some people will shine when faced with the threat of death, some people wont.

    1. I appreciate your feedback, but as an argument there isn’t much here for me to engage with – just an assertion largely absent evidence that surely if put in these very different situations they would function a given way. But if you look at the research on courage and cohesion – we’ll get to cohesion next week – it often isn’t some in-born trait that keeps soldiers in the line, but training or group dynamics. Which of course differ from culture to culture!

      The more and more the argument drifts to debating an undetectable, ineffable virtue that just happens to express itself is wildly different ways in different cultures but also flatters the preconceptions of the people discussing it, the more unfalsifiable the whole thing becomes.

      1. That is certainly fair. I can’t back up my intuition with evidence or falsify it, which makes it in effect worthless.

        Given the context of the rest of your blog, I believe this series of articles will serve to further dismantle the Myth of the Badass, which effort I completely appreciate and support.

        I’m certainly not trying to argue in support of a flattering and ephemeral “Warrior Spirit.” But I am speaking of what I believe to be a fairly concrete ability: to manage the “fight, flight, freeze” response. An ability as useful in noncombat situations as combat.

        Again, and I apologize, in my experience, individuals do vary in this ability, and that that variance tends to be relatively stable across many stressful situations. And it is of course not exclusive to “warriors”

        Certainly training is the primary way of increasing this ability, and I look forward eagerly to the next post. Although, I have seen people receive the exact same training, and still handle themselves poorly or commendably in combat situations, so I have to believe individual personality differences must play SOME part. I am thrilled to change my mind at a convincing argument

        All of that aside, while you’re paying attention, I want to thank you for this blog. This is my favorite thing on the internet

        1. A possible civilian counterpoint: I startle very easily to noise or sudden appearances, and am highly risk averse, but can hold quite still under dental discomfort; even when they hurt me I usually make protesting noises rather than jerking my head around.

        2. I would like to note that the even in the modern warfare, the preferable personality type is not the same throughout the different branches of an army. For example, an artilleryman’s bravery is about working the gun despite anti-artillery fire raining in. A signalist “fights” by fixing wires or by sitting at a communications station despite personal danger, sometimes awfully alone. In the Finnish anti-aircraft doctrine, the duty of the lookout of a AA gun crew is to turn his back to the plane that is being engaged and to surveil the rest of the sky for additional enemies. In the navy, a sailor’s duty consists of being an effective part of the overall machinery of the ship.

          These are also forms of bravery, and have extremely little to do with actually engaging an enemy. We know that in fact, different militaries try to select the personnel for different duties based on their personality features as depicted in personality tests. Why should the optimal infantryman’s profile be any more constant in different systems of warfare?

    2. Well just personally I get all deer in the headlights when taken by surprise but I do much better jn other situations. So I’d be freezing at the wrong moment which would be horrible in some kinds of battles but I think I’d do relatively better at holding a line in a pitched battle or hanging out in a bunker during an artillery barrage.

    3. Some Greek philosophical systems, stoicism, epicureanism, Platonism, posit (warning: considerable simplification and elimination of differences between systems coming up) that the ideally virtuous agent is one who always acts on reason and never out of passion. If so, the ideally virtuous agent, e.g. Socrates, would presumably be able to function ideally virtuously in all circumstances of danger.
      In practice, nobody is going to be ideally virtuous and in most circumstances acting courageously is going to be indistinguishable from acting courageously with the support of some passion or other, which in these systems is technically a vice. The passions that support courageous action will differ between combat systems: being an impulsive gloryhound will be a considerable help in a raid-type system focussed on individual glory, while a tendency to stick by your comrades for safety will be a help in hoplite-style warfare.

      In Aristotelian ethics, virtue is a harmony between passion and reason in which the ideally virtuous agent does out of habit and trained passion what reason requires. I think Aristotelian virtue is therefore less transferable from one social practice to another. Indeed Aristotle’s ethics starts by putting everything in the context of political and social organisation.

      It is true that however they’re fighting all combatants would agree that droppng their weapons and running away from the enemy is a vice. Sheer cowardice may be universally recognised. It’s the boundaries between pusillanimity and discretion and valour and recklessness that are more variable.

  23. The second system also contained agricultural devastation, when one side didn’t think themselves capable of delivering a siege, but wanted to inflict damage on the other side’s ability to fight in the future. Operationally, they weren’t too different from first-system raids, just conducted for a different strategic aim. The goal wasn’t to get the other side to pick up and move, but to get the other side to submit and pay tribute (with the threat that if they didn’t, their capacity to fight would be hobbled more and more until the raiding side could deliver that siege). I used “side” as the term for the target, since its nature also changes with state formation.

  24. On the subject of the dread of the approaching phalanx:

    I find it interesting and illuminating that the Greeks had two different gods for the fear of the battlefield. They understood Deimos (the dread of the approach) and Phobos (the panic of the melee) as related but distinct emotions.

    1. Astronomers have named the two moons of Mars after them, and now two SpaceX floating launch platforms bear this pair of names, too. Most sources translate the names as “fear” and “terror”, unfortunately.

      1. Jonathan Swift named them, in Gulliver’s Travels. Astronomers just picked them up.

        The fun being that Swift clearly invented them as a bit of filigree and could not have known they were there.

      2. Yup, those moons are where I originally heard of them – and the association of the distant one with Deimos and the close, apparent one with Phobos, and them being moons of Mars/Ares, indicates I think that the naming astronomers were indeed up on tbe classical meanings.

        (I think “dread” and “terror” approximate the original meanings pretty well in modern English.

    2. I do love getting into the heads of Ancient Greeks (or any ancient society, really). It’s so often a case of blue and orange morality (or at least perceptions of the world skewed in different ways to our own).

      Another deific dichotomy is having two major gods of war: Ares and Athena. Ares as god of bloody battle, and Athena as god of strategic war (or at least of operations).

  25. Question to Bret: so what did classical period Greeks think about Homeric warfare? It must have been obvious to them that it was different. Was it “they were semi-divine heroes and we are lesser, therefore we cannot hope to emulate their feats”? Or “that was then and we know better now”? Or neither of the above?

    1. also very curious about this (if there even is an answer to it–maybe this kind of analysis would have seemed vaguely blasphemious to the classical Greeks and they therefore didn’t do it, at least not enough to enter the record?)

    2. The short answer to this question is “It’s complicated, but read J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts”

      And the long answer probably just is the first half of J.E. Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts.

      1. I’m trying to read it, but it’s a bit of rough going after reading the Sparta series here. I think he’s simply using his sources praise of the Spartans as indicating how the authors thought about combat and what they thought was important, but wow is there a LOT of love for the Spartans in the first part of that book.

  26. As I understand this article, I should expect that a typical current-day American soldier would be unable to understand that a Plains Indian counting coup was demonstrating courage; or that Greek hoplites holding the line against their foe were doing so; or a British officer on the Somme affecting unconcern at the shot and shell of the enemy was doing so.

    I will take some persuading that this assertion is an empirically demonstrable fact. After all, the author of the article seems to understand the above to be examples of courage, and he is a current-day American.

    I am beginning to think this series of articles should really have been a straightforward attack on the idea that the members of the ruling caste of one specific polis were especially possessed of the military virtues. If that is what someone wants to write, that is what he should write.

    1. There’s a difference between knowing that a particular culture sees some action as courageous, and actually perceiving that action to be courageous yourself. These examples demonstrate the former but not the latter, so there is no contradiction.

      1. I think plenty of people would perceive as courageous both a Crow warrior sneaking into a heavily-guarded enemy camp to rustle some horses and an 18th-century infantryman keeping his place in the battle-line while enemy bullets whistle past his ears.

    2. The article never says that, for example, a Greek hoplite could never be made to understand that a Crow warrior counting coup is an act of courage; only that it would not fit the definition of courage instilled by the Greek hoplite’s method of war, and that IF PLACED INTO THAT CONTEXT the Crow warrior’s actions would not be seen as courage. The argument is not that the gap in understanding is unbridgeable, only that the gap exists in the first place.
      What specific polis are you talking about? The article barely talks about military leaders at all

      1. Also, I don’t know if the hoplite would see someone like that as a coward, when they’re running right into the jaws of the enemy. They’d likely see him as a reckless idiot, too hungry for fame to know his place. Selfish, stupid, certainly not an example to imitate – but not a coward.

        1. They might, however, see an enemy skirmisher as cowardly though (and IIRC often did in accounts). The readiness by which they retreat away from harm rather than press forward stoically into a hoplite push was seen as cowardly.

          Would the skirmisher see his daring rushes towards a dangerous enemy and skilled retreats with the same level of derision? I doubt it.

        1. And Brett has already written an entire series on how Sparta wasn’t all its cracked up to be. Sparta fan Pressfield may be, claiming there is a universal warrior and that they should be imitated is separate from claiming that the Spartans should be imitated (though the latter fall under the former), and therefore can and should be examined separately

  27. An interesting early interpretation of what courage is and what qualities are required of a Soldier can be found in the marching song “The British Grenadiers”.
    Which observes that there were many great heroes in antiquity, but none of them ever had to march into Cannon Fire!

  28. “reports after such barrages of soldiers so mentally broken by the strain of it that they wandered as if dazed or mindless” — I wonder if that includes actual concussive brain damage. “Shell shock” may have been literal as much as psychological.

    Typo: military excellent

  29. I think if the question posed was “Is there such a thing as a universal farmer?” there would be absolutely no controversy that there is not. From hunter gatherers scattering seeds to potato plots in the Andes to rice paddies to orange growers in California to industrial agriculture…these are all very different ways of delivering food to humans that require different human inputs and skills, and different stresses on the farmer. No one would suppose that a hunter-gatherer could valiantly run a combine harvester based on being a “universal farmer,” or the reverse.

    As Bret discusses, war was for many millennia was dependent on or triggered by resource needs. If the food supplies vary, and the skills needed for farmers (or hunter-gatherers) are different, why wouldn’t the people who fight be different in their experience of different kinds of battle?

    You can’t tell me the drone pilot in her office has the same experience of war as a WWII tanker as a Crow counting coup. You might say it’s all about training and culture–but then this is the same as admitting that there is no such thing as a universal soldier.

    To imagine they are the same is simply to say you agree assumption that underlies the “argument.”

    1. Then why do we call them all farmers?

      The universal experience does not mean that one can do the task of the other, it means there is a commonality starting with the planting seed.

      1. It’s a shorthand for people who work in certain types of food production, while understanding (most us) that the experience of being a particular kind of farmer has to be contextualized. Soldier is the same kind of word. Your argument is “English has one word for tree, so all trees must be the same.”

        1. Why, yes, trees certainly are the same insofar as we can all identify woody plants of a certain height. The context does not obliterate the general.

          1. But they’re really, really not. The experience of a conifer, tall and evergreen would be fantastically different to a deciduous shrub losing its leaves every year.

            To pick another more obvious example:seaweed. To the vast majority of people, seaweed is seaweed. But red seaweed and green seaweed are fantastically different things (they’re part of different taxonomic kingdoms!).

            Using common parlance for differentiating between things is only really useful when differences are so blindingly obvious that you don’t need much science or philosophy to distinguish between them.

        2. I can imagine some experiences common to all farmers ever: for example, the dread, frustration and sense of impotence that can come with your livelihood hanging on random weather events. Something that is probably even more essential to farming than the backbreaking labour (whose nature and amount changed through history and between places).

          1. Do dairy farmers survive on random weather patterns? Especially modern dairy battery-farms, where the cows are indoors for large periods of the day? Same thing for modern, industrialized chicken farms. They all seem fairly weather-independent; certainly they don’t care if it’s hot or cold or rainy or windy outside of the building.

    2. I think if the question posed was “Is there such a thing as a universal farmer?”

      What a nice analogy; I’m glad you made it. Pressfield strike me as analogous to a man talking about the Platonic Ideal Farmer, the moral attitudes of the Farmer, and how this shows how people who do not, in fact, do any farming, ought to live.

      And on the opposite side we have someone saying there is no such thing as the Ideal Farmer, only the Ideal Rice Farmer, and the Ideal Dairy Farmer, and the Ideal Modern Farmer, and so on, and they have nothing in common with each other. And that this is why we should not try to emulate a bunch of Farmers in a city-state that disappeared millennia ago, and of which most people have never heard nor cared about.

      I find the whole argument utterly bizarre and pointless. It’s an argument about whether to apply one stereotype or several, and I don’t see how any conclusion would lead to any moral implications about how anyone ought to pass their time.

      I suppose this shows why I never thought much of Plato’s Theory of Forms.

      1. There can be real world consequences to these arguments.

        For the “universal farmer” we all need to eat (citation needed) and the vast majority of human beings get their food from farming. If the “universal farmer” existed we could optimise agriculture across the planet by using a few of the best farmers to teach everyone else how it should be done. More food with less pollution, less waste, less environmental damage, etc.
        European colonists did try this in Australia where I live, doing what had worked well in England and northern Europe. Turns out there is no such thing as a “universal farmer” and they had to adapt, change, do things differently. (Probably still not different enough, but that’s a whole other topic.)

        For the “universal soldier”, nearly all current societies have military forces. (Whether they actually need them is a whole other topic.) Those military forces are expected to, at minimum, preserve the society against aggression and even possible destruction. (Again, skip over whether the military truly defend all of society or just the privileged, etc.)
        If the military of INSERT YOUR SOCIETY HERE believe in the “universal warrior” and it isn’t true, your society has a serious problem.

        1. By the logic, if love were universal, we could teach everyone to be successful in romance by using a few of the best lovers to teach everyone else how it should be done.

          1. Love is evidently not universal in its practice. Different people want *very* different things in a partner, expect different qualities from a relationship, and that’s not even getting into all the varieties of orientation and fetish. Under that analogy, Pressfield is one of those seamy dudes in trilbys trying to sell you “10 Ways to Bang ANY Girl”.

        2. If the “Universal Farmer” existed we could point him out and congratulate him on looking so healthy for a man six thousand years old. We could also ask him to introduce us to the Universal Warrior, and explain that we wanted to know what he thought was meant by the word “courage”.

          The Universal Farmer does not exist, any more than the Universal Tree, or the Universal Planet. But we can still point out examples of farmers and warriors and trees and planets, as examples of what is meant by those concepts.

          And if someone wants to make a generalisation about one of these, it does not really help to point out the non-existence of the Universal Farmer or Warrior, or to point to some differences between individual farmers or warriors. You have to actually discuss the generalisation he chooses to make. Even if he likes blathering on about the Universal Warrior himself. The non-existence of the Universal Warrior is a distraction from discussing generalisations about warriors who certainly did exist.

      2. >I find the whole argument utterly bizarre and pointless. It’s an argument about whether to apply one stereotype or several, and I don’t see how any conclusion would lead to any moral implications about how anyone ought to pass their time.

        By itself, it is a bit pointless, but the people making the “universal soldier” argument (and for that matter various forms of the “traditional farmer” argument, in other places) usually have an agenda that is being pushed along with their pseudo-historical argument. That agenda is usually advocating a return to some form of “traditional” values. Claiming that these values are ancient or even “universal” is a way to give weight to those values directly (e.g. “if they’ve worked for so long for all of these other successful people, who are you to argue against them”).

        There is also some rhetorical handwaving with this argument in that it forces people to spend so much time proving / disproving the accuracy of their “universal” claim, that they may not bother to examine whether these values are worth much today, or if the way they thought about those terms at the time is exactly the same as they would be thought of today.

        1. “By itself, it is a bit pointless, but the people making the “universal soldier” argument (and for that matter various forms of the “traditional farmer” argument, in other places) usually have an agenda that is being pushed along with their pseudo-historical argument. ”

          There’s a stereotype.

        2. Nik here has it precisely, I think. Which is why the last post in this series is going to look at the contours of the ideology that the bogus notion of a ‘universal warrior’ is used to support. The fact that the ultimate warriors are drawn from a handful of fairly specific cultures and groups is not an accident.

        3. “There is also some rhetorical handwaving with this argument in that it forces people to spend so much time proving / disproving the accuracy of their “universal” claim, that they may not bother to examine whether these values are worth much today,”

          It does not force people to do that, although it might distract them into doing so. But you could always jump straight to the point about the value in question. Is a “courage”, in the sense of a willingness to risk your life, really of such importance in civil life? My mother once worked in a school kitchen. Was courage really of great importance there? If it were, that would probably be a sign the kitchen was being mismanaged in a fairly serious way.

          In general, no specifically military virtue is likely to be of much importance in civil life. If it were, it would not be a specifically military virtue.

  30. I am not convinced that there isn’t a universal definiton of courage that encompasses all these sorts of acts/behavior on the battlefield, as well as courage in the non-military context. I can more easily accept the opinion that there isn’t a universal warrior archetype (especially not in the apparently simplified and generalized sense this series of posts opposes) than that there isn’t a universal concept /idea/archetype of courage. One doesn’t need to be a fighting person /have a war experience to perceive courage as positive or to act courageously, making the representations of courage even more complex and varied. I accept the argument that soldiers throughout the ages displayed different kinds of courage depending on their warfare culture, but all these are opposite of giving way to fear (running away, giving up, panicking) so there is something in common in them.

    1. If we define courage as something like “Willingness to undergo (perceived) danger”, then I think that it would cover all the examples discussed in the article — cutting horses from under an enemy force’s nose, fighting in hand-to-hand combat as part of a phalanx, and standing in line while enemy musketeers are shooting at you all evince a willingness to undergo danger, even if the precise nature of the danger and response called for differ from case to case.

      1. Is the british officer standing up in a hail of machine gun fire courageous or just stupid?

        Is someone smoking a cigarette while pumping gas being courageous? They’re willingly undergoing perceived danger after all.

        There are historical aspects of courage we agree with, you’ll see them being used here as “counterpoints” to the hypothesis that courage isn’t universal when in fact they are just ones that agree with OUR cultural opinion of courage which shares some factors (but not all) with other definitions of courage.

        I’m sure this will continue into the future where maybe some of our opinions on what is courageous or not will seem stupid to the future people, this is the thesis of the article, if there are differences that means the experience is not universal.

        1. Is the british officer standing up in a hail of machine gun fire courageous or just stupid?

          Courageous. Depending on the circumstances, he might be stupid as well.

          Is someone smoking a cigarette while pumping gas being courageous? They’re willingly undergoing perceived danger after all.

          I think people who do that generally perceive the danger as lower than it actually is, so they wouldn’t count because although they’re undergoing *actual* danger, they’re not undergoing *perceived* danger.

          1. Mythbusters tried to start a fire pumping gas with a lit cigarette. It’s harder than it looks.

          2. What about just picking up smoking cigarettes? That certainly increases your actual risk of cancer, heart attack, and other things. Would you call smoking cigarettes an act of courage?

  31. “a theory has to prove it values to be accepted as valid.”

    I don’t know what you mean.

    “Also, while Bayesian probabilities are a wonderful tool, my understanding is their use is when there’s a problem with discerning what evidence to weigh”

    No. Bayesian statistics is an alternative and more clearly principled approach to statistics, easily derived from the basic laws of probability (though not always easy to calculate.)

    We have two hypotheses: there is a universal warrior, or these is not a universal warrior. You state your prior probabilities, gather evidence, and multiply. No philosophically dubious “null hypothesis” needed.

    …not that statistics of any kind really seems appropriate here. As Bret said, when you a universal claim like “there is a universal warrior”, all you need is one counter-example to disprove it.

    1. ARP said; “a theory has to prove it values to be accepted as valid.”
      mindstalk said; “I don’t know what you mean.”

      Okay, a theory predicts outcomes, take Einstein’s ‘Relativity’ for example. Now there are alternative theories that get the same result, but they haven’t replaced Einstein’s because they add nothing new, and increase the complexity of the calculation. Also, they don’t disprove or challenge our understanding of ‘Relativity,’ which with caveats that it’s known not to be a complete description of spacetime.

      As for whether the Null hypothesis is dubious; if the new theory adds nothing extra or new to the understanding of the problem that adds value to the understanding of the problem, or allows us to draw new conclusions and or things we didn’t realise then why use it?

      Of course, my understanding of the Null hypothesis may be wrong. Please feel free to explain it to me so I have a proper understanding. I won’t mind. Really won’t.

      Now to address the second half of your comment.

      Specifics are important. Define Universal Warrior. Now my understanding, which may be wrong, and where I agree with Bret, is that this other guys ideas are unwarranted. But, if one assumes a definition of Universal Warrior is an abstraction of a bunch of behaviours associated with the ability to act while all those around you are slower to react (equivalent to freeze in the fight v flight model) and take steps to expose themselves to danger where others might flee, then you have a useful tool or metric by which to judge whether a types of people who stand out as ‘Universal Warriors.’

      What muddies the water here is the fact that since WW2 the Western militaries have called upon psychologists to devise ways of teaching people to stand and fight that has arguably made it more traumatic for soldiers when they come back to their civilian life.

      The reason I state this is that the fight v flight mechanism, which in of itself leaves out the most important, as in the largest number of people’s response to extreme stress factor of ‘freeze.’ The evidence to support this statement comes from research into passenger deaths in airplane accidents, where people are found dead in their seats despite having had enough time to evacuate the plane before toxic fumes caused asphyxiation.

      I was taught that the standard human response when confronted by stress is to avoid what is causing you the stress. The deaths by a failure to act would then seem to be the other big factor, and therefore what is left are those people who in the face of overwhelming horror/death/whatever are able to remain in control of their actions.

      Now it might be that the factors that make for a good warrior are the same as what makes a good fireman, or paramedic, doctor or nurse. The ability to remain cool under stress of people or yourself dying. But, if so the question is why do some become warriors when they could be firemen, paramedics, or doctors and nurse.

      The concept of a ‘Universal Warrior’ seems to grow out of act of fighting, not from necessity, but from desire. Terms and Conditions Apply, Errors and Omissions Excepted. I reserve the right to change my mind in light of new evidence.

      1. >As for whether the Null hypothesis is dubious; if the new theory adds nothing extra or new to the understanding of the problem that adds value to the understanding of the problem, or allows us to draw new conclusions and or things we didn’t realise then why use it?

        I think the problem with this reasoning is that you’re not examining the way people are using the “Universal Soldier” hypothesis. Pressfield, for example, has an entire string of arguments coming of that claim. Basically, he’s saying a “Universal Soldier” exists, that the values of that “Universal Soldier” are relevant today, and that those values can be used in everyday life in fields such as creative writing or business.

        Bret is limiting his argument solely to how historically valid the original claim is for various reasons, but the “alternative hypothesis” has value in itself in that it removes the entire chain of argument from tradition that Pressfield and a number of other people might otherwise be tempted to make. Simply arguing in favor of a null hypothesis (which is basically we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a “universal soldier”) does not completely undermine the potential for these kinds of argument from tradition some people might be willing to make.

  32. Bret, I’m not *quite* as late, so there’s “only” 120 comments added before this one, but still, I have not read them yet so it is likely that someone else has helpfully provided some of these corrections:

    was the deliver the siege -> was [delete the] deliver the siege
    though longer readers may -> [what does the phrase “longer readers” mean? people who have been coming to the site longer, to read the posts here?]
    notions of military excellent-> military excellence
    north with of Thrace -> north wind [/?]
    opposed demanding -> opposed[insert comma] demanding
    Taliban with stood two days -> withstood
    speak to this second hand -> secondhand
    which, if any of these -> if any [comma]

  33. I think it’s interesting that there’s a “warrior vs soldier” dichotomy, but not a comparable one “warrior vs sailor” one, possibly because for very many years (since the Greeks, perhaps) the fighting unit at sea was very much a collective activity.

    1. The warrior has agency: he decides when to fight, whom to fight and how much violence to apply. He can be a warlord, corsair, baron, etc. The soldier is a conscript who follows order or risks execution: march into the trireme and board that ship, we don’t care that you are not a marine.

  34. I wonder if the “warrior ethos” a lot of people talk about would be better called the “guardian ethos”–that is, the willingness to put your own life and limb on the line in order to protect the society you live in and further its interests, and to perform the kind of actions that are necessary in order to win at the kind of war that said society wages.

    1. That’s soldiers. Historically, warriors tended to fight for glory or gain (cf Achilles sulking in his tent).

      1. That’s why I said it would better to call it the “guardian ethos.” Most of the guys who bang on about the “warrior ethos” don’t mean fighting for glory or gain, but mean “stepping up to the plate and doing what needs to be done”–and this is something that can be done by people who are what Devereaux defines as “warriors” and people he defines as “soldiers.”

        1. So what is “the kind of war that society wages”? I usually hesitate at making comments too political, but would you consider MLK to have your guardian ethos? Even though he was protesting against what was the law of the land at the time? What about the customers of the Stonewall Inn when they rioted against police oppression? Can you guard your society by rebelling against it?

  35. Excellent, as always.

    It would be interesting to look at how the war impacts culture and collective psychology of a society as well. How do societies forced to experience constant low-intensity warfare differ from those which experience short-term high-intensity warfare, and from those which experience long-term high-intensity warfare (e.g. Rome during Punic wars)? We often see people from border areas being used as soldiers: Armenians formed a disproportionate part of Byzantine army, as did Croatians in Habsburg armies. I think this might be down to not just experience of constant (low-intensity warfare), but rather the culture which such warfare formented.

  36. A general comment on a lot of the responses that want to argue that there is a universal idea of courage:

    It is pretty clear that there is cultural incompatibility in some of the notions of courage. People DISAGREE on whether particular actions are cowardly or courageous. A particular area of disagreement is when it is permissible to run away from dangers. In some cultures (Crow, Mongol, Homeric Greek), running away is not seen as cowardly. In others (Frankish, classical Greek, Early Modern European) it is, to the extent that dying ‘pointlessly’ rather than running away is valorized. Military folks from these cultures will call each other, respectively, idiots and cowards. So there is no warrior that all these cultures will agree is good, and therefore no universal warrior.

    That said, I do sympathize with the idea expressed in several places that there is a common element among soldiers from all these cultures: to suppress the fear that otherwise would prevent them from ‘doing the right thing’, whatever that happens to be. I think Bret’s response to that is less conclusive, since it depends on whether there really are distinct types of fear that would be handled differently by different people. But even if we accept that there is a common type of courage that can be expressed differently in different contexts, I think that is a pretty weak foundation to try and build any meaningful concept of a universal warrior on.

  37. 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.

    We have a way of (sort of) testing this assertion, because as it happens something very similar happens in Book 10 of the Iliad, when Odysseus and Diomedes sneak into the Trojan camp, kill a load of people, and sneak back out again to safety. As far as I’m aware, no known Greek author of the Classical or Hellenistic periods — the time when phalanx warfare was at its height — called Odysseus and Diomedes’ actions here cowardly.

    Indeed, the Greeks frequently disparaged the fighting style of ‘barbarians’ who would advance bravely but retreat quickly as cowardly.

    Those barbarians might not have considered retreating to be cowardly or blameworthy, but that doesn’t mean they considered retreating itself to be brave. A raid or surprise attack was courageous because of the danger involved, not because the raiders ran away at the end. Conversely, when the Greeks described the barbarians as cowardly, they were talking about their willingness to retreat, not about their advancing in the first place. So this isn’t actually an example of the same thing being called brave in one culture and cowardly in another, because the bit that the Greeks called cowardly wasn’t the bit that the barbarians called brave.

  38. Are there historical records of brave, successful warriors as one culture defines it, finding themselves transplanted into a different cultural context and how they adapted / failed to adapt?

  39. I can barely think of any major media that focuses on raiding conflict. King of Dragon pass, I guess? I’d be interested on seeing a brief review \ overview in passing while discussing that sort of tribal (probably inappropriate term?) warfare in the future.

  40. That image of a shell-shocked veteran staring at the viewer is really haunting. Having it as the banner image for this article burned its way into my mind so thoroughly that I sometimes think of it when looking at the banner image of unrelated articles on this blog. Good work, Thomas Lea.

  41. I know I’m late to the party here, but I think I’d have to make the following distinction. A “soldier” is someone who gets their courage – their ability to manage their “flight or fight” response from the group dynamic. They perform their duties in an essentially “bureaucratic” fashion and are defined by the paradigm in which they’ve been taught to fight. They go out to the battlefield, they execute their specialized job to the best of their ability, (maybe even heroically,) and refrain from retreating because it would shame them in front of their friends. Eventually, they go home and try rejoin civilian society.

    A “warrior” is someone who manages their flight-or-fight response from some internal wellspring, possibly growing from superior training or practice in gunfighting/martial arts/cavalry operations, possibly from some other internal source. Their “special ability” is not their military specialty, but their utility at the moment when everything SEEMS to have gone wrong and their military specialty becomes useless. What a “warrior” does at that moment is to abandon their specialty and respond to the disastrous/paradigm-breaking situation on the ground. If they do that in a fashion which is appropriate to the situation they’re a “warrior.” If they get it wrong, they’re a schmuck.

    A well-designed military needs soldiers far more than it needs warriors. Until something comes up which their paradigm can’t handle, at which point the warrior has his/her moment in the sun.

    Afterwards, however, the dispatching society needs the warrior to return to being a soldier, in response to the ethical concerns which hope to avoid a militarized society. Pressfield’s idea of the “universal warrior” fails when it discourages this return to soldier-dom.

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