This is the continuation of the second part of a three part ( I, IIa, IIb , III) discussion of the notion that there is a ‘universal warrior’ – a transcendent sameness about either the experience of war or ‘warrior values’ which might provide some sort of useful blueprint for life generally or some sort of fundamental truth about the experience of war.
We started this section last week by looking at the forms of war along with the direct emotional experience of combat. What we found is that, quite to the contrary of there being just one sort of war that ‘never changes,’ there are in fact multiple systems of war that function quite differently (with considerable variation both within and between those systems) to the point that armies often find opponents working from within a different system of war almost utterly alien to them.
Moreover, as we discussed, the experience of battle, not merely the technology, tactics and circumstances, but the raw emotional experience (taken in terms of courage and fear) wasn’t constant either. Different cultures understood ‘courage’ differently (and we must remember that translation here can be deceiving – most of them didn’t understand ‘courage’ at all, they understood andreia or fortis or corage or der Mut or woohitike which are, in the end, subtly different things and so not quite ever exactly courage at all) and different battles imposed different sorts of fear which strained those combatants in different ways.
Now we’re going to keep soldiering on and look at some of the other factors of the war experience: the importance of comrades, the drudgery and toil of war, and of course wounds (both physical and mental) and their healing. Once again, to abuse the opening lines of the Fallout series, we going to ask if it is really true that “War, war never changes.”
But first, as always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
The Ties that Bind
What about the personal relationships that are formed in the context of conflict? Surely, the ‘band of brothers’ is a truly universal experience, right (but note on the complexities of Shakespeare’s Henry V)? Surely the social bonds that held Easy-Company together in 1944 and 1945 are the same as those from 1415? Or 415?
Well, no. Not quite.
We can approach this question through the idea of cohesion – the moral force that holds a group of combatants together on the battlefield under the intense emotional stresses of combat. The intense bonds that soldiers form in modern armies (particularly those in the European pattern) are not an accident, but a core part of how those armies, institutionally, seek to build cohesion. Going back to last week, we discussed briefly the emergence of the extensively drilled and disciplined ‘mechanical’ soldier of Early Modern Europe, noting that this approach wasn’t necessary for the effective use of firearms (the Ottoman Janissaries, for instance, were quite good with firearms, but were not trained and organized in this way), but rather was a product of elite aristocratic (read: officer) disdain for their up-jumped peasant soldiers and thus the assumption by those aristocrats that the only way to get such men to fight effectively was to relentlessly drill them.
Now the funny thing about this system is that it clearly worked, but not for the reasons its aristocratic pioneers believed. It was only really after the Second World War that systematic study began to be made of unit cohesion (e.g. S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire (1947), though subsequent literature on the topic is voluminous and Marshal’s work has its problems, but its conclusions are broadly accepted having been confirmed in subsequent studies). What emerged quite clearly was that it wasn’t ‘the cause’ or patriotism that held troops together under fire, but group cohesion born out of an intense need not to let fellow soldiers in the unit down. In short, what held units together and made them fight more effectively was (in part, there are many conclusions in Men Against Fire) the strong social bonds between comrades.
And, in fact, the drill and discipline of early modern European armies unintentionally did quite a lot of cohesion building things. Soldiers were removed from civilian society (isolation from larger groups builds unit cohesion), split into very small groups (keeping the core group that coheres below Dunbar’s number aids in group cohesion; thus why the platoon is a natural unit size) and then pushed through difficult and unpleasant training (that drill and discipline) creating a sense of unique shared experience and sacrifice. All of which doesn’t render men machines, but it does create strong social bonds within the units that will keep the men fighting even when they care little for their cause (which they generally did in this period; one does not find a super-abundance of patriotism among, say, the Army of Flanders).
And there is a tendency to point to this cohesion, its modern source in ‘toughening’ boot camp and to say, ‘aha! That is the true universal about effective soldier-warriors!’ Except – and you knew there was going to be an except – except it isn’t. Systems built on the use of drill and discipline for the development of unit cohesion through social bonds are actually, historically speaking, quite rare. We see systems like that in use by the Romans from the Middle Republic forward (but significantly faded by the end of late antiquity; the Byzantine army doesn’t seem to function this way), in China from the Han Dynasty onward, in Japan for the ashigaru infantry from the Sengoku period, and in Europe from the Early Modern period. That sounds like a lot, but that is relatively small minority of the historical period and even then in a relatively small minority of places. It is, for instance, a period that only covers about half of the historical period in Western Europe, the place most often associated with this very system of organization (though that association is perhaps unfair to East Asia).
Instead, most societies relied on existing social bonds formed outside of the experience of war for cohesion. Greek hoplite armies, for instance, generally formed up by polis (read: city) and then within those blocks by still smaller and smaller social divisions, so that family and neighbors would be standing shoulder to shoulder in the battle line (Sparta does this through the system of communal messes, the syssitia, but the idea that you fought alongside the men you dined with socially – your neighbors, generally – was perfectly normal in most Greek cities). That was intentional – it allowed the phalanx to cohere through the social pressure not to be seen as a coward before the men who meant the most to you, whose shaming gaze you would have to endure in civilian life. The same pressures, by the well, held together the (mostly volunteer) armies of the American Civil War (on this, see, McPherson, For Cause and Comrades (1997)).
By contrast, ‘warrior’ classes often rely on a sort of class solidarity along with the demand of an individual military aristocrat to be individually militarily excellent. Richard Kaeuper quips of the literature of the medieval knightly class that it was filled with “utterly tireless, almost obsessional emphasis placed on personal prowess” (R.W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (1999)). We’ve talked a fair bit about the values of mounted aristocrats, both in their role as combatants and in their roles as generals and those values are relatively disconnected from discipline-induced forms of buddy-cohesion. Of course exactly what ‘good generalship’ or ‘good officership’ looks like varies wildly from place to place – Alexander was expected to command his cavalry from the front; Roman emperors rarely took the battlefield and when they did they commanded from the rear since it would be foolish to risk the ‘brain’ of the army in personal combat and in any event someone at the front of a cavalry charge can hardly direct the rest of the army.
One of the things I find most striking about the ‘warrior ethos’ advanced by writers like Pressfield is that it accepts as normal the unique nature of the bonds that hold soldiers together in battle, assuming this bond and its shared sacrifice to be at once unique to combat and also transcendent to all combatants. But one of the key points made very well in Sebastian Junger’s War (2010) and later Tribe (2016) is just how strange that experience is, historically. Junger notes that in earlier societies, soldiers would have returned from war into communities (often small, agricultural communities or tribal communities) every bit as close-knit as the infantry platoon – and indeed, often involving literally the same people as the infantry platoon. Instead, the intense feeling of uniqueness that modern soldiers feel about the bonds of combat is because of the historically unusual deracination produced by modern societies by the industrial revolution and the post-industrial period.
And Junger’s point is born out quite clearly when looking at the myriad of historical societies where those non-combat social bonds were the basis of the principles of military cohesion, be it the small-town cohesion of the hoplite phalanx or the class-based-expectation cohesion of a group of knights, or (for that matter) later modern regimental-system armies that recruited on the basis of states and towns precisely to get this kind of cohesion (something that comes out quite clearly in McPherson, For Cause and Comrades (1998) of regiments in the American Civil War, but was also a factor in the British regimental system as late as World War I).
In short, the singularity of those bonds is by no means historically universal, but in many societies would have instead been paired with equally strong and demanding bonds based on family, clan, neighborhood, village or patronage – merely one thread in a web of many threads. Assuming that such bonds extend infinitely back into the past of war means treating as normal a facet of modern society which is both unusual and possibly maladaptive.
At which point it seems useful to note that all of our examples so far are from within the second or third system of war, where there is considerable focus in holding ground in conventional engagements and thus a need to condition combatants to do something very unnatural – to hold their position and fight even when directly threatened and at a very high risk of death. But what about the first system of war, which generally does not demand combatants to stand in rigid order under fire or to resist mass enemy charges, but is instead focused on a ‘pounce and flee’ system of raids and ambushes only resorting to open battle (itself almost never decisive) when those fail?
For a first system force, the very thing all of this cohesion is trying to produce – to get men to stick together when the going gets tough, is entirely counter-productive; instead, if the situation is disadvantageous, the best response is often ‘scatter and regroup.’ As we’ve discussed before, these societies often have low populations which simply could not sustain high-lethality pitched battles. Consequently, societies in the first system tend to only engage when conditions are very advantageous (a raid, an ambush) or when they have no choice (being raided or ambushed).
This is, of course, not to say that such forces lacked what we might term combat motivation; these are still humans and so human psychology matters. But such motivation was organic to the community structure (ties of kinship and bonds within the village or tribal grouping), individual rather than group-based (one was not holding a position as a group but making an individual assessment of stand vs. flee) and finally was not predicated on one’s willingness to hold in a disadvantageous position. Indeed, European writers documenting, for instance, Native North American adversaries regularly complain about their ability to simply melt away rather than meet a European-style army on disadvantageous terms, where European-style military values would have demanded stubborn resistance and steady cohesion. For a Native North American force to ‘hold together’ in such conditions would have been foolish and ruinous – better to scatter and limit casualties.
In short, such systems of war make little effort to build the sort of cohesion seen in second and third system armies because such cohesion is maladaptive to their combat style (and consequently, lacking the social-value framework that supports such cohesion, it can be difficult to train members of such societies to fight like second or third system soldiers, something readily apparent by the repeated difficulties of building ‘western’-style armies in countries without traditions of cohesion).
What does that leave us with? The systems to build cohesion – and indeed, cohesion itself – turn out not to be universal at all, but quite subjective to specific cultures and places. I’ve actually sold short just how many different systems and methods are used to build cohesion, but in practice every society’s mix for doing this is unique. Moreover, some societies, because of their style of warfare are largely uninterested in developing much cohesion at all and are instead focused on other forms of combat motivation.
Beyond the banal observations that humans are social animals that build relationships with each other and that humans tend to bond in conditions of shared adversary, there is nothing here. Those same conclusions might as well be marshaled to support the ‘universal graduate student’ or the ‘universal video-game crunch developer.’ The observation that the bonds of fellow soldiers are singularly stronger than any other sort of bond only seems to hold for modern deracinated post-industrial societies that have (often for good reasons, like liberating individuals) steadily weakened all of the other social bonds. One only needs to look, for instance, at the failure of these intense bonds to hold primacy over the bonds of family, class or tribe when efforts are made to train ‘western’-style armies in non-western countries to see that the primacy of ‘comrades’ is socially contingent. Once again, the idea of the universal soldier indulges in the classic error of historical thinking whereby a distinctly contingent and modern experience is anachronistically retrojected into the past; the foolishness of the ‘universal soldier’ is the circularity of the argument where by this anachronistic retrojection is treated as the evidence of its own existence.
Drudgery and Toil
What about the other common difficulties of soldiering? How universal are those experiences: the bad food, long marches, heavy burdens and difficult labor and toil?
Well, here is where we come back to the note I made earlier about how ‘warring’ and ‘soldiering’ where different verbs with different meanings. After all, while soldiering implies these difficulties, warring doesn’t, necessarily. And it isn’t hard to see why – the warrior classes in these societies, often being aristocrats, generally didn’t do a lot of these things. It is, for instance, noted in the Roman sources when a general chose to eat the same food as his soldiers, because most Roman aristocrats didn’t when they served as generals or military tribunes. The privileges of rank and class applied.
And that’s something we see with medieval aristocrats too. On the one hand, Jean de Bueil talks about the “difficulties and travail” of war, but at the same time, Clifford Rogers notes one (fictional and lavish, but not outrageous) war party “suitable for a baron or banneret” included a chaplain, three heralds, four trumpeters, two drummers, four pages, two varlets (that is, servants for the pages), two cooks, a forager, a farrier, an armorer, twelve more serving men (with horses, presumably both as combatants and as servants), and a majordomo to manage them all – in addition to the one lord, three knights and nine esquires (C. Rogers, Soldiers’ Lives through History: the Middle Ages (2007), 28-9).
Jean le Bel (quoted in Rogers, op. cit.) contrasts the situation of the nobles in Edward III’s army (1327), where “one could see great nobility well served with a great plenty of dishes and sweets – such strange ones that I wouldn’t know to name or describe them. There one could see ladies richly adorned and nobly ornamented” while in the camp proper an open brawl between the regular soldiers from England and Hainault broke out and eventually turned into an open battle in which 316 died, but so segregated was the camp that, “most of the knights and of their masters were then at court, and knew nothing of this” (Rogers, 66-7). Likewise, except in fairly extreme positions, most of the ditch-digging, camp-building duties would fall to the common soldiers (and, as Roel Konijnendijk can quite accurately tell you, ditches are important! When in doubt, dig some ditches – or make others dig ditches for you).
That said, these differences are not merely confined to the high aristocrats. Marching under a heavy load is often given as one example of the quintessential ‘soldier experience,’ but it seems that many Greek hoplites went to war with a personal slave or servant to carry their equipment for them, despite being infantrymen. The Romans carried equipment and supplies something closer to what a modern soldier might (both in terms of weight and also, apart from ammunition, in terms of what was carried), but then non-Roman sources like the Greek writer Polybius (18.18.1-7) or the Jewish writer Josephus (BJ 3.95) appear quite stunned with the amount of tools and equipment the Romans carry (and Polybius, by the by, is writing before Marius’ mules). Evidently the Roman impedementia was quite a bit heavier, though even the Macedonians carried much more than a Greek hoplite army (Note Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, 1978 on this).
Meanwhile, Jonathan Roth is quick to note (in The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 B.C. – A.D. 235) (1999)) that despite either bad or insufficient rations being a common complaint of soldiers, such complaints appear absent from Roman sources, even in the context of legionary mutinies. Indeed, the evidence suggests that Roman soldiers ate quite well, with fairly ample rations. In camp the Roman soldier’s diet was not so different from what he might eat in peacetime (especially once we get into the imperial period with legions stationed in semi-permanent bases); on the march they had to make do with bucellatum, a hard biscuit something like hardtack. But for many Italian peasants, the diet doesn’t seem to have been much worse – or much different – from what they ate in peacetime.
By way of sharp contrast to the plodding, heavily loaded but surely very lethal Roman legionary, the impis of the Zulu traveled fast, light and sometimes somewhat hungry. Zulu warriors generally carried only their equipment on the march, while supplies were carried by udibi, boys serving as porters. Even then, such supplies were minimal – the Zulu force that arrived at Rorke’s Drift (1879) had only been out six days, but none of the warriors in it had eaten in two. Such minimally supplies flying columns, moving fast and with considerable stealth (one cannot read anytthing on the Anglo-Zulu war without noticing how, even with cavalry scouts, Zulu impis seem so often just to appear next to British forces) were the norm for Zulu warfare. And to be clear, this wasn’t some ‘primitive’ or underdeveloped form of war – the light and fast operational movements of the Zulu were intentional (much of it was a product of Shaka’s reforms) and very effective – albeit not so effective as to offset the massive advantages the British possessed in population, economic capacity or military technology. Nevertheless, not even every sort of common soldier was the heavily loaded, slow moving, well-fed ditch-digging sort like the Romans. The ‘soldier experience’ needs to cover the lightly loaded and armed, fast moving, hungry, non-ditch-digging Zulu experience too.
And then of course when we consider nomadic peoples, we find that in many cases their lives on campaign were not that much different from their lives at peacetime, involving many of the same skills and activities.
In short, the experience of the drudgery of war – the bad food, long toil, heavy encumbrance and so on was all still quite contingent (or we might say ‘dependent’) on the society going to war. Social divisions mattered. Expectations about masculine behavior mattered. Military systems mattered. Yes, modern armies in the European tradition expect their soldiers to do a lot of labor and drudgery, but remember where that military system came from: it was the system of the common soldiers serving under the aristocrats who most certainly did not do those things but who did impose sharp, corporal discipline. Which, to be clear, doesn’t make this system ineffective – it was clearly effective. The point here is that it was socially contingent – a different society would have come up with a different system. And they did! The Early Modern European system is only one way to organize an army and historically speaking not even the most common.
Wounds and Healing
What of the wounded? Is their experience universal?
Attitudes towards wounds and the wounded certainly change over time. My late grandfather was wounded fighting in the US Army in Italy during the Second World War. He didn’t talk about it much that I recall, though I was a pest at that age and would ask no doubt more incessantly than I remember. I recall he would tell us, as kids that he had the wound from a landmine, somewhere to the rear. Which was not precisely true – he had been wounded by shrapnel from a shell fragment in the fighting under Monte Cassino. I suspect he wanted a version of the story that put him further from harm, further from combat, so as not to shock us. In any event it was hard to ignore – the shrapnel had done some nerve damage in his arm, which had a slight shake (that got worse with age) from that point forward. I suspect a lot of Americans today have similar stories about Purple Heart family members who would rather not talk about their scars; the wounded veteran who doesn’t like to talk about such things is a common-place in American literature and for a reason.
Marcus Servilius (cos. 202 BC) seems to have been somewhat less circumspect. In 167 (he would have been in his mid-70s by then), he punctuated his speech in the Senate by (in Plutarch’s phrasing) “parting his garment and displaying upon his breast an incredible number of wounds. When wheeling about, he uncovered some parts of his person which it is thought unbecoming to have naked in a crowd [ed.: what a euphemism!]…and said, ‘You laugh at these scars, but I glory in them before my fellow-citizens, in whose defense I got them'” (Plut. Aem. 31.8-9). Such displays, the old Roman soldier showing the scars (ideally always on the chest, but evidently Servilius also had a few on his bum from serving as a cavalryman) are a common-place in Roman literature and was clearly deployed with some frequency for rhetorical effect.
Not that all disabled veterans were so highly regarded by their societies. Geoffrey L. Hudson, in discussing the emergence of a disabled veteran pension system in England in the 1600s (“Disabled Veterans and the State in Early Modern England” in Disabled Veterans in History, ed. D. A. Gerber (2012) notes that the existing charitable system at the time often didn’t want to have disabled veterans in their almshouses because of “the fact that many maimed veterans had been pressed vagrants and convicted felons.” Evidently their wounds had done little to change the overall societies’ low view of them. As Hudson notes initial methods of royal relief “failed because local authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, resisted privy conciliar initiatives on behalf of ex-servicemen.” Lest you think that the privy council itself was moved by compassion, the key motivation seems to have been “a practical preventative measure against desertion, evasion of impressment and the…public spectacle of former servicemen…begging in the streets.” In any event, the eventual emergence of a pension for disabled veterans was accompanied by laws appointing marshals to capture and punish ‘vagrant’ soldiers (and former soldiers) and force veterans to return to their home counties.
In short, not all societies viewed wounds and the wounded in the same way.
Of course the wounds themselves were also different. One thing Hudson notes in the emergence of an English (and later British) pension and hospital system for wounded veterans was how this process was motivated by the change in the kinds of wounds received created by gunpowder weapons. Now of course ancient weapons could also give disabling wounds (note Debby Sneed’s work on the topic of people with disabilities in the ancient world), but the real difference in the lethality of different kinds of weapons matters quite a bit.
The modern reader, for instance, may be puzzled by the repeated framing in ancient texts of units in combat being ‘wearied by wounds’ since generally speaking a soldier wounded in combat with modern weapons is typically a lot more than ‘wearied’ by the experience. But pre-gunpowder weapons aren’t that lethal, especially with blows land against the limbs instead of the head or the chest (which might be better armored in any case). When you view, for instance, tests of pre-modern weapons, remember that real targets would be armored and often moving to try to minimize the damage of the hit (on this see S. James, “The Point of the Sword: What Roman-era weapons could to do bodies – and why they often didn’t” in Waffen in Aktion, ed. A.W. Busch and H.J. Schalles (2010)). Which is how you have M. Servilius covered in scars and yet still very much alive in his 70s to brag about them.
Firearms – even fairly early firearms – are substantially more lethal (a point W.E. Lee makes in Empires and Indigines (2011) in explaining why even slow-firing muskets so radically raised the lethality of ranged fire exchanges as compared to bows as to force Native North Americans to give up such pitched battles entirely). They inflict very different sorts of wounds, which often require the removal of limbs. It is striking that, prior to gunpowder, the image of the disabled veteran seems to have been a scarred fellow, with all of his limbs, but perhaps a limp or a missing eye (both Philip II of Macedon and Antigonus Monopthalmus, one of his generals, managed each to lose an eye in combat) or requiring a crutch (note Debby Sneed’s piece above for a few pictures; Matthew, A Storm of Spears (2012) also has a relevant discussion of wounds in hoplite combat).
With gunpowder, as Hudson’s essay demonstrates quite clearly (he has some tables on the topic) the picture changes. With musket balls or grape-shot, non-lethal scarring wounds to the body were far less common (such wounds were much more likely to be lethal) while wounds to the extremities seem to have often rendered limbs inoperative, if there was a limb left at all. It was precisely this change in military technology that overwhelmed the old charitable systems of almshouses and forced the reforms Hudson discusses.
And of course not only physical wounds, but mental wounds are also subject to change. I am not going to rehearse the points I have already made about the experience of combat-related mental trauma here, since I have already made them on the blog. But I think it is worth noting that the evidence really does seem to suggest to me that combatants in different societies and time periods experience the emotional turmoil and trauma of war quite differently. Apparent PTSD symptoms are very rare in ancient or medieval literature and where they do appear they are often confined to specific and unusual types of wars (civil wars, for instance, in the Roman context. All of the medieval European examples of PTSD-like symptoms I have seen come in the context of crusading).
But moreover – and we’ve actually already touched on this when discussing fear and courage – mental wounds also seem to vary somewhat from one modern war to the next. As I noted, the hyper-vigilance that is so often a symptom of combat trauma in the veterans of contemporary wars seems vanishingly rare in the ‘shell shock’ of WWI veterans, who are more often described as lethargic, listless and undirected (symptoms that also show up in WWII for soldiers who had been under combat stress for long periods). The issue has been brought up, so I do want to note that I am, by the by, unconvinced by the suggestion that these WWI-era mental wounds were purely or principally the product of concussions from heavy artillery or the like.
But it should not surprise us that just as different kinds of combat and different kinds of weapons inflict different sorts of physical wounds, so too they inflict different sorts of mental wounds. The soldier who doesn’t know when the next enemy might appear in a crowd of civilians is put under a very different strain than the soldier who is subjected to a week-long artillery barrage while hiding underground; both of them are subjected to a very different strain from the man asked to charge over a field with a spear. I have by no means exhaustively read the literature on PTSD either from the historical or psychological angles (though I have tried to read a lot of it), but I sometimes wonder if experts researching PTSD under-appreciate the degree to which they are dealing with a moving target; descriptions of combat stress disorders in early wars are too often, I think, treated as misunderstandings when they may simply be recording different symptoms from different trauma caused by different stress (though of course it is also true that our understanding of PTSD and related mental combat trauma has improved tremendously).
And of course on top of that we have to layer writers who don’t see the war experience as traumatic at all! We have already discussed Bertran de Born (12th cent. AD) and his “great joy” when he sees armies ranged for battle. Elsewhere, Bertran declares “A young man who doesn’t feed on war soon becomes fat and rotten.” The idea that armies were profoundly beautiful, lovely things isn’t restricted to Bertran. Take Sappho’s declaration (6th cent. BC) that (trans. M.L. West):
Some think a fleet, a troop of horse
or soldiery the finest sight
in all the world; but I say, what one loves.
Evidently Sappho knows it to be a truism that some people did think that was beautiful. And here is how Tyrtaeus (7th cent. BC) describes the results of combat (also trans. M.L. West):
His name and glorious reputation never die;
he is immortal even in his grave,
that man the furious War-god kills as he defends
his soul and children with heroic stand.
Or if in winning his proud spear-vaunt he escapes
the doom of death and grief’s long shadow-cast,
then all men do him honor, young and old alike;
much joy is his before he goes below.
He grows old in celebrity, and no one thinks
to cheat him of his due respect and rights,
but all men at the public seats make room for him,
the young, the old and those of his own age.
And of course we’ve also discussed here on the blog ‘Antarah ibn Shadadd who declares, “the battle of ‘Ura’ir was a healing” and that even with “our wounds still fresh” his warriors were “nourished by grim battleswords,” an attitude that seems to echo Bertran’s desire for young men to feast on war, combat seen as something healing and nourishing rather than traumatic.
Conclusion: War Changes Quite a Bit, Actually…
Echoes of those views continue to appear in western literature until the impersonal carnage of the Western Front seem to finally snuff them out. But it isn’t that the generations and generations before 1914 had never experienced war, but that war had changed.
We’ve actually talked before about just how profoundly our modern view of war and battle (and battlefields) is conditioned by the experience of the first world war and the vast literary production of the generation that went through those trenches. Certainly for English (and German and French, etc.) literature, World War I seems to almost snap the tradition in half, making everything before it feel trite and washing the whole of war literature in grim tones of field grey.
And, of course, that is the point. World War I was a new kind of war that shattered the old certainties born out of the old kinds of war. It is often a mistake to assume those old certainties had been born out of some eternal peace, but while the 1800s had not seen a general European war, they had seen many wars, in the many imperial possessions of European countries, on the edges of what the British or French considered ‘Europe’ and also in the heart of Europe itself (not to mention a few dust–ups in the Americas). These were not peaceful societies confronting their first war and shocked by the experience, but very bellicose societies encountering for the first time a new sort of war and being stunned at how different it was from what they had expected, from the wars of their (recent!) past.
All of which is to say war, war really does change. And warriors with it.
In a sense this is a point about war which is clear even just from the way that we study it – there are books upon books written analyzing the experience of war and attitudes about war in a given society, at a given moment, and as I hope I’ve shown, one thing that emerges very clearly is that such attitudes and experiences change over time and place. Just compare the discussion of combat motivations between, say, James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades (1998) to those in J.E. Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts (2005) and you come up with very difference experiences. And neither is quite like what comes out of I. Berkovich, Motivation in War: the Experience of Common Soldiers in old-regime Europe (2017). And radically different from the others is McGinnis, Counting Coup and Cutting Horses (1990) on Great Plains Native American warfare. The mere fact that a series like Soldiers’ Lives Through History is a series of books, rather than one volume on the vast sameness of the combat experience should tell us this.
But I hope, even in this brief overview, to have summarized just a small fraction of that diversity even though I can only write with knowledge mostly from inside of the broader European tradition of war, which naturally shares some cultural DNA with its constituent elements. Doubtless the degree to which war changes would be seem more profound were I writing as an expert in warfare in Africa or Asia or pre-historic warfare.
Instead what we see is the careless but frequent error of taking the modern soldier’s experience and retrojecting it anachronistically into the past. They, as Roel Konijnendijk recently remarked on the r/AskHistorians reddit (because I am not above stealing a good turn of phrase) “depict Spartans doing pushups and following the commands of their drill sergeants like recruits in an Ancient Greek USMC boot camp” to give just one example, even though as we’ve discussed, Sparta and the agoge were no such thing. It is, I think, no accident that one of the others Konijnendijk critiques here is none other than Steven Pressfield (writing Gates of Fire), the very fellow whose model of the ‘universal warrior’ we have been using here as our ‘steel man’ version of this argument.
What we’ve shown so far is that almost any serious engagement with historical research rapidly reveals that there is no universal warrior or war experience, but rather an array of different social values, combat experiences and worldviews. They share in common this thing we call ‘war’ (best defined – borrowing from W.E. Lee, Waging War (2016) with one modification, as an “organized group activity, conducted with lethal effects, that diminishes one [unconsenting] group for the benefit of another”), but that thing, ‘war,’ is itself a super-category that includes many different expressions, some of which are not restricted to humans or even primates. But beyond that, significant, often crucial differences abound. War can be a human universal, but the warrior is not, it turns out, because their existence is too greatly shaped by culture, technology and circumstance.
Now I’ve spent three weeks batting down the idea that this notional of a ‘universal warrior’ or a universal warrior ethos as inconsistent with the evidence we have of the past (or even the present). But this notion didn’t proceed from the historical evidence (obviously), it proceeded from a modern ideology. And that is where we are going next week. In a sense these past three weeks have been a giant prologue to my actual goal, which was to discuss the ideology behind this notion of a universal warrior. But first it was necessary to remove the defense that might be mustered of that ideology that it describes something true.
That defense is gone, cleared away by a flood of evidence suggesting that not all warriors or soldiers viewed the world the same and that very few of them seem to have viewed the world in the way that Pressfield (and others of this ideological persuasion) seem to think was universally true.
And so, with the walls cleared of their anachronistic defenses, we may at last assault the citadel. Next week, we ask: what is the ideology behind this idea of a universal warrior…and just what sort of unfortunate baggage is it smuggling in under that (red, they’re always red; why are they always red? Soldiers wore many colors!) soldier’s cloak?