Defining The American Warrior

   You may have seen articles in the news about U.S. Army Soldiers purportedly forming “death squads” or going on “thrill kill” sprees in Afghanistan. A friend sent me some links on the story. She wasn’t sure what to make of it and was despondent about the reprehensible conduct of the soldiers allegedly involved.

   “What does this all mean?” she asked me.

   How could American Warriors conduct themselves in this way? Are these America’s finest? Is this endemic of our so called “warrior culture?” I assure you the answer is no, but it does mean being a reprobate dirt-bag isn’t a character trait belonging exclusively to the Taliban. It’s something we all must guard against daily.

   It also means being in the military doesn’t make one a warrior any more than being in the kitchen makes one a chef. I have often remarked that three months of boot camp does not necessarily repair years of bad habits or a fundamental character flaw.

   So what separates the real American warrior from those masquerading as one? What’s the difference between a mere killer and a professional soldier? Fortunately, America’s 1stSgt is here to answer those questions and hopefully shed some light on what choosing the path of a warrior is all about.

   A warrior/soldier is other-oriented and takes action on someone else’s behalf. The thug is self-oriented; his actions reflect his own self interest. He is incapable of adopting the warrior habit of thought and action as it is the antithesis of what the warrior is.

   Some who enlist or accept commissions in the armed forces will never buy in to our core values. They merely exist, stagnantly enduring their time in the military until they are discharged. They are more focused on self interest rather than self improvement. We usually refer to these individuals as “oxygen thieves.” Constantly reemphasizing proper values, leadership traits, as well as a true warrior ethos is the only way I can think of to combat this mindset. Stressing this at every level of training throughout a Marine’s career will develop wholly competent professionals in the long run.

   In the infantry we often say the formula for success on the battlefield is a solid foundation in infantry fundamentals. We preach the virtues of “brilliance in the basics” and it is absolutely on point. When we say this we often mean proficiency in the use of weapons, optics, communication, tactics, techniques, procedures, leadership traits, etc. Training in the fundamentals develops habits of thought and action that have proven successful in combat.

   Many of us in the Marine Corps have seen their troops perform valiantly in war only to comport themselves poorly back home. Developing habits of thought and action should always include an ethical and moral mindset based on our core values. When not in combat, the conditions, terrain, and appropriate actions may change but the habit of thought should not.

   Perhaps I should also define what a warrior is. Most references classify a warrior as a person experienced, capable of, or actively engaging in combat or warfare. The word is also used figuratively to refer to a person who has shown vigor, courage, or aggressiveness in their chosen activity like sports. The second definition is used more in an agonistic sense and doesn’t suit our purpose here. Plus, over application of the word of “warrior” dilutes and confuses its meaning.

   I prefer the below extract from an ICS statement on the nature of a warrior:

Modern Warrior Concept

● The warrior is an individual; he is self-initiated and self-motivated.

● The warrior is a follower of the warrior path of responsibility and obligation. His following of that path underscores his individuality while stressing the importance of his responsibility as protector in his society.

● The warrior trains to become ever more capable at those combative skills that are intrinsic to the responsibility of protector. The foundation of those skills is based in his self-initiative to become more. It is inherent in the warrior that as he gains in capability in and comprehension of the principles intrinsic to the martial path, he will of his own self-initiative, seek to expand the application of those principles beyond any institutional standard. In other words, the warrior is not satisfied to stand still, waiting, being, but is constantly looking forward, to becoming.

● The warrior attempts to conduct his daily life based upon a code of conduct rooted in an innate sense of ethics, integrity, and morality. This code of conduct is not an enforced expression demanded by others, but a code of behavior that the warrior expects of himself. As with the warrior of earlier times and cultures, valor, loyalty, honor, trust, and comportment are values that are inherent. Compassion, an aspect of the “life-giving sword” (an often neglected component of martial behavior), is vital part of the code.

   So, the modern warrior concept by definition is an individual who is self-motivated to exceed an institutional standard. In the case of entry level recruits we introduce them to our institutional standard but it is up to them to go beyond that. We often tell our Marines the standard is a starting point not the goal.

   Personal morals must be the cornerstone and the foundation of becoming a warrior. Being Marines we are merely professional soldiers trained for group combat. It isn’t until we take personal responsibility for our individual training and development that we begin to embark on the path of a warrior.

   Using the example of Marines who show poor moral judgment at home despite their prowess on the battlefield, I submit they are indeed NOT warriors any more than we in the Corps consider them ideal Marines. Though they certainly share some attributes we associate with warriors they also displayed other attributes that are in complete opposition with the warrior ethos. We constantly remind our troops they do not stop being Marines when they remove their uniform on the weekend. We cannot play loose with our core values and principles and still claim to be whatever those values define.

   I regularly joke that I have sent young men outside the wire loaded down with automatic weapons, rockets, and grenades and have not worried about them in the slightest. But what kept me up nights was letting them go out in town on liberty. I stress to my troops their conduct off the battlefield is more defining than their conduct on it.

   To put it more simply, of the two types of courage – moral and physical – moral courage has always been the most difficult to execute. This defines a warrior and separates him from a mere grunt.

   Mercenaries and hooligans may be very capable on the battlefield but their moral conduct may more resemble that of a common thug. Thus they are not warriors by definition.

   When discussing warrior concepts sometimes a comparison to professional athletes is made. The adulterous conduct of various sports figures is brought up along with the statement: “What does this have to do with how good a (fill in the sport of your choice) player he is?” In these cases I would say their character most resembles that of the mercenary. They are good at their profession and do it for money. Off the field their conduct is reprehensible. This is why sponsors often distance themselves because they do not wish to be associated with this kind of poor character and lack of fidelity. I frequently tell my Marines that if their spouse can’t trust them there is no reason the Marine to their left and right can either. Warriors should likewise not wish to be associated with those of low character.

   It should also be pointed out that using athletes is a poor example since they have no moral obligation to play sports. Plus their various organizations probably don’t have an institutional standard of conduct that doesn’t involve playing the game. However, adultery is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Hmmmmm…

   Are character flaws correctable? Certainly, but it requires the individual to make a conscious decision and take personal responsibility for corrective action to set his foot on the path of a warrior.

   Consider this: if your actions are defined by your character flaws then you are not being/becoming a warrior. If we are not becoming better than we were, we are becoming worse. And that is not being/becoming a warrior either.

   Those of us who have chosen the profession of arms as our vocation should regard self improvement and ethical standards of conduct as an essential component of our training and development. As a leader it is paramount to pursue self improvement and to recognize our own personal training as a critical factor in developing others. Leadership and mentorship, in combat and in garrison, defines who we are as Marines and what we are trying to become as professionals.

Semper Fidelis,
America’s 1stSgt

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  1. This short piece, merged with Stockdale’s teachings on morality and ethics (see: “Thoughts of A Philosophical Fighter Pilot,” 1995, Hoover Institution Press) make as compelling an argument for who we should aspire to become as any. I have forwarded to my Marine-in-the-making for his consideration and reflection. Well done.

  2. “The warrior attempts to conduct his daily life based upon a code of conduct rooted in an innate sense of ethics, integrity, and morality. This code of conduct is not an enforced expression demanded by others, but a code of behavior that the warrior expects of himself…”
    I am no warrior, but this is my code as a human being. I would not have been able to articulate it better.
    Thanks for another great post.

  3. When I read accounts of misconduct by soldiers in the field I ask myself where was the Platoon Leader, where was the Platoon Sgt? These incidents reek of leadership failure at the platoon, company, and Bn level.

    Substandard soldiers who should have never been allowed to serve, incompetent officers and NCOs, the services need to be ruthless in weeding these miserable non hackers out .

    Great description of real warriors 1st Sgt. Those are the men and women who can win wars for us.

    Semper Fi


  4. “other oriented vs self-oriented”

    A simple value really, yet such a powerful way to live that reflects who you are at the core.
    …and from where your motivation stems.

    I’m ever thankful for warriors (and others) who ‘live’ moral courage. It quenches the darkness from those who live otherwise …bringing light and hope.

  5. When I read press about misconduct by our soldiers, I immediately recall other bullshit stories about such by the same outfits.

    My first assumption is that it’s yet another journo with his/her head up and lodged or another enemy loving piece of filth producing agit prop, or another POS astro turfer making crap up and selling it to idiot journos.

    Scott Buttchump… or Beauchamp or however it’s spelled;
    Jesse Macbeth;

    Those come to mind when I read such things.

    Am I trying to say such things can’t happen? Nope. But I am saying, odds are that it’s a load of stinking nothing pushed out into the national diaper by the press anus.

  6. – Keep in mind that the incidents in question are allegations still under investigation. While I would tend to agree there are probably leadership failures involved and that some in the press never miss an opportunity to vilify the troops, my purpose for writing this was to articulate what a warrior is supposed to be about in contrast.

    – What sets the warrior apart from those who are not is the warrior, as
    someone trained in the combative application of violence, sees a moral obligation in the responsible/ethical use (or not) of his capability. He sees an obligation toward his society to protect it. The non-warrior is under no such obligation and historically has not been expected to hold himself to the same standards.

  7. Outstanding article, 1stSgt. Well said.

    Now if only I could get my Sailors to understand that being a warrior doesn’t mean you have to carry a weapon…Protecting the Nation is protecting the Nation. And the responsibilities of conduct are the same for us all, regardless of our particular roles in said defense.

  8. Top:

    I didn’t intend to come across as a drop fire.

    I do tend to ramp up to full throttle on such issues as a default setting, but I understood what you were saying and appreciated your saying it.

    I’ve been playing HomeFront Guard since all this kicked off official like (been waiting for everyone to catch up since 10/23/83). With all the bad info, misinfo and outright bogus info that’s always pouring out of the media regarding our troops, I just wanted to make sure your followers from among the heathen got a dose defensive antibody.

    Sorry about being a pill.

    Semper Fi.

  9. Top,
    The media loves to talk about “odd” incidents like this, but they seldomly mention the good things the grunts do in these wars.
    We draw our troops from society. Most of the time we get troops who want to do a good job…but they still all need supervison.
    For some of the missions we had in Iraq, I spent half my time “doing” the job and the other half making sure they were doing the proper thing. They always did, but for the type of work we did, a soldier could have easily “lost it” due to the frustration. My teams were always professional- BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT I DEMANDED AT ALL TIMES! THEY KNEW HOW THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO ACT AND THEY WANTED TO DO IT RIGHT!
    It’s the same in police work, those of us who are supervisors have to set the standards- Be a Pro.

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