Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Warrior Ethos

I recently finished Steven Pressfield's short but excellent book, The Warrior Ethos.  Well worth your time, if you want some clear thinking and observations about warriors.  This has immediate applications for you as a man, and for training your children.

Here are some passages from the book, to whet your appetite.


Every warrior virtue proceeds from this—courage, selflessness, love of and loyalty to one’s comrades, patience, self-command, the will to endure adversity. It all comes from the hunting band’s need to survive. At a deeper level, the Warrior Ethos recognizes that each of us, as well, has enemies inside himself. Vices and weaknesses like envy and greed, laziness, selfishness, the capacity to lie and cheat and do harm to our brothers. The tenets of the Warrior Ethos, directed inward, inspire us to contend against and defeat those enemies within our own hearts.

No one is born with the Warrior Ethos, though many of its tenets appear naturally in young men and women of all cultures. The Warrior Ethos is taught. On the football field in Topeka, in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, on the lion-infested plains of Kenya and Tanzania. Courage is modeled for the youth by fathers and older brothers, by mentors and elders. It is inculcated, in almost all cultures, by a regimen of training and discipline.

There’s a well-known gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps who explains to his young Marines, when they complain about pay, that they get two kinds of salary—a financial salary and a psychological salary. The financial salary is indeed meager. But the psychological salary? Pride, honor, integrity, the chance to be part of a corps with a history of service, valor, glory; to have friends who would sacrifice their lives for you, as you would for them—and to know that you remain a part of this brotherhood as long as you live. How much is that worth?

Ordeals of initiation are undergone not as individuals but as teams, as units. Courage is inseparable from love and leads to what may arguably be the noblest of all warrior virtues: selflessness.

Plutarch asked, “Why do the Spartans punish with a fine the warrior who loses his helmet or spear but punish with death the warrior who loses his shield?” Because helmet and spear are carried for the protection of the individual alone, but the shield protects every man in the line. The group comes before the individual. This tenet is central to the Warrior Ethos.

Selflessness produces courage because it binds men together and proves to each individual that he is not alone.

This is another key element of the Warrior Ethos: the willing and eager embracing of adversity. In 1912, the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was seeking volunteers for an expedition to the South Pole. He placed the following ad in the London Times: Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful; honor and recognition in case of success. The next morning, 5000 men lined up to volunteer. The payoff for a life of adversity is freedom.

Cyrus of Persia believed that the spoils of his victories were meant for one purpose—so that he could surpass his enemies in generosity. I contend against my foes in this arena only: the capacity to be of greater service to them than they are to me. Alexander operated by the same principle. Let us conduct ourselves so that all men wish to be our friends and all fear to be our enemies. The capacity for empathy and self-restraint will serve us powerfully, not only in our external wars but in the conflicts within our own hearts.

We want to be part of something greater than ourselves, something we can be proud of. And we want to come out of the process as different (and better) people than we were when we went in. We want to be men, not boys. We want to be women, not girls. We want a rite of passage. We want to grow up.

The hardest thing in the world is to be ourselves.

Let us be, then, warriors of the heart, and enlist in our inner cause the virtues we have acquired through blood and sweat in the sphere of conflict—courage, patience, selflessness, loyalty, fidelity, self-command, respect for elders, love of our comrades (and of the enemy), perseverance, cheerfulness in adversity and a sense of humor, however terse or dark.

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