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Will the Real Warrior Please Stand Up?

The following quote epitomizes the gap between what soldiers wish they were, and the modern battle field today:

“Out of every hundred men, ten shouldn’t be there, eighty are are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” (Attributed to Heraclitus, I have a sneaking suspicion this quote has been mis-attributed; the same page has a common misquoting of Orwell and Churchill. I've read too many popular "clever" quotes that I later find are inaccurate.)

True or not, the above quote has joined “We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm,” as one of the quotes that make up the military psyche, and ethos of the military. Many soldiers point to this and say "This is what a warrior is. This describes war. This describes me." But this quote doesn't describe war or warriors, at least not in the last hundred years. The warrior, if he ever existed, was long ago replaced by machines, mechanization, and the new modern battlefield.

First, the modern battlefield is one of specialization. Only half of the Army is involved directly in combat duties,  many are human resources technicians, electricians or repairmen. This battlefield is a battlefield of naval aircraft carriers; where one person's entire job is changing food and drinks in the vending machines. Is a vending machine operator a warrior? (One could make the argument this is a great thing, that we have isolated our "real fighters," according to the quote, in the combat roles. But of course, there is no "warrior" test.)

Second, modern weapons commit massive violence on a massive scale that is often random and unpreventable. They do not distinguish between warrior and non-warrior, fighter and non-fighter, nor can the warrior defend himself from those weapons the way he could sword and spear. The modern battlefield is a battlefield of cruise missiles, guided bombs and TOW missiles; a battlefield made up of IEDs and mortar shells. When soldiers ran over the trenches in World War I, the machine gun bullets didn’t distinguish between warriors and the rest. There is nothing the warrior could have done to prevent his death. Often, there is nothing he can do today to prevent the IED exploding. (Again, you could argue the soldier could prevent IEDs by winning over the local population with great counter-insurgency, but this also goes against the common view of the "warrior" and certainly isn't what Heraclitus meant.)

Which gets at the point behind this quote. There is a rugged individualism, a sense in which the warrior (and by extension every soldier who reads the quote and sees themselves in it) controls his own destiny. His skill and bravery alone will win the battle. But in the random capriciousness of bombs from the sky, this just isn’t true. One man can't, and won't make the difference.

Third, distance destroys the warrior. How far away can a soldier be from a battlefield and still be considered a soldier? Is the bomber pilot a warrior? Do his remote bombing make the difference in the battle? What about the analyst sighting targets safely in a Super FOB, does he make the difference? What about the Sailor who fires the cruise missile? The pilots flying predator drones in Nevada consider themselves soldiers, but I don't think anyone would call them warriors. At least not on the same level of the soldiers Heraclitus was talking about.

When did the warrior die (or at least stop making a difference)? Certainly he was dead by World War I and II; two wars fought in such numbers, no individual made a difference. Bullets, killing thousands in Antietam, fired at near random did not distinguish warrior and fighter. Once the bullet was invented, the warrior knights were killed; once armor was invented, peasant warriors were slaughtered. The impact of the warrior pales in comparison to the impact of technology. Perhaps, if the quote refers to the inventor of the long bow and the bullet, it would be accurate.

I said in the beginning “if the warrior” ever existed. Michael recently forced me to read a section of John Keegan's A History of Warfare, and his description of the phalanx style warfare of the Greeks--the age in which Heraclitus wrote--is a model of randomness. Two phalanxes crash into one another, then poke and spear at one another to find a gap. Once the phalanx is cracked, they push through, and the phalanx disperses, and everyone runs away. And once again, the warrior doesn’t make a difference, the weakest link does.

eight comments

Keegan’s description of phalanx warfare comes directly from Victor Davis Hanson. For a dissenting view of classical Greek warfare, check out Hans van Wees’ Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, which has good evidence that Greek warfare still had elements of the “heroic” style of the Iliad. The idea of the faceless wall of spears advancing in unison really only came into being with the professional Macedonian army of Philip.

I think the “warrior” ideal still does matter. Not for turning the fate of massive conventional battles like Kursk, perhaps, but the willingness to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy in close combat is still absolutely vital in infantry combat and our modern COIN conflicts.


I tend to agree with your second point. Based on my experience in Afghanistan, some key battles were directly influenced by the actions of singular individuals. These were close fights where heroism and valor could still exist. As I discussed with Eric, in counter-insurgency some individuals can be extremely influential or effective in gathering allies and influencing the battle, like GEN Petraues, but they aren’t warriors.

As to Eric’s point, the trends in high intensity conflict are more and more towards mechanized and impersonal warfare. Thus, perhaps the battles of Afghanistan will be some of the last. Perhaps.

Thanks for the book recommendation too. I’ll see if the MI Library has it.

Michael – I agree that high-intensity conflict is overwhelmingly impersonal. Artillery has killed more men in high-intensity conflict than ever did small arms. I think GEN Dupuy said in the ETO during WWII, the main job of his infantry battalions was to escort the arty FOs forward so they could call fires on German positions.

But high-intensity warfare is increasingly a thing of the past for the U.S. No one can fight one with us and win, at least for now. Increasingly COIN fights, small unit infantry fights, are going to be the future. The enemy knows that is where our advantages of firepower and computerization are minimized.

I’ll note as well that in wars where we aren’t fighting —- the vast majority of wars in the world today —— the brushfire conflicts across Africa and south Asia are still small unit wars where warrior ideals matter enormously. The fate of southern Somalia will be decided by small groups of determined men with small arms, for instance, and perhaps whether or not it will become our next theater of war. That Paul Kagame’s RPF could outmarch and outfight armies ten times their size in Rwanda and Zaire determined the fate of central Africa, for good or ill, in the 1990s.

Tequila- I don’t agree with your second paragraph at all. I know that COIN and small units are the future. Unfortunately, the Army doesn’t know that.

You’re missing the point completely. You’re looking at the forest and neglecting the trees. Does modern warfare hinge on the mythic abilities of some single warrior – 1 in 100? Of course not. What this is talking about is fighting spirit and ethos. Go to any Basic Training company and you will find that of 100 random individuals, 10 are just scum-bags who would just as soon run away or betray their comrades as make a fight, 80 are game who will do as they’re told and try to fight, and 10 will actually engage in battle with intelligence and courage. One of those 10 might be a standout who is a natural leader. I have seen reports from WWII and Vietnam which prove this out in firefights. Roughly 10 actually direct aimed fire at enemy combatants and only 1 carries through almost every aspect of human endeavor from the military to Wall Street, and it holds true even when dealing with elite forces. If you take 100 of the best of anything in the world – soldiers, accountants, soccer players, politicians – 10 are outclassed by the rest and 10 are substantially superior to the others. And there will be one who shines the brightest.
In modern warfare that one can be the sailor who keeps pumping critically needed fuel into aircraft on the flight deck when the rest abandon the burning fuel control room or the Predator pilot who goes the extra mile to know the terrain and nature of his battlefield so he can see when his primary target should be replaced by his secondary to better achieve the goals of the mission and support the guys on the ground.
Ten percent of internet blogs just shouldn’t even exist, 80 are really good and worthwhile, and 1% are truly outstanding – Blog Warriors!

Well we just totally disagree with the point of the post. We are talking about the impartiality of the modern battlefield, not the existence of standard deviation that exists mathematically in almost every field.

I’m interested to know if your last sentence is an insult or a compliment too. To put you in good light, I am going to assume you are saying that On Violence is in that top 1%. Thanks for the compliment.

I think if you asked 100 Soldiers to read this quote, over half of them would identify themselves as either warriors, or in the top ten percent.

Which is why this saying is so vapid, it promotes a silly fiction of the “fighting spirit and warrior ethos” that doesn’t exist.

Also, cause this has occurred multiple times on our site, “missing the forest for the trees” isn’t a simile for “missed the point.”

Just saying.

Jeff Knox is absolutely correct. That the percentage ratios apply to fields other than warfare only serves to prove what the quote is eluding to.
Warrior spirit is really something you have to come into contact with to understand. One rarely contacts it, by definition, because only 1 in Heraclitus’ quote shows only two things: that many people have a false perception of themself, and that they do not even understand what Hercalitus’ warrior really is.
See, the lower 90. They are unable to truly recognize it, because its presence only causes fear.
The 9% that make the battle … at least they see it, and respect it. They understand the possibilty of it, and do not fool themselves. THe more you know the more you realize you don’t know, and all that.