The Code of the Warrior: Why Warriors Need a Code

*.This is a lecture from the National Conference in Military Ethics in Oslo, October 2002,
«Norm and Context.»


Warrior cultures throughout history and from diverse regions around the globe have constructed codes of behavior, based on that culture’s image of the ideal warrior. These codes have not always been written down or literally codified into a set of explicit rules. A code can be hidden in the lines of epic poems or implied by the descriptions of mythic heroes. One way or another, it is carefully conveyed to each succeeding generation of warriors. These codes tend to be quite demanding. They are often closely linked to a culture’s religious beliefs and can be connected to elaborate (and frequently death defying or excruciatingly painful) rituals and rites of passage.

In many cases this code of honor seems to hold the warrior to a higher ethical standard than that required for an ordinary citizen within the general population of the society the warrior serves. The code is not imposed from the outside. The warriors themselves police strict adherence to these standards; with violators being shamed, ostracized, or even killed by their peers. One historical example comes from the Roman legions, where if a man fell asleep while he was supposed to be on watch in time of war he could expect to be stoned to death by the members of his own cohort.

The code of the warrior not only defines how he should interact with his own warrior comrades, but also how he should treat other members of his society, his enemies, and the people he conquers. The code restrains the warrior. It sets boundaries on his behavior. It distinguishes honorable acts from shameful acts. The Homeric hero Achilles must seek vengeance for the death of his friend Patroclus, yet when his rage drives him to desecrate the corpse of his arch nemesis, Hector, he angers the gods. Under the codes of chivalry, a medieval knight has to offer mercy to any knight who yields to him in battle. In feudal Japan, samurai are not permitted to approach their opponents using stealth, but rather are required to declare themselves openly before engaging combat. Muslim warriors engaged in offensive jihad cannot employ certain weapons unless and until their enemies use them first.

But why do warriors need a code that ties their hands and limits their options? Why should a warrior culture want to restrict the actions of its members and require them to commit to lofty ideals? Might not such restraints cripple their effectiveness as warriors? What’s wrong with, «All’s fair in love and war?» Isn’t winning all that matters? Why should any warrior want to be burdened with concerns about honor and shame?

One reason for such warriors’ codes may be to protect the warriors themselves from serious psychological damage. To say the least, the things that warriors are asked to do to guarantee their cultures’ survivals are far from pleasant. There is truth in the inescapable slogan, «War is hell.» Even those few who seem to feel no revulsion at spilling another human being’s guts on the ground, severing a limb, slicing off a head, or burning away a face are likely to be affected by the sight of their friends or kinsmen suffering the same fate. The combination of the warriors’ own natural disgust at what they must witness in battle and the fact that what they must do to endure and conquer can seem so uncivilized, so against what they have been taught by their society, creates the conditions for even the most accomplished warriors to feel tremendous self-loathing.

In the introduction to his valuable analysis of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay stresses the importance of

Understanding (…) the specific nature of catastrophic war experiences that not only cause lifelong disabling psychiatric symptoms but can ruin good character.1Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. xiii.

Shay has conducted countless personal interviews and therapy sessions with American combat veterans who are part of the Veterans Improvement Program (VIP). His work has led him to the conclusion that the most severe cases of PTSD are the result of wartime experiences that are not simply violent, but which involve what Shay terms the «betrayal of ‘what’s right’.»2Op.cit. Veterans who believe that they were directly or indirectly party to immoral or dishonorable behavior (perpetrated by themselves, their comrades or their commanders) have the hardest time reclaiming their lives after the war is over. Such men may be tortured by persistent nightmares, may have trouble discerning a safe environment from a threatening one, may not be able to trust their friends, neighbors, family members or government, and may have problems with alcohol, drugs, child or spousal abuse, depression and suicidal tendencies. As Shay sorrowfully concludes,

The painful paradox is that fighting for one’s country can render one unfit to be its citizen.3Ibid p. xx.

Warriors need a way to distinguish what they must do out of a sense of duty from what a serial killer does for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it. Their actions, like those of the serial killer, set them apart from the rest of society. Warriors, however, are not sociopaths. They respect the values of the society in which they were raised and which they are prepared to die to protect. Therefore it is important for them to conduct themselves in such a way that they will be honored and esteemed by their communities, not reviled and rejected by them. They want to be seen as proud defenders and representatives of what is best about their culture: as heroes, not «baby-killers.»

In a sense, the nature of the warriors’ profession puts them at a higher risk for moral corruption than most other occupations because it involves exerting power in matters of life and death. Warriors exercise the power to take or save lives, order others to take or save lives, and lead or send others to their deaths. If they take this awesome responsibility too lightly – if they lose sight of the moral significance of their actions – they risk losing their humanity and their ability to flourish in human society.

In his powerful work, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman illuminates the process by which those in war and those training for war attempt to achieve emotional distance from their enemies. The practice of dehumanizing the enemy through the use of abusive or euphemistic language is a common and effective tool for increasing aggression and breaking down inhibitions against killing. Grossman notes:

It is so much easier to kill someone if they look distinctly different than you. If your propaganda machine can convince your soldiers that their opponents are not really human but are «inferior forms of life», then their natural resistance to killing their own species will be reduced. Often the enemy’s humanity is denied by referring to him as a «gook». «kraut», or «nip».4Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996, p. 161.

Like Shay, Grossman has interviewed many U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War. Not all of his subjects, however, were those with lingering psychological trauma. Grossman found that some of the men he interviewed had never truly achieved emotional distance from their former foes, and seemed to be the better for it. These men expressed admiration for Vietnamese culture. Some had even married Vietnamese women. They appeared to be leading happy and productive post-war lives. In contrast, those who persisted in viewing the Vietnamese as “less than animals” were unable to leave the war behind them.

Grossman writes about the dangers of dehumanizing the enemy in terms of potential damage to the war effort, long-term political fallout, and regional or global instability:

Because of [our] ability to accept other cultures, Americans probably committed fewer atrocities than most other nations would have under the circumstances associated with guerrilla warfare in Vietnam. Certainly fewer than was the track record of most colonial powers. Yet still we had our My Lai, and our efforts in that war were profoundly, perhaps fatally, undermined by that single incident.

It can be easy to unleash this genie of racial and ethnic hatred in order to facilitate killing in time of war. It can be more difficult to keep the cork in the bottle and completely restrain it. Once it is out, and the war is over, the genie is not easily put back in the bottle. Such hatred lingers over the decades, even centuries, as can be seen today in Lebanon and what was once Yugoslavia.5Ibid. p. 163.

The insidious harm brought to the individual warriors who find themselves swept up by such devastating propaganda matters a great deal to those concerned with the warriors’ own welfare. In a segment on the «Clinical Importance of Honoring or Dishonoring the Enemy», Jonathan Shay describes an intimate connection between the psychological health of the veteran and the respect he feels for those he fought. He stresses how important it is to the warrior to have the conviction that he participated in an honorable endeavor:

Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD. While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin «has no honor». This is true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring absence of human themis [shared values, a common sense of «what’s right»] linking enemy to enemy makes life unendurable.6Shay p. 115.

Shay finds echoes of these sentiments in the words of J. Glenn Gray from Gray’s modern classic on the experience of war, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle.7Op.cit. With the struggle of the Allies against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of World War II as his backdrop, Gray brings home the agony of the warrior who has become incapable of honoring his enemies and thus is unable to find redemption himself:

The ugliness of a war against an enemy conceived to be subhuman can hardly be exaggerated. There is an unredeemed quality to battle experienced under these conditions, which blunts all senses and perceptions. Traditional appeals of war are corroded by the demands of a war of extermination, where conventional rules no longer apply. For all its inhumanity, war is a profoundly human institution (…). This image of the enemy as beast lessens even the satisfaction in destruction, for there is no proper regard for the worth of the object destroyed (…). The joys of comradeship, keenness of perception, and sensual delights [are] lessened (…). No aesthetic reconciliation with one’s fate as a warrior [is] likely because no moral purgation [is] possible.8J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, New York: Harper and Row, 1970, pps. 152-153.

By setting standards of behavior for themselves, accepting certain restraints, and even “honoring their enemies”, warriors can create a lifeline that will allow them to pull themselves out of the hell of war and reintegrate themselves into their society, should they survive to see peace restored. A warrior’s code may cover everything from the treatment of prisoners of war to oath keeping to table etiquette, but its primary purpose is to grant nobility to the warriors’ profession. This allows warriors to retain both their self-respect and the respect of those they guard.

Some may prefer to establish the importance of a warrior’s code without reference to the interests of the warriors themselves. It is in fact more conventional to defend the value of a warrior’s code by focusing on the needs of society, rather than the needs of warriors as individuals. These are well-intentioned attempts to provide warriors with an external motivation to commit to a code. One such approach has been presented in military ethics circles as “the function argument.”

The central thesis of the function argument is that men and women of bad character cannot function well as soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines. This claim is based on the unique demands of military service. Those who support the function argument point out that comrades-in-arms must be able to trust one another in order to be effective; they must be willing to behave selflessly and sacrifice themselves for the good of the mission; and they must embody «the virtues of courage, obedience, loyalty and conscientiousness»9Ibid. p. 64 when the stakes are at their highest.

The function argument is useful, as far as it goes. It highlights the unique demands of military service that seem to require special virtues or moral commitments. However, because it links the motive for ethical behavior to military effectiveness, the function argument cannot, by itself, provide reasons for the warrior to behave well in situations where bad behavior does not seem to have a negative impact on the function of the military.

Indeed, the function argument (again, considered by itself) gives no guarantee against the conclusion that it makes no difference how warriors behave even in the military context, so long as their behavior does not in fact cause them to fail to function effectively in their specific martial roles. That moral failings such as selfishness or a tendency to manipulate the truth could lead to functional failure is irrelevant. Only the actual consequences matter. The argument does not hinge on the acceptance of specific concepts of good character or moral absolutes. It is contingent upon the validity of certain empirical claims about the real world. If a particular warrior were to prove that he can function effectively and get his job despite having despicable character flaws, the function argument alone would not present him with any reason to improve himself.

A further concern I have regarding the function argument is that it only considers warriors as means to an end, namely the end of protecting the nation. I realize that this is due to the argument’s structure, and not the result of any lack of compassion on the part of its authors or proponents. Yet it is a fault nonetheless. Immanuel Kant charged that every rational being is bound by a categorical imperative «to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always as an end in itself and never merely as a means.»10Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. The word «merely» in this formulation must not be overlooked. Of course warriors are the means by which the nation is defended. To treat them as mere means, however, would be to fail to recognize that they are also citizens of the nation and human beings whose value is not limited to their utility as warriors. Although they may enjoy fewer liberties than their civilian counterparts, warriors retain their inalienable rights and deserve to be granted a full measure of dignity and respect.

This brings us back to my earlier line of reasoning. It is not enough to ask, «Can our warriors still get the job done if they do not have a code?» We must also consider the related question: «What will getting the job done do to our warriors if they do not have a code?» Accepting certain constraints as a moral duty, even when it is inconvenient or inefficient to do so, allows warriors to hold onto their humanity while experiencing the horror of war – and, when the war is over, to return home and reintegrate into the society they so ably defended. Fighter who cannot say, «this far but no farther», who have no lines they will not cross and no atrocities from which they will shrink, may be effective. They may complete their missions, but they will do so at the loss of their humanity.

Those who are concerned for the welfare of our warriors would never want to see them sent off to face the chaotic hell of combat without something to ground them and keep them from crossing over into an inescapable heart of darkness. A mother and father may be willing to give their beloved son or daughter’s life for their country or cause, but I doubt they would be as willing to sacrifice their child’s soul. The code is a kind of moral and psychological armor that protects the warrior from becoming a monster in his or her own eyes.

Nor is it just «see-the-whites-of-their-eyes» front-line ground and Special Forces troops who need this protection. Men and women who fight from a distance – who drop bombs from planes and shoot missiles from ships or submarines – are also at risk of losing their humanity. What threatens them is the very ease by which they can take lives. As technology separates individuals from the results of their actions, it cheats them of the chance to absorb and reckon with the enormity of what they have done. Killing fellow human beings, even for the noblest cause, should never feel like nothing more than a game played using the latest advances in virtual reality.

In his book Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, Michael Ignatieff airs his concerns about the morality of asymmetric conflicts in which one side is able to inflict large numbers of casualties from afar without putting its own forces at much risk (e.g. by relying primarily on long-range precision weapons and high-altitude air assaults). In such a mismatched fight, it may be easy for those fighting on the superior side to fail to appreciate the true costs of the war, since they are not forced to witness the death and destruction first-hand. Ignatieff warns modern warriors against the “moral danger” they face if they allow themselves to become too detached from the reality of war:

Virtual reality is seductive. (…) We see war as a surgical scalpel and not a bloodstained sword. In so doing we mis-describe ourselves as we mis-describe the instruments of death. We need to stay away from such fables of self-righteous invulnerability. Only then can we get our hands dirty. Only then can we do what is right.11Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, New York: Picador USA (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company), 2000, pps. 214-215.

I have argued that it can be damaging for warriors to view their enemies as sub-human by imagining them like beasts in a jungle. In the same way, modern warriors who dehumanize their enemies by equating them with blips on a computer screen may find the sense that they are part of an honorable undertaking far too fragile to sustain. Just as societies have an obligation to treat their warriors as ends in themselves, it is important for warriors to show a similar kind of respect for the inherent worth and dignity of their opponents. Even long-distance warriors can achieve this by acknowledging that some of the «targets» they destroy are in fact human beings, not demons or vermin or empty statistics.

More parallels can be drawn between the way that societies should behave towards their warriors and how warriors should behave towards one another. Societies should honor their fallen defenders. Warriors should not desecrate the corpses of their enemies, but should, whenever possible, allow them to be buried by their own people and according to their own cultural traditions. Among his therapy patients, Jonathan Shay found several veterans suffering from «the toxic residue left behind by disrespectful treatment of enemy dead.»12Shay p.117. And while societies must certainly show concern for the after-effects of war on their own troops, victorious warriors can also maintain the moral high ground by helping to rebuild (or in some cases create) a solid infrastructure, a healthy economy, an educational system, and political stability for their former foes.

These imperatives I have put forward apply to relations among warriors and nations defended by warriors. The moral requirements become much murkier when warriors must battle murderers.

The warriors of today will increasingly find themselves pitted against adversaries who fight without any rules or restraints. Because they see no other way to advance their objectives, these desperate men and women are likely to employ methods that are rightfully viewed as horrific and appalling by the rest of the civilized world, such as terror attacks on civilian populations. They will take «fighting dirty» to unimaginable depths, and since they are already willing to die, they will not be deterred by any threat of punishment for continuing to disregard the laws of war.

As Ariel Merari, director of the Project on Terrorism at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University points out in his essay, «The Readiness To Kill and Die: Suicidal Terrorism in the Middle East», old ideas about tit-for-tat and the applications of rational decision theory are worthless when dealing with those who are ready – if not anxious – to sacrifice their lives for The Cause. Merari quotes Lord Chalfont, an authority on counter-terrorism:

The whole time that I have been involved in terrorist operations, which now goes back to 30 years, my enemy has always been a man who is very worried about his own skin. You can no longer count on that, because the terrorist [today] is not just prepared to get killed, he wants to get killed. Therefore, the whole planning, tactical doctrine, [and] thinking [behind antiterrorism measures] is fundamentally undermined.13Ariel Merari, «The readiness to kill and die: Suicidal terrorism in the Middle East», in Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, edited by Walter Reich, Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998, p. 193.

How should stronger sides in asymmetric conflicts respond when their weaker opponents resort to terrorist tactics? One perfectly understandable reaction would be for the stronger sides to want to «take off the gloves» too, especially when the terrorists seem to be banking on the fact that they will not. It seems natural to say, «If they will not respect the rules of war and use some restraint, then neither will we.»

Of course, one of the most serious «cons» that the West must consider before «taking the gloves off» is that it would be a violation of our own values to engage in a war with no rules. It is beyond infuriating that some of the people who claim to hate who we are and what we represent are yet able to benefit from our commitment to restraint. The more they push us and the more suffering we endure, the harder it is for us to fight with one hand tied behind our back rather than unleashing the full extent of our power to wipe them from the earth. But if we give up who we are in order to destroy our enemies, what sort of victory will we have secured for ourselves? Even the noblest of ends can be tarnished if base means are used to achieve them.

It is truly disturbing to consider how easy it may be for a person to rationalize the terrible transition from warrior to murderer. An individual may be persuaded to become a murderer by a single charismatic personality, by a group or movement that answers some psychological need, or by the effects of a traumatic event (such as witnessing the death of a close friend or family member). I must stress that the line between a warrior and a murderer is profoundly important, but very thin. Once it has been crossed, the harm to the individual may be irrevocable.

A student in a seminar called «Knowing Your Enemy» that I taught in the spring of 2002 raised the issue in class of whether a warrior who had crossed the line and allowed himself to become a murderer could ever find redemption and, in a sense, regain his warrior status. My response is that it depends a great deal on the individual’s own reaction to having crossed that line. If he refuses to examine the immorality of his actions, he may start down a slippery slope that is difficult to escape. He may tell himself that it was naïve ever to have clung to a code – that there is no real difference between, for example, killing an enemy combatant in the thick of a firefight and killing an unarmed civilian in cold blood. On the other hand, if he rejects his ignoble behavior rather than excusing it, he may be able to restore his sense of honor and renew his commitment to the path of restraint.

In 1989, my father had a conversation with a World War II fighter pilot who knew first-hand what it feels like both to see an enemy cross the line from warrior to murderer and, in response, to cross that same line yourself. He described the experience that had haunted him for over forty years:

Three ME-109s came at us from out of the sun. It was one hell of a dogfight. Jimmy Craig was hit and bailed out. He was up there in his chute, settling down easy, when this Kraut pulls away and takes dead aim at Jimmy. I couldn’t believe it. You never shoot a guy hanging in a chute. But that’s what he did. He cut him in half. I swung round on that bastard’s tail and picked at him until he bailed out. His chute opened. I watched him floating there just like Jimmy. I wanted to see his eyes. But he had goggles on. Then I shot that son of a bitch out of the sky.

How’d it feel? My father asked him.

It felt good.

Really? …Well, you were there.

No… Okay, …I cried.14Peter A. French, Responsibility Matters, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992, p. 29.

It is easier to remain a warrior when fighting other warriors. When warriors fight murderers, they may be tempted to become the mirror image of the evil they hoped to destroy. Their only protection is their code of honor. The professional military ethics that restrain warriors – that keep them from targeting those who cannot fight back, from taking pleasure in killing, from striking harder than is necessary and that encourage them to offer mercy to their defeated enemies and even to help rebuild their countries and communities – are also their own protection against becoming what they abhor.

Legend has it that when a Spartan mother sent her son off to war she would say to him, «Come back with your shield or on it.» If a warrior came back without his shield, it meant that he had laid it down in order to break ranks and run from battle. He was supposed to use his shield to protect the man next to him in formation, so to abandon his shield was not only to be a coward but also to break faith with his comrades. To come back on his shield was to be carried back either wounded or dead. Thus the adage meant that the young warrior should fight bravely, maintain his martial discipline, and return with both his body and his honor intact.

The warriors’ mothers who spoke this line were not heartless monsters – far from it. It was spoken from great love. They wanted their children to return with their sense of self-respect still with them, feeling justifiably proud of how they had performed under pressure, not tortured and destroyed by guilt and shame. To come back with their shields was to come back still feeling like warriors, not like cowards or murderers.

The Spartan mothers’ message is timeless. Everyone who cares about the welfare of warriors wants them not only to live through whatever fighting they must face, but also to have lives worth living after the fighting is done. Consider the post-war sentiments found in the closing lines of the poem “Old Airfield”, written by World War II veteran Andrew H. Hines, Jr.:

The crescendo built – a war was won and men came home,
Came home to lives completely changed –
as they were changed.
Came back to love and warmth and the prospects of a life
stretching beyond a day or two.
So life resumed its pace –
different, but still within their knowledge of its ways.
The years went by, the burdens were assumed, the responsibilities grew
And seldom did they stop to think of the intensity and
commitment they had known.
But on occasion, as lightning brightens the sky,
some word or headline brought it back
And they knew for a moment the heightened stress –
and then relaxed and resumed their way.
And, like old airfields, found in new ways the fulfillment of dreams
And the sense of being part of a larger plan –
as once they were so long ago.15Andrew H. Hines, Jr., “Old Airfield”.

«Come back with your shield or on it.» Andy Hines came back with his shield. For many reasons, not all warriors do. Some are never able to leave the horror of war behind them. Their bodies come home alive, but their faith in themselves, their dreams, and their hopes for the future are long dead. Had they been given the choice, they may have preferred not to come home at all.

The warriors’ code is the shield that guards our warriors’ humanity. Without it, they are no good to themselves or to those with whom and for whom they fight. Without it, they will find no way back from war. My students are the warriors of the future. When and if they go into combat, I want them to be able to return from it intact in body andsoul. I want all of them, every last one, to come back with their shields

Fotnoter   [ + ]

1. Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. xiii.
2, 7. Op.cit.
3. Ibid p. xx.
4. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996, p. 161.
5. Ibid. p. 163.
6. Shay p. 115.
8. J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, New York: Harper and Row, 1970, pps. 152-153.
9. Ibid. p. 64
10. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.
11. Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, New York: Picador USA (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company), 2000, pps. 214-215.
12. Shay p.117.
13. Ariel Merari, «The readiness to kill and die: Suicidal terrorism in the Middle East», in Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, edited by Walter Reich, Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998, p. 193.
14. Peter A. French, Responsibility Matters, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992, p. 29.
15. Andrew H. Hines, Jr., “Old Airfield”.

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