Warrior, Citizen Solider or Guardian: Thoughts after a kerfuffle


So as I was traveling last week, my friend and fellow gin imbiber wrote this https://angrystaffofficer.com/2016/12/14/stop-calling-us-warriors/

And as he warned, it created quite the stir, a regular Diva sized kerfuffle.  There was some fabulous and mostly civil discussion, there were good points and questions raised and also some (ahem!) name calling and other types of discourse that would have resulted in a failing grade in my philosophy classes. The point is this piece raised hackles, which tells you the Angry Staff Officer is onto something. The discussion about the warrior ethos in the military goes to the heart of how military and veteran think of themselves, how society looks at them and how we are to honor service in an authentic way in an age when many civilians have no idea what they are honoring, a fact which angers and frustrates many in the military community.

It was awesome. As a philosopher I wanted to wade it, but I had a plane to catch and a Thing to do which required energy and focus. So I come late to this, but I have thoughts.  And some of you won’t be happy, but that makes for good discussion.

In my book (which is crazy expensive, but e-book on sale!) https://www.routledge.com/The-Warrior-Military-Ethics-and-Contemporary-Warfare-Achilles-Goes-Asymmetrical/Kaurin/p/book/9781409465362 I take up the issue of the warrior ethos in the military and ask to what degree it still fits the kinds of asymmetric missions that the military is increasingly tasked with. One commenter in the discussion last week asked an important question: If the warrior mindset helps someone do what they need to do in Fallujah, why do you care?

I do care. I am a philosopher and an ethicist, and how we talk, what terms we use matter. Which I why I liked what my Friend in Gin was doing, even if I don’t necessary agree with everything he said (though FTR he is mostly right!).  This discussion is important because the terms we use circumscribe the ethical parameters of what we do. Some decry “its just semantics” as if words don’t matter; for philosophers definitions are the foundations of action, knowledge, reality and Truth. If we think the military is made up of warriors, that is one set of ethical choices; if we think they are citizen soldiers, another set of choices and if we think (as I argued in Chapter 7 we should) in terms of a Guardian ethos, we get a different ethical focus.

So I ask you to think about these three terms: Warrior, Citizen-Soldier, Guardian.  How do you define these terms? Ask some hard questions and think about what the Mission is. What it really is, not what you want it to be, but the lived experience and reality of contemporary warfare.

I’ll start. Here are my thoughts on these 3 terms. There is more in my book and we will discuss I am sure!

Warrior. I think in the archetype of Achilles here, for whom being a warrior isn’t just something he does, but rather is existential – Achilles is a warrior. He cannot be other. I would argue the same is true of Patton. A warrior is a member of a specially set aside (with rituals that attend this) class or caste who is trained in killing and combat, usually in the defense of their society and who will engage against other warriors. They are trained, consecrated religiously often, send out to kill, destroy and win and then return to some kind of atonement and re-integration process so that they can be once again a member of their society. (See Joseph Campbell’s Hero cycle in Hero With a Thousand Faces)  There is a clear separation and dedicated task for this group, oriented towards combat and killing as primary. This generates, in my view, the following order of ethical priority: 1) victory in physical terms, 2) obligations to ones brothers and sisters in arms and 3) to protection of the society.   Individual and group prowess, courage and honors against the enemy are often prized and to be rewarded, should the warrior be successful. (See Achilles beef with Agamemnon over his war prize.)  We can ask too, what role glory plays here….I am not sure it is central, but seems connected to honor so Angry Staff Officer may have a point.

Citizen Soldier. In contrast to Achilles, I think Hector fills this role. The Citizen Soldier serves as a integrated member of society, not as a member of a class apart. There is often a professed reluctance (looked down upon by the warrior) to use violence, but who will use it as a last resort. The soldier views this as a role, job or task to be taken up out of obligation to his/her fellow citizens, not as an existential mode. Hector fights as he must, but he would rather be home with his wife and son, as a citizen. Because of this framing, the ethical demands here are different; there are ethical rules and limits proscribed by the society and the soldier is always tethered to this; the warrior is more autonomous and accountable to his brothers and sisters in arms, only to the society upon return.

Guardian. In contrast to these two categories, my book prefers (and I think I still agree with this) the idea of the Guardian, which I am borrowing to a certain extent (though not completely) from Plato’s Republic.  The Guardian could still be viewed as a separate class with specific training and a specific vocation or role within society, but they are servants of society and subject to its constraints in certain ways that relate to their role as protector and upholder of the Common Good. For Guardians, violence is merely one of many means that might be used to achieve their ends, and does not define them as a group or class; violence is not integral to their existential identity in the same way it is for warriors. (Which by the way in part explains the kerfuffle and ensuing feels, to question the basis of an identity is tricky and dangerous business!) In addition, the idea of Guardian brings with it the ethical frame of protecting the vulnerable (non-combatants, victims of injustice) and the ethical limit of protection in the name of Justice.

So I think the question is: What is the ethical priority? How does professionalism (especially Military Professionalism) play into these priorities and help us think about what the Mission of the military is and ought to be? In general, while I see the intuitive, historic and existential appeal of the Warrior ethos, I think it is too limiting for contemporary warfare. But y’all will tell me how and why I am wrong! 🙂




One thought on “Warrior, Citizen Solider or Guardian: Thoughts after a kerfuffle

  1. Al Bump

    I am coming late to this discussion, having only just read your post and the article from ASO, today, but here is my initial impression. As an institution, I think that the military prioritizes the ethics of the Citizen Soldier. However, what I find interesting is that the three terms: Warrior, Citizen Soldier, Guardian, may be applied to individuals within the military, based on how they see themselves. To use myself as an example, during my first and second enlistments, I would have considered myself a Warrior, and worked toward that reality. However, after commissioning, and 25 years later, I now see myself as a Citizen Soldier, and perhaps a Guardian. In the case of the ethical priorities of the Warrior, I would say that the institution acts as a compass and a limiting mechanism, directing the priorities of the individual to nest with those of the institution and society. I think this can be seen with Patton, especially once he took over 3rd Army. With regard to contemporary warfare, my opinion is that the ethical priorities of the Citizen Soldier and Guardian support and nest with the strategic and operational missions of our formations, primarily because the influence of state and society. Much is made of how conservative the military is as an institution, and I think that is true to a certain extent, however we ultimately will reflect society and its ethical priorities.



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