What’s a soldier? What’s a warrior? Well, do you want to live in a state or in a tribe?

What’s a soldier? What’s a warrior? Well, do you want to live in a state or in a tribe?


By Jim Gourley
Best Defense office of military culture analysis

The term “warrior” has enjoyed a resurgence over the last 20 years. Just as the 1980s saw a war declared on everything from drugs to poverty, the 2000s now have a warrior for everything from police forces and religions to social justice and tech start-ups.

In the military, in particular, “warrior” has become a catchall for anyone that doesn’t fit the model of the conventional infantry trooper. We have drone warriors, cyber warriors, shadow warriors, and civilian warriors. Any service member injured in combat joins the ranks of wounded warriors. There are debates about the correct use of the term, but the increased usage itself suggests a more potent shift in the cultural subconscious. Technological and cultural developments in the early part of the 21st century have upended several long-standing assumptions about the status of soldiers and the nature of the conflicts they fight. The change in language reflects changes in the landscape of warfare. In cultural and strategic terms, the warrior has very much re-emerged, and his existence challenges not only the soldier, but the very nature of warfare that he evolved to fight.

Why should this concern us? First, “warrior” is not the synonym for “soldier” that pop culture believes it is.

In many ways the two are competitive species. The origin of “warrior” lies in the Old Northern French “werreior,” which literally means “one who makes war.” The implications of this term played a major role in defining the way of life for much of prehistoric civilization. Warriors are a hallmark of tribal societies. Any person of warrior status within a tribe has license to make war on another member of another tribe. Individuals can thereby pull their entire clans into a war by proxy, virtually guaranteeing perpetual conflict of varying scale between neighboring groups. This license implies a degree of enfranchisement, and indeed warrior status is traditionally earned through culturally defined rites. Because that recognition was so highly prized, and, in many cases, because failing to achieve it carried such heavy penalties, the pursuit of warrior status was exclusive to almost all others for the male members of ancient warrior societies.

In that context, one can hold a much greater appreciation of the benefits brought about by creating the professional soldier class. Beyond the ability to develop formations capable of executing complex maneuvers on the battlefield, soldiers liberated a vast proportion of the male population to pursue other occupations such as trade, science, medicine, and politics. When soldiers replaced warriors, states replaced tribes. Notably, this process usually occurred as tribes were wiped out by armies of conquest, such as in the Roman Empire and the American West. Soldiers are the guardians of modern civilization, and warriors those of tribes.

Disdain for the warrior is therefore almost hard-wired into Western civilization. Warriors are more than just a military anachronism. They represent a regression in the direction of the Stone Age. We see this sentiment expressed in many of the criticisms leveled against the Islamic State. Wherever its warriors take over, there follows the systematic dismantling of modern civilization’s infrastructure. Male populations are wiped out and women are raped as a form of genetic warfare. Symbols of cultural history and centers of knowledge are destroyed so that religious authoritarianism can be implemented. Daesh’s campaign– like those of tribal-based cultures reaching all the way back to the origins of mankind– represents the “ultimate level” of tribal warfare in which the tribe feels its very way of life is threatened and its only means of defense is the annihilation of the surrounding threats. When the end is survival, all means are justified.

We focus on the atrocity at the risk of overlooking the effectiveness. It is well understood that the Islamic State’s ambition vastly overreached its capabilities when it attempted to put a functioning caliphate on the map. Anywhere Islamic State fighers mass, allied airstrikes eradicate it. But this only drives the warriors back into hiding among the people, where, once again, modern military forces find themselves inept at finishing the job.

This difference in strategic ends exposes the fundamental advantage of warrior bands over armies, and the underlying reason why modern warrior forces frame the nature of conflict the way they do. A warrior’s paramount strategic goal is to survive. So long as he lives to fight another day, he’s winning. Perpetual warfare is more than a reality for tribal societies, it’s their calculated objective. By contrast, modern armies are as ill-adapted to open-ended conflict as most suburbanites are at hunting and gathering.

It’s no coincidence that Western militaries struggle to stamp out warrior forces in the 21st century as Western civilization grapples with emergent tribalism. The very technological and social structures created by modern civilization have contributed to the reemergence of tribalism, which harbors a sense of perpetual low-level conflict by its very nature. America’s own soldiers often assume the title of “warrior” in reference to themselves with as much angst as pride. The creation of an all-volunteer military force that has been at war for more than 15 years has left many feeling that they are a tribe unto themselves, causing observers to wonder where the boundary between perception and reality exists.

Such concern is well founded. Groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda have used social media to strengthen the sense of tribal bonds and foster individuals’ sense of warrior status for years. People who rush to characterize Omar Mateen and the Nice truck attacker as “lone wolves” wrongly assume that Western views are tribal views. A warrior does not need to remain within sight of his pack to know he is a part of it. Technology enables warrior-based forces to escape the geographic confines of territorialism. In effect, the internet and globalization have liberated tribes. The emergence of modern tribe-on-tribe warfare, demonstrated by the attacks of hacktivist group Anonymous against websites operated by IS, serve as a prime example of this concept.

The matter of perspective brings up another concern. We often dismiss declarations of war by tribal groups because they don’t fit our conventional idea of what war is. But just because we’re not interested in tribal definitions of war doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in us. We have to consider the tribal definition of war because that’s merely the jumping off point into a wider ideological chasm between the warrior and the soldier. Soldiers and armies are prohibited from engaging in genocide or scorched-earth tactics. Warriors are fully within their rights to seek vengeance and raze entire villages. The parable of Jim Gant calls on American soldiers and veterans to remember these distinctions before self-applying the warrior label.

One could summarize conditions by saying the armies of civilization became too good at their job. Tribal chiefs will order their warriors to charge into British squares, Gatling (does he mean battle?) gunfire, and drone strikes only so many times before they wise up. But Western civilization was severely mistaken to believe tribes and warriors would cry “fight no more forever.” Whereas the Iroquois attacked at night and melted back into the forest, the modern tribal warrior moves with the tides of refugee flows and hides in ethnically segregated pockets of the urban jungle. In a broader sense, the current state of world conflict may be considered as history’s rematch between warriors and soldiers. It’s not a matter of how modern military forces can counter the methods of groups like the Islamic State.

The question is how modern civilization and its militaries can shape cultural environments such that they are no longer permissive to warriors. The question grows more pertinent each year, as continued failures to advance civilization itself will only exacerbate the identity crisis within its institutions.

Jim Gourley is an author and regular contributor to The Best Defense.

Image credit: Cornell University Library/Wikimedia commons