The U.S. Military Needs Citizen-Soldiers, Not Warriors

The recent obsession with the term is misguided and harmful.

A U.S. soldier dressed in a World War II military uniform picks up sand from Omaha beach next to a U.S. soldier looking at a man driving a horse sulky on the sidelines of a ceremony in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, western France, on June 5, 2019.
A U.S. soldier dressed in a World War II military uniform picks up sand from Omaha beach next to a U.S. soldier looking at a man driving a horse sulky on the sidelines of a ceremony in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, western France, on June 5, 2019. Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images

The brave women and men of the U.S. armed forces need no longer dine in the soft confines of a cafeteria. Instead, a recent effort attempted to renamed U.S. Army dining facilities as “warrior restaurants.” The renaming was eminently risible but highlights the U.S. Army’s recent love affair with the term. Recruits are asked “what’s your warrior?” in recruitment ads, the Army has a “warrior ethos” (complete with a stylish wall poster), and there is even a “Best Warrior Competition.”

There are only two small problems: U.S. military personnel are not warriors, and more importantly, they should never become warriors. Indeed, the very nature of a warrior is inimical to a free people under a constitutional government. The United States needs citizen-soldiers and has no use for warriors on the battlefield or at home. To understand why, it is worth probing what these words mean and their wider implications.

Most native English speakers recognize there is a meaningful difference between the words “soldier” and “warrior” and the ideas they represent. The phrase “Civil War warriors” feels wrong, just as referring to a Homeric hero or a Mongol horseman as a soldier does. Achilles moping in his tent was a warrior, not a soldier.

The words are clearly different, but the precise distinction can be elusive. Here, the etymologies are informative; a warrior is one who wars, of course (from northeastern Old French werreier). In contrast, “soldier” comes (by a roundabout route) from the Latin solidus, a standard late Roman coin. A soldier is thus someone who is paid by a higher authority, a relationship that naturally placed them in groups raised by some other political entity—be it a king, parliament, or congress. This did not mean mercenary service—there were other words for that—but rather, soldiers fought as their occupation, either as amateurs or professionals. For the warrior, war is an identity. For the soldier, it is a job done in service to a larger community, polity, or authority.

The distinction between the roles of warrior and soldier is not unique to English or even modern languages. It runs along almost the same lines in Latin and Greek. Greek has machetes (literally “battler”) and polemistes (“warrior”), but these words are used mostly in poetry to describe mythical heroes. Common Greek soldiers were stratiotes (“army men”), defined by their membership in and subordination to an army (a “stratos”) led by a general (a “strategos”). Likewise, Latin has bellator (“warrior”), but members of the Roman army were effectively never bellatores (except in a poetic sense and even then, only rarely) but rather milites, which comes from the same mil-root as the word “mile,” signifying a collection of things (a Roman mile being a collection of a thousand paces). Roman milites were thus men “put together,” defined by their collective action in service to a larger community. Soldiers belong to groups, whereas warriors, being attached to war by their own personal identity, may not.

Consequently, to the warrior, war is an irremovable part of their individual identity. Although warriors might fight in groups, they fight for individual reasons rooted in that identity, and so a warrior remains a warrior when fighting alone. Moreover, a warrior remains a warrior even when the war ends because there is no retirement from that core identity. Warriors do not retire.

A 13th century Mongol warrior was a warrior because in relatively unspecialized Mongol society, being a free adult male meant being a warrior; such a Mongol remained a warrior for his whole adult life. He could no more easily abandon his warrior identity than he could his adulthood. Likewise, medieval knights generally did not retire except occasionally to take monastic orders and shift to an equally totalizing calling. Such individuals were born warriors and would die warriors; the label was as inextricable to them as their ethnic, religious, or gender identity.

Warriors are thus definitionally a class apart, individuals whose connection to war sets them outside civilian society. This apartness is expressed quite vividly in their attitude toward civilians, which generally drips with unveiled contempt. Consequently, in societies with meaningful degrees of labor specialization, to be a warrior was to sit, permanently, outside of the civilian realm. It was, of course, a short leap for such men to assume that, because violence set them outside of civilian society, it also set them above it and therefore, they were its natural rulers. For any number of warrior-aristocrats, to fight was to rule, with civilians fit only to be ruled. Warriors are forever the enemies of free societies.

In contrast, a soldier both serves a larger community and serves in a larger unit. A soldier without a community stops being a soldier and becomes a mercenary. Soldiers, when their terms of service end, become civilians again. The ability to take the uniform off is what defines the soldier. The soldier only momentarily leaves civilian society, destined to rejoin it again at the end of the war, at the end of the tour, or at the end of a career. It is this act, rejoining civilian life, that the warrior is incapable of.

The current U.S. all-volunteer force that so eagerly embraces warrior ideals is predicated, as U.S. military service has been since its very beginning, on the assumption that soldiers complete a period of service and then return to being civilians. Indeed, the 1970 Gates Commission report, which advocated shifting away from conscription, relied on the assumption that “men who join the volunteer force will not all become long service professionals” and the inflow of new volunteers and outflow of veterans would prevent the force from becoming “isolated or alienated from society.” Yet, this turn to see U.S. service personnel as warriors runs directly against this imperative to knit military and society together in shared citizenship.

This turn to a warrior posture in the Army comes at a time when it is clear the realization of the citizen-soldier ideal and the attendant civil-military relationship is strained. The civil-military gap grows, and endless pressure to re-up (or enact “stop-loss’ extensions) already encourage soldiers to see war as their permanent vocation rather than merely their temporary occupation. Even after leaving the military, many veterans go into law enforcement; veterans make up 6 percent of the general population but 19 percent of police officers. Law enforcement is another occupation with a warrior problem, where officers who conceive themselves as violence-dealing “sheepdogs” amid a population of harmless sheep and dangerous wolves also set themselves fundamentally apart from the people they serve. It’s an ideology where police officers are also cast as warriors, with predictably tragic results of both poor policing and excessive violence.

It is easy to see the appeal of adopting the label of warrior precisely because it sets soldiers and police forces apart from society, assuring them they are special and the provision of violence is not merely a virtue but the highest virtue. Warrior ideology also encourages soldiers to see themselves as the modern incarnations of ancient warriors like King Leonidas and his Spartans. That the Spartans were a small warrior aristocracy ruling with particular brutality over a large enslaved population has not kept novels glorifying a white-washed version of their history off reading lists at the U.S. Military Academy or the Marine Corps’ Basic School.

It also seems of little accident that this ideology has flourished at a time when U.S. service personnel have faced what is now two decades of long deployments in conflict areas both far from sight and often far from the minds of most Americans. As the “forever wars” have increasingly separated U.S. military personnel from civilian society, those personnel, in turn, have gravitated toward an ideology that declares they are a class apart—but also a class above.

Such ideologies have still darker roots. There is indeed a secular ideology that posits all “life is permanent warfare” and as such, “everybody is educated to become a hero,” developing the capacity for violence and orienting themselves toward “heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life.” And that ideology, as Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco famously pointed out, is fascism.

As Eco writes, the drive to elevate the warrior and his profession of violence as the highest good leads not to an ethos of service but rather to a contempt for those who instead perform the necessary jobs to enable survival, which is to say civilians. By embracing warrior ideology that has found its way into reading lists at major military academies and penetrated deeply into the mentality of modern U.S. policing, many soldiers and police officers are being quietly indoctrinated into what is, at its core, a fascist ideology, albeit in forms often unrecognized by modern proponents of warrior-soldiers and warrior-cops.

In short then, the ideology that sits behind “warrior restaurants” is both essentially un-American and fundamentally poisonous to the very free society U.S. soldiers swear to protect. Although many soldiers may not be aware of this long history, they will grasp the linguistic implications of the words, the subtle suggestion that leads English speakers to instinctively sense that Conan the Barbarian is a warrior but Private Ryan is not. After all, Ryan went home, raised a family, and had a civilian life, an idealized (and, of course, fictional) portrayal of a soldier leaving war behind.

As the United States looks to leave its “forever war” in Afghanistan, it is long past time for policymakers and the public to engage in a real discussion concerning the civil-military relationship and the role soldiers take in U.S. society. Because although the United States needs more soldiers who can serve and then leave war behind, it has no need at all for warriors.

Bret Devereaux is a historian specializing in the Roman economy and military.