William Astore: Our Military's Disturbing Transition to Warriors

Roundup: Historians' Take

[William Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 2005, having taught at the Air Force Academy as well as the Naval Postgraduate School. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and History News Network.]

A subtle change has been happening right before the eyes of Americans. Our troops are being told they're no longer primarily citizen-soldiers or citizen-airmen; they're being told they're warriors. Indeed, they're reminded of this linguistic turn in" creeds" that many of them (and often their families) display with pride.

Here's an excerpt from the new Airman's Creed (2007):

"I am an American Airman.
I am a Warrior.
I have answered my nation's call.

I am an American Airman.
My mission is to fly, fight, and win.
I am faithful to a proud heritage,
a tradition of honor,
and a legacy of valor."

The Army's Soldier's Creed (2003) makes the same point about the need to be a warrior first and foremost.

Now, some would say there's nothing wrong with this. Our troops are at war. Don't we want them to have a strong warrior ethos?

The historian (and retired citizen-airman) in me says"no," and I'm supported in this by a surprising source: An American army pamphlet from World War II with the title"How the Jap Army Fights." After praising the Japanese for their toughness and endurance, the pamphlet, citing a study by Robert Leurquin, makes the following point:

"The Japanese is more of a warrior than a military man, and therein lies his weakness. The difference may be a subtle one, but it does exist: The essential quality of the warrior is bravery; that of the military man, discipline."

In 1942, our army cited the"warring passion" of the Japanese as a weakness, one that inhibited their mastery of"the craft of arms." Yet today, our army and air force extol the virtues of being a"warrior" to young recruits.

Today's cult of the warrior, as represented by these new" creeds," may seem cosmetic, but it cuts to the core of our military's self-image. That most Americans have no knowledge of it speaks volumes about the ongoing militarization of our language and even of our country.

After nearly a decade of war, we don't need more"warrior ethos." What we need are disciplined citizen-airmen and citizen-soldiers who know their craft, but who also know better than to revel in a warrior identity. We knew this in 1942; how did we come to forget it?

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Robert Solomon - 8/2/2010

Was it not the warrior ethic of the Japanese that led them to have no allies in the fight of Asia for the Asiatics. It led them to the Bataan death march. And it is leading us to all the perceived atrocities of American soldiers and airman against Iraqi civilians and Afghan civilians. We cannot tell friend from foe, and we don't seem to care. Every small victory brings us closer to defeat in collateral damage.