The Warrior Ethos

The Warrior Ethos

In "The Warrior Ethos," Pressfield plucks a few gems from a variety of ancient sources but adds little new. The book seems to be the result of calculated marketing acumen - "How can I recycle ancient wisdom to create a tiny book that will sell well with the military crowd?" Heavy on Alexander and the Spartans, Pressfield tosses in a few sayings of the Pashtun warriors of Afghanistan to stay relevant for his target audience. For its unyielding cynicism, I would have given this book a 1-star rating had it not somewhat redeemed itself with a few great quotes. I was particularly struck by the Scythian line, "You may defeat us, but you will never defeat our poverty."

My top highlights below.

The interesting thing about peoples and cultures from rugged environments is that they almost never choose to leave them.

Dienekes instructed his comrades to fight not in the name of such lofty concepts as patriotism, honor, duty or glory. Don’t even fight, he said, to protect your family or your home. Fight for this alone: the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him. The soldier’s prayer today on the eve of battle remains not “Lord, spare me” but “Lord, let me not prove unworthy of my brothers.”

Courage is inseparable from love and leads to what may arguably be the noblest of all warrior virtues: selflessness.

The group comes before the individual. This tenet is central to the Warrior Ethos.

Selflessness produces courage because it binds men together and proves to each individual that he is not alone.

Another time, Alexander’s army was struggling through the mountains in the dead of winter. One old soldier came straggling into camp, so frozen from the blizzard that he could no longer see or hear. Troops around the fire cleared a seat for the veteran, prepared hot broth for him and helped thaw him out. When the ancient soldier had recovered enough to comprehend his surroundings, he realized that the young warrior who had given him his seat by the fire was Alexander himself. At once, the veteran leapt to his feet, apologizing for taking the king’s place. “No, my friend,” said Alexander, setting a hand on the man’s shoulder and making him sit again. “For you are Alexander, more even than I.”

Nothing infuriates Marines more than to learn that some particularly nasty and dangerous assignment has been given to the Army instead of to them. It offends their sense of honor. This is another key element of the Warrior Ethos: the willing and eager embracing of adversity.

The payoff for a life of adversity is freedom.

“You may defeat us,” said the tribal elders, “but you will never defeat our poverty.” What the Scythians meant was that they could endure greater adversity even than Alexander and his Macedonians.

“How far the Persians have traveled,” declared Pausanias, “to rob us of our poverty!”

At Thermopylae in 480 B.C., the Persian king Xerxes, at the head of an army of 2 million men, demanded of the Spartan king Leonidas that he and his 4000 defenders lay down their arms. Leonidas responded in two words: “Molon labe.” “Come and take them.” If you travel to Thermopylae today, you’ll see the Leonidas monument. It has only two words on it.

Honor is the psychological salary of any elite unit. Pride is the possession of honor. Honor is connected to many things, but one thing it’s not connected to is happiness. In honor cultures, happiness as we think of it — “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — is not a recognized good. Happiness in honor cultures is the possession of unsullied honor. Everything else is secondary.

Patton said, “Americans play to win at all times. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost a war and never will lose one.”

The will to fight, the passion to be great, is an indispensable element of the Warrior Ethos. It is also a primary quality of leadership, because it inspires men and fires their hearts with ambition and the passion to go beyond their own limits.

The warrior sense of humor is terse, dry — and dark. Its purpose is to deflect fear and to reinforce unity and cohesion.

In Sparta, the law was to keep everything simple. One ordinance decreed that you could not finish a roof beam with any tool finer than a hatchet. So all the roof beams in Sparta were basically logs. Once, a Spartan was visiting Athens and his host was showing off his own mansion, complete with finely detailed, square roof beams. The Spartan asked the Athenian if trees grew square in Athens. “No, of course not,” said the Athenian, “but round, as trees grow everywhere.” “And if they grew square,” asked the Spartan, “would you make them round?”

First, they’re not jokes. They’re dead-on, but they’re not delivered for laughs. Second, they don’t solve the problem. Neither remark offers hope or promises a happy ending. They’re not inspirational.

Lastly, these remarks are inclusive. They’re about “us.”

A hundred and fifty years later, Demosthenes, the great Athenian orator, delivered a series of speeches in the assembly on this very subject — willing sacrifice by all. The orations were called Philippics because they warned Athens against the rise of Philip of Macedonia, Alexander’s father, whose ambition was clearly to bring all of Greece under his heel. "Men of Athens, will you send your sons to contest this monster, Philip? Or have you grown so fat and happy that you care not, and dispatch instead hired troops, who are not of our blood or kin? Will these mercenaries, who fight only for profit, possess the will to hold Philip back? Or will the day come when we awake to discover that we have ceded future liberty to current ease?"

The returning warrior may not realize it, but he has acquired an MBA in enduring adversity and a Ph.D. in resourcefulness, tenacity and the capacity for hard work.

Alexander, in his campaigns, always looked beyond the immediate clash to the prospect of making today’s foe into tomorrow’s ally. After conquering an enemy in the field, his first act was to honor the courage and sacrifice of his antagonists — and to offer the vanquished warriors a place of honor within his own corps. By the time Alexander reached India, his army had more fighters from the ranks of his former enemies than from those of his own Greeks and Macedonians.

Cyrus of Persia believed that the spoils of his victories were meant for one purpose — so that he could surpass his enemies in generosity. "I contend against my foes in this arena only: the capacity to be of greater service to them than they are to me." Alexander operated by the same principle. "Let us conduct ourselves so that all men wish to be our friends and all fear to be our enemies."

The lieutenant pointed to Alexander and said to the yogi, “This man has conquered the world! What have you accomplished?” The yogi looked up calmly and replied, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.” At this, Alexander laughed with approval. He admired the naked wise men. “Could I be any man in the world other than myself,” he said, “I would be this man here.”

The stories and anecdotes in this book come from the following sources (though the author admits he sometimes can’t remember which came from where). All citations are translations or reconstructions by the author.

  • Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander
  • Bhagavad-Gita, numerous translations
  • Curtius, History of Alexander
  • Demosthenes, Philippics
  • Frontinus, Stratagemata
  • Herodotus, The Histories
  • Homer, Iliad
  • Moore, Robert and Douglas Gillette, King Warrior Magician Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine
  • Plutarch, Moralia (including Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women)
  • Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus
  • Plutarch, Life of Alexander
  • Plutarch, Life of Epaminondas
  • Polyaenus, Stratagemata
  • Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
  • Vegetius, De Re Militari
  • Xenophon, Constitution of the Spartans
  • Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus
  • Xenophon, Anabasis [“The March Upcountry”]