The Crossroads of Special Operations

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Warrior Defined | Jeffrey Prather, MAJ, USAR, (Ret)

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Our military’s current, official doctrine, literature and jargon incessantly references the Warrior, but one seminal, thematic question remains unanswered: What precisely is a warrior?

Put another way, what is the military’s definition of a warrior? Who is a warrior? What is the military’s warrior ideal? The rhetorical answer is there isn’t one.

In absence of a definition delineating the standard, our wars will define our warriors –unless another standard is established. And war as every veteran knows, is the least bad choice, the final option, the failure of diplomacy and negotiation, man under his most terrible condition. By default then the military’s unspoken definition of a warrior will be defined by at best passivity and at worst extreme negativity. The lack of a standard becomes the standard. Our military deserve better.

Having titled our military “warriors” the question is, will they be defined by war or by warriorship, negativity or positivism, definition or the lack there of, standards or the lack of standards, ideals or questions. Physical training standards are defined. Should not warriorship be as well? The answer is obviously and unequivocally yes. Anything less is simply unacceptable.

Our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen daily give the best of themselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. Because while our nation’s warriors daily sacrifice life, limb, stability and even sometimes sanity, they deserve a positive, clear, simple, a just standard, to survive, operate under, but most importantly to succeed with, before during and after war.

The Army’s primary field manual, FM-1 refers to the warrior ethos:


4-42. The Army prepares every Soldier to be a warrior.

4-43. Mental and physical toughness underpin the beliefs established in the Soldier’s Creed. Army leaders develop them in all Soldiers. The Warrior Ethos inspires the refusal to accept failure and conviction that military service is much more than a job. It generates an unfailing commitment to win. The Warrior Ethos defines who Soldiers are and what Soldiers do.

4-44. Commitment to the ideals of the Warrior Ethos is deeply embedded in the Army’s culture. The Warrior Ethos instills a “mission first-never quit” mental toughness in Soldiers. Training as tough as combat reinforces the Warrior Ethos. Soldiers who demonstrate it are promoted. Soldiers combine the Warrior Ethos with initiative, decisiveness, and mental agility to succeed in the complex, often irregular, environments in which they operate. Soldiers and leaders who exemplify the Warrior Ethos accomplish the mission regardless of obstacles.

FM-1 also addresses ideals:

4-49. American Soldiers-exemplifying the Army Values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage-remain the centerpiece of Army organizations.

Note however that while the Army’s ethos is of the warrior, the values are for soldiers. The obvious question then follows, what is the difference between soldier and warrior? Why? If there is no difference then clearly there would not be two distinct terms.

FM-1 clearly states that soldiers who demonstrate the Warrior Ethos are successful on the battlefield as well as via promotion through the ranks. Logically then the Army wants soldiers to aspire to be and then become warriors. Both battlefield and bureaucratic success depend on it. Inadvertently FM-1 admits that while all soldiers are not necessarily warriors, the Army prefers that they were.

In Army Regulation-600, the Soldier and Warrior creeds confuse the issue further by mixing the two standards:

Soldier’s Creed

I am an American Soldier.

I am a warrior and a member of a team.

I serve the people of the United States and live the Army Values.

I will always place mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.

I always maintain my arms, equipment and myself.

I am an expert and a professional.

I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.

I am an American soldier.

Warrior Ethos

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.


Dictionary definitions are of little help here. “Soldier” is defined as a person serving in an army, engaged in military service. While warrior means a person engaged or experienced in warfare.

But word history helps somewhat:

The Old French word, first recorded in the 12th century, is derived from sol or soud, Old French forms of Modern French sou. There is no longer a French coin named sou, but the meaning of sou alerts us to the fact that money is involved. Indeed, Old French sol referred to a coin and also meant “pay,” and a soudoior was a man who fought for pay. This was a concept worth expressing in an era when many men were not paid for fighting but did it in service to a feudal superior. Thus soldier is parallel to the word mercenary, which goes back to Latin mercēnnārius, derived from mercēs, “pay,” and meaning “working for pay.” The word could also be used as a noun, one of whose senses was “a soldier of fortune.” The word “warrior” comes from the Middle English werreour, from Old North French werreieur, from werreier, to make war.

Here it helps to read between the lines, in that the word history of warrior does not include a reference to paid service. Instead there is an implied selfless service of dedication to warfare. If the dedication of the warrior is not rooted in monetary compensation, then it must be to a cause. And that cause must be beyond self interest.

Since word history offers no further clues as to the definitions of warrior versus soldier, an examination of American history is in order. The American soldier early on fought extensively with one of the world’s pre-eminent Native American warrior cultures. Taking stock of one’s former enemies is always wise, especially those that resisted the U.S. Army’s domination longest and hardest: The N’dee, more commonly called Apache.

Shortly after my commissioning in 1984, I returned to Ft. Huachuca in Arizona as a new military intelligence second lieutenant. The Arizona posting allowed me renew my personal studies and apprenticeship with an N’dee veteran warrior and Diyin or “empowered one”, colloquially known as a medicine man. As such I was in the unique position to simultaneously study both Army officership and the N’dee warriorship.

Until 1886 Geronimo and six warriors defeated two corps of the world’s finest army: ours. Indeed it was in the end not American soldiers but hired N’dee scouts that were able to keep up, track, seek out and finally outsmart and fight Geronimo’s half dozen warriors.

But before further comparison it is relevant to ask if this former enemy is even worthy of reflection, much less emulation. A review of the literature of those who fought them is consistently and thoroughly although somewhat surprisingly, praise worthy. Captain John G. Bourke, 3rd Cavalry, wrote in On the Border with Crook:

The Chiricauhua and other Apache scouts, who were enlisted to carry on General Crook’s campaign against Geronimo remained for one week at Fort Bowie, and during that time made numbers of purchases from the post trade, Mr. Sydney R. De Long. Some months after, as I wished to learn something definite in regard to the honesty of this much maligned people, I went to Mr. De Long and asked him to tell me what percentage of bad debts he had found among the Apaches. He examined his books and said slowly: “They have bought seventeen hundred and eighty dollars’ worth and they have paid back every cent”.

“And what percent of bad debts do you find among your white customers?”

A cynical smile and a pitying glance were all the reply vouchsafed.

The Bourke quote exemplifies the respectful view held by the officers and soldiers who actually fought the N’dee. Current statistical analysis also indicates that despite being betrayed, wronged and maltreated, Native Americans serve today patriotically and heroically in our military in greater numbers than any other minority group. Since research shows the N’dee to be more than worthy of contemplation, what then is the N’dee warrior concept?

The Western Apache Dictionarypublished by the White Mountain Apache Tribe, states that the N’dee word for soldier is silaada, from the Spanish soldado. But the N’dee for warrior is Nagonlkaadii. Note the complete dissimilarity between the two words. Clearly in the N’dee lexicon the two words were and are meant to connote two totally different concepts.

Phillip Cassadore, the late N’dee veteran warrior and singer I studied under explained the difference:

Warriors are different than soldiers. Soldiers are always just around other soldiers, so they can become crude, even brutal. Warriors are always around children and women. They are protectors. They must always think first of those they protect. They stand for good and against evil. They ensure that no harm comes to the children. They remember that everything is born of women. That is why the warriors come in first at ceremonies and powwows, because they are protecting everyone there.

This focus on the family is built around traditional N’dee society’s focus on their matriarchal lineage, which is embodied by their most important ceremony still carried on today: The Sunrise or Changing ceremony celebrates and trains, the pubescent girl transitioning into womanhood, assuming her role and responsibilities to the tribe, and thus ensuring the future of the N’dee nation.

This indigenous warrior preoccupation with the safety of their offspring is near universal. The Masai in Africa are perhaps most comparable in fierceness and freedom to the N’dee in America. The traditional Masai warrior greeting is not “Is your spear sharp”, or “Is your shield strong”, but “How are the children”? The traditional response (even if there are no children about) is, “All the children are well”. The inference is that if the children are fine then the warriors are doing their job.

Here at last the warrior standard is finally defined, and by our own Native born American warrior tradition, proven in battle, patriotic in spirit, and practical in application:

The Warrior protects children and women.

This is simple, one sentence delineates the definition of the warrior from the soldier while simultaneously complementing and enhancing the roles of both. Could such a definition be of practical use to our troops on the ground in Afghanistan trying to build rapport with civilians while simultaneously destroying Taliban? I believe so. But there is more:

The Warrior stands for good and against evil.

Could such nondenominational, definitions of good and evil assist our soldiers now hip-deep in counter insurgency, counter terrorism, civil fairs and psychological operations? Again, I believe so.

Here is my simple, one sentence definition of good and evil. I have it taught to tens of thousands of troops and not in a classroom setting but on the hand combat mat and shooting range. It is KISS simple:

Good is intentional help. Evil is intentional harm. Do only good, never evil.

Although the finest, most compassionate and most lethal the world has ever known, our military is unfortunately burdened by over-bureaucratized, multi-layered, and conflicting command chains. Overly intricate rules of engagement demand near impossible perfection in chaos of combat. Our nation’s finest sons and daughters are stretched as soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen as never before.

While kill ratios soar, and casualty and collateral damages plummet, the demands on America’s fighting men and women are higher than ever before. Can such simple, practical concepts of warriorship be of any real use amid the complexities of the modern battlefield?

At both my military and civilian classes I often tell the story of my friend and hero Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Chad” Ballwanz. Chad was inserted with part of his Special Forces team deep behind enemy lines during the first Gulf war. Shortly after infiltration and not far into strategic reconnaissance mission, the team was compromised. An eight year old Bedu girl who was accompanying her goat herd father, stumbled upon the team. Behind the goat herd was an Iraqi armored column.

The little girl walked up and peered into the cut that hid the team. One of the Green Berets covered her with his suppressed Berretta M-9, while looking to Chad for direction. During the story telling, I also show the scene from the military channel special on Chad, or a clip from the film Bravo Two Zero, where a British SAS team faced the same crisis. At this point, when the SF or SAS soldier must decide whether or not to shoot the little girl, to save themselves and their mission, I stop the tape, tell each student that he is now the team leader, and I demand their on the spot decision.

Many fathers and even mothers, under the stress of the moment and my demand for an immediate decision, do decide to shoot the little girl. But my Special Forces students never have. Neither did Chad. Nor did the SAS team. Other special operations teams faced the same dilemma during the Gulf War. None of them shot the innocent.

Chad’s team successfully held off the Iraqi armored column until exfiltration, incurring zero casualties while decimating the enemy column. The SAS team actually attacked their Iraqi armored column, inflicting severe enemy casualties and actually causing them to retreat! My point is that even hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, surrounded, and cut off; these elite soldiers refused to descend to a lower standard, but instead chose to rise beyond the soldier standard, to embrace the Warrior ideal!

A final, salient point is that America’s wars are no longer mainly against other nation states, but are more often now that not, once again against tribal peoples. The war in Afghanistan comes immediately to mind.

Afghanistan is a perfect example of a nation defined more by the divisions among its tribes, than by any form of national unity. This is not unlike the state of Native America prior to the conquest of the continent.

Counter insurgency warfare involves first destroying the insurgency, in this case the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and then replacing it with something else. Nation building. The problem with Afghanistan is that there has never been a nation there to rebuild. The severe terrain has dictated that isolated tribalism reign supreme.

Exporting American style democracy and capitalism to countries like Afghanistan is problematic at best. Might exporting the Native American warrior ideal which found its own origins in tribalism, make at least as much sense ,while holding the promise of greater potentiality of successful integration within existing tribal ideals?

The US military today is honed to a performance edge arguably even beyond that obtained by the greatest generation of World War II. After all, this next greatest generation has now been fighting longer than even they did.

In this new age of nonstop, marathon multi-war, our young, conventional soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen have successfully taken on and executed the most difficult, subtle and complex missions of unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense, which were formerly relegated to special operations forces only.

Even more remarkably they have done so in many cases without the filters of extreme selection processes and long training courses. Could and would they benefit from a clear, simple definition of the warriors that they have, in the crucible of combat, become? This short list of only four lines, five sentences and twenty seven words is clear enough for the chaos of combat, and simple enough for the battlefield to be written on a card, an MRE case, a helmet cover, a glove, or even easily memorized.

The Warrior protects children and women.

The Warrior stands for good and against evil.

Good is intentional help. Evil is intentional harm.

Do only good, never evil.

It is time we honor our warriors by defining for them all that they have become. They deserve nothing less.

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