The Warrior Ethos in Civilian Life

warrior_ethos_by_soldierm16-d5abk84“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.” – Steven Pressfield

How does a veteran successfully reintegrate into civilian life? One answer to this question may lie in the warrior ethos. The warrior ethos is an existential outlook that embraces the warrior virtues of selfless commitment and perseverance in the face of adversity. The U.S. Army embodies these virtues in its Warrior Ethos creed:

I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.

In The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield defines the ethos as a sense of honour gained through the virtue of selflessness, toughness, and the desire to excel. Selflessness, he says, is the absolute core of the warrior ethos. He illustrates the virtue of selflessness in the following story:

Plutarch asked, “Why do the Spartans punish with a fine the warrior who loses his helmet or spear but punish with death the warrior who loses his shield?” Because helmet and spear are carried for the protection of the individual alone, but the shield protects every man in the line.

Along with the virtue of selflessness, the willingness to embrace adversity is also a central virtue for the warrior ethos. In The Unforgiving Minute, Crag Mullaney illustrates this virtue in a chant he recalls from his training at West Point: “If it aint raining, we ain’t training… you gotta love being cold wet and miserable. Love the suck men, love the suck.”

Civilians often don’t understand why anyone would want to plunge themselves into such harsh conditions, especially since military service is completely optional. The civilian world – far from a warrior culture – values luxury and comfort, the pursuit of individual goals, and success is measured by one’s monetary achievement. Although monetary achievement is a key marker of civilian success, the warriors salary is not strictly monetary. Steven Pressfield states:

There’s a well-known gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps who explains to his young Marines, when they complain about pay, that they get two kinds of salary—a financial salary and a psychological salary. The financial salary is indeed meager. But the psychological salary? Pride, honor, integrity, the chance to be part of a corps with a history of service, valor, glory; to have friends who would sacrifice their lives for you, as you would for them—and to know that you remain a part of this brotherhood as long as you live. How much is that worth?

The military cultivates the warrior ethos in its individual members through elaborate training methods and ritualized behavior. Once an individual leaves the military institution, the external constraints of a warrior culture no longer directs their behaviour. Transitioning from a warrior culture to a consumer culture can take a toll on an individual. The “psychological salary” of contributing to a warrior brotherhood fades, leaving an existential void.

So how can one regain a sense of purpose and belonging in civilian life? The warrior ethos must be internalized and applied to new endeavors. Pressfield writes: “As soldiers, we have been taught discipline. Now we teach ourselves self-discipline.” When one’s war is over, the new battle of civilian transition begins. The virtues of the warrior ethos make veterans highly valuable employees or entrepreneurs. Although veterans may be extremely valuable assets in civilian institutions, are civilian institutions suitable for veterans whose salary has been more than just monetary?

Getting back the “psychological salary” requires more than just the ability to self-discipline and persevere in the face of adversity – although these are both necessary. It requires the ability to find a new cause or occupation one can commit oneself to. This is how the veteran warrior regains the core of the warrior ethos: selflessness, or as the first line of the U.S Army Warrior Ethos creed states, “…always place the mission first.”

But new missions are not easy to come by. Unlike the military, missions are not handed down a chain of command in civilian life. Although the highly unregulated state of affairs in consumer culture may lead to veterans experiencing anomie, the freedom to choose our own life-course has lead to an increased number of opportunities for a diverse array of individuals.

A new mission must be sought after and discovered on one’s own, but not by one’s self. The internalized warrior ethos is indispensible to the returning veteran, making him or her an extremely valuable asset to civilian life. What we need are not only programs that treat psychological issues such as PTSD, but programs that assist individuals in finding a new mission.

Here are some organizations that are currently assisting with this endeavor:

Enactus’ ‘Based in Business’:
Canada Company:
Team Rubicon:

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