Soldiers returning from Iraq, August 28
Soldiers returning from Iraq, August 28 Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

In the 550-some pages of his memoir, Crusade in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower uses the word warrior once—in describing Winston Churchill. Ulysses S. Grant managed to write an equally long memoir without ever putting the word to use. I wonder why. Did the two victorious generals, each commanding a huge conscript army, believe it would be tone-deaf to recall the blood baths they’d emerged from in the imagery of Homer?

I don’t recall warrior being much invoked to gild the image of the draftees sent to Vietnam. For a book on that war that did favor it, thumb through Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, a collection of essays by James Bond Stockdale. A self-described romantic, Stockdale was exploring the warrior ethos, whose values, he was certain, enabled him to survive seven years as a POW in Hanoi: “In Homer’s immortal epic The Iliad, as Hector is about to leave the gates of Troy to fight Achilles—knowing, as he must have known, that he would lose and he would die—he says good-bye to his wife and baby son at the gates, and the baby starts to cry, frightened by the nodding of the plumes on his father’s shining helmet. Some would think the tale of the Greek-Trojan war to be an irrelevant relic of bygone days. Some would think it should be stricken from the reading list because it glamorizes war. Some would think that now at last, with reason to guide us, we can scoff at a warrior’s suicidal obligations. But others of us react quite differently, seeing in that scene a snapshot of the ageless human predicament: Hector’s duty, his wife’s tragedy, Troy’s necessity, the baby’s cry.”

Stockdale inculcated the values of Hector in the POWs he commanded. “Civic virtue,” the subordination of self-interest, including survival, to the group interest, “was not only admirable, it was crucial to self-respect. . . .I knew that obligations, particularly love and self-sacrifice, were the glue that made a man whole in this primitive element.”

In Jarhead, a memoir of the gulf war, Anthony Swafford refined the term. “The warrior celebrates the fact of having survived, not of killing Japs or Krauts or gooks or Russkies or ragheads. That large and complex emotional mess called national victory holds no sway for the warrior. It is necessary to remind civilians of this fact, to make them hear the voice of the warrior.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood kept it simple. Warrior in the title promised menace and mayhem, with maybe a pinch of some harsh code of conduct in the mix. For example, there was the 1979 film The Warriors, which Roger Ebert described as “a movie about street gang warfare, written and directed as an exercise in mannerism.” And 1981’s The Road Warrior, which suggested to the Reader‘s Dave Kehr “the work of a western punk trucker de Sade.” And 1999’s The 13th Warrior, a tenth-century tale of the ancient Norse that the New York Times‘s Stephen Holden said was “saturated in purgative gore.”

And in the professional literature of war, warrior has become the term of choice to describe a cast of mind born or made different from the minds of the rest of us. In his On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995), Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman not only uses warrior repeatedly but coins a term for the study of the type: “We know how to take the psychological safety catch off of human beings, almost as easily as you would switch a weapon from ‘safe’ to ‘fire.’ We must understand where and what that psychological safety catch is, how it works, and how to put it back on. That is the purpose of killology. . .” (emphasis mine). It’s not just the army that’s become more adept at lowering our inhibitions to killing, Grossman believes. So has Hollywood. So have video game manufacturers.

And on the home front, in the era of the all-volunteer army, the word has come into favor as either a salute or a sop to our GIs. The morning after President Obama announced the end of American combat operations in Iraq, I came across an American general being interviewed by a TV reporter who, in the current fashion, unctuously lauded our “warriors.”

He’s fawning! was my first thought. He’s condescending! was my second. I sensed the general’s contempt. I sensed the reporter didn’t care. The general was from another world.

This was warrior as empty trope and as default position. What can you say when your troops come home from a war they possibly haven’t won and possibly shouldn’t have started? You make movies like The Hurt Locker in which victory is beside the point, and when you have to talk about the soldiers at all you call them warriors. Vietnam taught us that’s the least we can do.

Obama, in his address to the nation, made mention of “our wounded warriors” (a la the Wounded Warrior Project, organized privately in 2003). The National Review‘s Peter Kirsanow then dumped on Obama for failing to properly “engender pride in the good and remarkable accomplishments of our warriors.” House minority leader John Boehner told the American Legion in Milwaukee that “today, as thousands of our warriors come home seeking to provide for their families and realize the American Dream they have volunteered to defend, they confront an economy that affords neither opportunities nor jobs.” And about a week before Obama’s speech Joe Biden told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Indianapolis that “drawing down our troops does not mean we are disengaging from Iraq. In fact, quite the opposite is true. While our warriors that remain there are as capable as any in our armed services—they know how to fight if they have to—their mission has changed.”

Bob Driver, a newspaper columnist in Tampa, wrote, “Our warriors should not be required to be social workers, psychologists or goodwill ambassadors.” Harry Bulkeley, a retired circuit judge in Galesburg, Illinois, told his local paper, “I’m not sure whether the mission was accomplished, but I am sure that each one of our warriors did everything we asked of them.” Harris Sherline, a columnist for Noozhawk, an online news site in Santa Barbara, California, contrasted the “recognition and treatment that most of our returning warriors have been accorded” with the hostile welcome given returning vets from Vietnam. Warriorhood appears to be something the rest of us get to withhold or bestow. Even posthumously—Sherline reflects on his father, a taciturn veteran of World War I whose wounds shortened his life, and chooses to remember him as an “unsung and unheralded American warrior” rather than a casualty.

On the law-enforcement news site I spotted a short essay, “Hidden Wounds of a Warrior,” by Terry Morgan, a police chaplain in California. He was writing about cops who fight in the Middle East as reservists and come home physically and spiritually maimed. I asked Morgan in an e-mail what the word warrior means to these soldiers. He replied, “First I would say most returning veterans, be they soldiers, pilots, sailors, etc, don’t consider themselves heroic. Most of them avoid the limelight, and don’t consider themselves heroes, or having done something more than their fellow comrades in arms. The term ‘warrior’ is probably more of a term for our benefit than theirs, as we grasp for a description of who they are and what they do —and yes I would say that is a term of flattery.”

We are still atoning for our rough treatment of Vietnam vets, he believes.

I suggested to Morgan that calling them warriors lets us identify GIs as a breed apart. Some are, he replied.

These are the GIs Morgan called “true warriors” and defined as the small number of people who “seem to be born with the ability to ‘make war’ on the enemy, while protecting their fellow soldiers.” It was Morgan who gave me a heads up about On Killing, where Grossman dwells on the type. “Whether called sociopaths, sheepdogs, warriors, or heroes,” Grossman writes, “they are there, they are a distinct minority, and in times of danger a nation needs them desperately.”

How tidy it would be if our men and women in uniform coincided precisely with our cohort of true warriors? The country could put its conscience at ease, free of nagging concerns such as the notion that we’ve hired the poor to fight the battles of the rich. Good-bye and good riddance to the idea of a moral debt to the handful who kill and die on our behalf, a debt we show we respect when we call the handful “warriors” in the same PC way some of us say “people of color.” If our soldiers were all lucky stiffs who get to do what they were born to do, the recruitment pitch could be boiled down to this: “Hey, Warriors—only we offer war. Join the U.S. Army.”

But that’s not how it works. About 1 or 2 percent of our combatants are true warriors, according to Grossman. The ranks fill up with troops who must be taught war. Morgan recommended On Killing to me for its description of the progress America has made on that front. “The U.S. military does have superior training,” he wrote. “We have learned over the years how to train our soldiers to kill.”

The New York Times carried an interesting story the other day. It said Germany is close to ending its draft, which was written into the constitution after World War II to guarantee an army “integrated with society [and] loyal to the civilian leadership,” or what a member of the German parliament called an “army of democracy.” There’s little practical need for a conscript army at a time when security issues demand “smaller professional militaries.” Yet Germans have been so sensitive to what’s at stake, at least symbolically, in ending the draft, the Times said, that they might hang on to the legal basis for conscription even if they stop conscripting anybody.

Americans, by contrast, romanticize the breach between soldiers and civilians—making it all the easier not to dwell on it.