Why Do Warriors Need A Code?

Scott Farrell Comments:

In war, more than in any other endeavor, common sense dictates a “win by any means” approach. Yet throughout history the greatest warriors have always held themselves to codes of honor, like the Code of Chivalry, which restrain them from excessive, brutal actions against their enemies. In this three-part essay (excerpted from her book Code of the Warrior» ), Professor French considers why warriors would bind themselves to voluntary restrictions in times of war — including a war against ruthless terrorists and murderers who themselves follow no such code. She reminds us that “stepping over the line” has far-reaching consequences, and her conclusions hold an important message for anyone who thinks going beyond the borders of ethics is harmless in the realms of business, sports, school or politics.

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Defining the Warrior’s Code

Warrior-Code-CoverWarrior cultures throughout history and from diverse regions around the globe have constructed codes of behavior, based on that culture’s image of the ideal warrior. These codes have not always been written down or literally codified into a set of explicit rules. A code can be hidden in the lines of epic poems or implied by the descriptions of mythic heroes. One way or another, it is carefully conveyed to each succeeding generation of warriors. These codes tend to be quite demanding. They are often closely linked to a culture’s religious beliefs and can be connected to elaborate (and frequently death defying or excruciatingly painful) rituals and rites of passage.

In many cases this code of honor seems to hold the warrior to a higher ethical standard than that required for an ordinary citizen within the general population of the society the warrior serves. The code is not imposed from the outside. The warriors themselves police strict adherence to these standards; with violators being shamed, ostracized, or even killed by their peers. One historical example comes from the Roman legions, where if a man fell asleep while he was supposed to be on watch in time of war he could expect to be stoned to death by the members of his own cohort.

The code of the warrior not only defines how he should interact with his own warrior comrades, but also how he should treat other members of his society, his enemies, and the people he conquers. The code restrains the warrior. It sets boundaries on his behavior. It distinguishes honorable acts from shameful acts. The Homeric hero Achilles must seek vengeance for the death of his friend Patroclus, yet when his rage drives him to desecrate the corpse of his arch nemesis, Hector, he angers the gods. Under the codes of chivalry, a medieval knight has to offer mercy to any knight who yields to him in battle. In feudal Japan, samurai are not permitted to approach their opponents using stealth, but rather are required to declare themselves openly before engaging combat. Muslim warriors engaged in offensive jihad cannot employ certain weapons unless and until their enemies use them first.

But why do warriors need a code that ties their hands and limits their options? Why should a warrior culture want to restrict the actions of its members and require them to commit to lofty ideals? Might not such restraints cripple their effectiveness as warriors? What’s wrong with, “All’s fair in love and war?” Isn’t winning all that matters? Why should any warrior want to be burdened with concerns about honor and shame?

Medieval-Soldiers

Illustrations like this one, from the medieval book known as the Maciejowski Bible, depict just how cruel and bloody battle could be, even in the "age of chivalry."

One reason for such warriors’ codes may be to protect the warriors themselves from serious psychological damage. To say the least, the things that warriors are asked to do to guarantee their cultures’ survivals are far from pleasant. There is truth in the inescapable slogan, “War is hell.” Even those few who seem to feel no revulsion at spilling another human being’s guts on the ground, severing a limb, slicing off a head, or burning away a face are likely to be affected by the sight of their friends or kinsmen suffering the same fate. The combination of the warriors’ own natural disgust at what they must witness in battle and the fact that what they must do to endure and conquer can seem so uncivilized, so against what they have been taught by their society, creates the conditions for even the most accomplished warriors to feel tremendous self-loathing.

In his powerful work, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,» Lt. Col. Dave Grossman illuminates the process by which those in war and those training for war attempt to achieve emotional distance from their enemies. The practice of dehumanizing the enemy through the use of abusive or euphemistic language is a common and effective tool for increasing aggression and breaking down inhibitions against killing. Grossman notes:

“It is so much easier to kill someone if they look distinctly different than you. If your propaganda machine can convince your soldiers that their opponents are not really human but are “inferior forms of life,” then their natural resistance to killing their own species will be reduced. Often the enemy’s humanity is denied by referring to him as a “gook,” “Kraut,” or “Nip.”1

Modern-War

Images of the Vietnam conflict forced Americans to question the importance and application of a code of honor in battle.

Grossman has interviewed many U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War. Grossman found that some of the men he interviewed had never truly achieved emotional distance from their former foes, and seemed to be the better for it. These men expressed admiration for Vietnamese culture. Some had even married Vietnamese women. They appeared to be leading happy and productive post-war lives. In contrast, those who persisted in viewing the Vietnamese as “less than animals” were unable to leave the war behind them.

Grossman writes about the dangers of dehumanizing the enemy in terms of potential damage to the war effort, long-term political fallout, and regional or global instability:

“Because of [our] ability to accept other cultures, Americans probably committed fewer atrocities than most other nations would have under the circumstances associated with guerrilla warfare in Vietnam. Certainly fewer than was the track record of most colonial powers. Yet still we had our My Lai, and our efforts in that war were profoundly, perhaps fatally, undermined by that single incident.

It can be easy to unleash this genie of racial and ethnic hatred in order to facilitate killing in time of war. It can be more difficult to keep the cork in the bottle and completely restrain it. Once it is out, and the war is over, the genie is not easily put back in the bottle. Such hatred lingers over the decades, even centuries, as can be seen today in Lebanon and what was once Yugoslavia.”2

The insidious harm brought to the individual warriors who find themselves swept up by such devastating propaganda matters a great deal to those concerned with the warriors’ own welfare. In a segment on the “Clinical Importance of Honoring or Dishonoring the Enemy,” psychologist Jonathan Shay describes an intimate connection between the psychological health of the veteran and the respect he feels for those he fought. He stresses how important it is to the warrior to have the conviction that he participated in an honorable endeavor:

“Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD. While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This is true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring absence of human themis [shared values, a common sense of “what’s right”] linking enemy to enemy makes life unendurable”3.

Jonathan Shay, psychologist and author of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,» finds echoes of these sentiments in the words of J. Glenn Gray from Gray’s modern classic on the experience of war, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle» 4. With the struggle of the Allies against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of World War II as his backdrop, Gray brings home the agony of the warrior who has become incapable of honoring his enemies and thus is unable to find redemption himself:

“The ugliness of a war against an enemy conceived to be subhuman can hardly be exaggerated. There is an unredeemed quality to battle experienced under these conditions, which blunts all senses and perceptions. Traditional appeals of war are corroded by the demands of a war of extermination, where conventional rules no longer apply. For all its inhumanity, war is a profoundly human institution”5.

By setting standards of behavior for themselves, accepting certain restraints, and even “honoring their enemies,” warriors can create a lifeline that will allow them to pull themselves out of the hell of war and reintegrate themselves into their society, should they survive to see peace restored. A warrior’s code may cover everything from the treatment of prisoners of war to oath keeping to table etiquette, but its primary purpose is to grant nobility to the warriors’ profession. This allows warriors to retain both their self-respect and the respect of those they guard.

© 2004 Shannon French, Ph.D.

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About the author: Dr. Shannon E. French teaches in the Ethics Section at the U.S. Naval Academy. Her book, The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values, Past and Present» (2003, Rowman and Littlefield) features a foreword by Senator John McCain. In 2000 she was awarded USNA’s campus-wide Apgar Award for Excellence in Teaching. This essay is reprinted by permission of the author.

  1. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1996, p. 161. []
  2. Ibid. p. 163. []
  3. Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.., Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, p.115. []
  4. J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, New York: Harper and Row, 1970, pps. 152-153. []
  5. Ibid. p. 64. []
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This piece is one of many essays, reviews and excerpts written by Chivalry Today's guest columnists. Biographical information about our guest authors can be found at the end of each article.