There is no complicated or mysterious (or especially ancient) history behind the word ‘warrior’. It derives from a 14th century Old French term (werreier) which simply meant ‘one who wages war’. The word has in recent decades come to be associated with something more than mere warfare, however. And it must be said that this is not because the human race has somehow left warfare behind. On the contrary, the facts are not encouraging on that front. It appears that we humans have been given to warfare throughout recorded history and far beyond; and that tendency shows no sign of letting up in current times, despite all our advances on other fronts.
Archaeology has uncovered evidence of primitive warfare as far back as 14,000 years ago at a dig in northern Sudan, where half of the discovered skeletons show signs of violent death caused by pointed objects consistent with battle weapons. Digs in Kenya have also uncovered clear evidence of warfare, with 10,000-year-old skeletons displaying wounds consistent with attacks from battle weapons, alongside artefacts of weapon remains.
Very old and revered religious doctrines such as the Judeo-Christian Bible, or the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, are full of depictions of warfare, be they terrestrial or not, and others, such as Islam’s Koran, contain aggressive exhortations to battle. There is little evidence for cultures of ‘peaceful savages’ in the past, and not much evidence that we are less savage in the domain of warfare than we have always been. There have been thousands of wars in recorded history. The most recently completed century (the 20th) was by far the most brutal in terms of casualty numbers—over a hundred million (the majority of these civilians) were killed in warfare alone.
There is even a sound historical argument that war has been the prime causal factor behind many of the most significant advances in human culture
War and the cultures that support it have, of course, been integral parts of the fabric of human civilization. There is even a sound historical argument that war has been the prime causal factor behind many of the most significant advances in human culture—people do, after all, band together in the face of a serious adversary, be that adversary the elements of Nature, or the arrows of a rival tribe or the bombs of a rival nation. And when people band together, they accomplish things. That said, war as conducted throughout history by leaders and their soldiers has only rarely been just, let alone noble.
So much for war. As for the idea of ‘warriorhood’, wars are of course fought by warriors—or more accurately, by soldiers—and these are almost always younger men who are commonly under the command of older men. Most of these older men are former warriors themselves, but in many cases are commanded by popularly elected officials who lack direct military experience and carry no particular qualifications for battle leadership. This has been true for much of the history of civilization, because even in the case of dictatorships or monarchies, the ruling figure (be it dictator, king, queen, or regent) commonly had no more military experience than a modern democratically elected politician. And yet despite this he or she commanded armies all the same.
When the warrior (in his ideal form) is removed from the battlefield, his qualities can be seen independent of a purpose to defeat the enemy. Many of these qualities are obviously admirable: courage, tenacity, endurance, determination, the commitment and humility to serve a greater cause, and a selflessness in its ideal form that is perhaps the masculine equivalent of a mother’s selflessness in giving birth to and raising a child.
Alongside all this the ideal warrior also carries the common sense discipline necessary to get on with the matter at hand, to not get bogged down in trivial matters, and to be relatively indifferent to the judgments of others about who he is. His direction in life is forward. He is not insensitive—on the contrary, the ideal warrior is highly sensitized to his environment and to the characters of the people around him—but he does not let the opinions of others immobilize him. His skin is not thin.
The ideal warrior is loyal, but in a way that needs to be explained carefully. The old code was more to do with an unquestioning obedience and loyalty to one’s commander, leader, or overlord. This approach certainly took care of the more immature, rebellious, undisciplined part of a man’s character. The idea of ‘I want to do things my way only’ can be a sign of one of three things: a very advanced wise man, a bitter and jaded man, or a resentful, immature boy. Unfortunately, the latter two are far more often the case. In this sense, membership in a military force can be a good training for young men, teaching them some measure of humility, cooperation, and recognition of the importance of discipline and structure in life, along with respect for elders.
However, there is a dark side here as well, obviously, and that relates mostly to blind trust. A good trainer of warriors is not one who seeks to turn them all into unquestioning robots. Too often throughout history massively destructive wars were carried out by young soldiers who lacked the ability to question their orders (and for understandable reasons, as this could easily result in severe punishment or even death).
In seeking to capture the best qualities of warriorhood it’s necessary to develop the ability to discern, doubt, and question things.
In seeking to capture the best qualities of warriorhood it’s necessary to develop the ability to discern, doubt, and question things. This is of course a balancing act, and something of a Catch-22. To have the discernment to detect when it’s appropriate to trust, and when to doubt and question, requires some life experience, but one cannot acquire that life experience without first going through certain things. One cannot really tell a good leader from a mediocre leader (let alone a bad one) without first having had at least some experience as a follower.
Accordingly, it’s usually correct to do one’s best to locate worthy mentors and then do one’s best to learn from them in order to gain the important lessons and life experience. There are no guaranteed methods to determine the worthiness of a mentor, but a good rule of thumb is to find out what others are saying about them. In the case of positive testimonials, provided these ‘others’ who are giving the testimonials seem to be intelligent, functional people, you can then usually proceed to practice under the mentor if feeling so inclined. (The fine print there is that you may have to know some of his or her students already, or get to know them).
To be a ‘conscious warrior’ is no small thing, and not something learned overnight. In many ways the two words may seem a bad match. Consciousness as a developed quality is usually associated with thinkers, contemplatives, meditators. Warriorhood is usually associated with more primordial qualities such as fierceness, strength, tenacity, courage, combativeness. Monkhoods throughout history have typically rejected aggression and certainly violence. There have been, however, exceptions, such as the Shaolin Buddhist warrior-monks, the Knights Templar of Christianity, or the shaman-warriors of the American Plains Indians (such as, for example, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, both of whom were shamans as well as warriors and tribal leaders). Many warriors from these traditions had some sort of legitimate spiritual practice, and most were qualified fighters. This was true of many of the Samurai as well.
Modern Western men dwell, for the greater part, in a softer time where harder masculine traits have been thoroughly de-emphasized and a general prevalent atmosphere of feminine sensitivity has grown and become widespread. ‘Feminine sensitivity’ in and of itself is obviously not a bad thing, and indeed has been a necessary countermeasure to centuries of desensitized brutality. However, men who lose their masculine qualities in the service of supporting a culture pre-occupied with sensitivity tend toward ineffectiveness in both their work and their love lives. The secret alchemy needed to address this issue is, above all, concerned with balance.