Thursday, February 20, 2020

Spartans, Warriors, & Gladiators, Lend me Your Ears

There is a growing issue with American martial iconography, and it matters.

In all our military services, the last few decades have seen the adoption of the trappings of the military state of Sparta; the tribal raiders of stone age American Indians, the most morally corrupt of Nazi Germany’s fighting units, fictional vigilantes, and even man-slaughtering blood sports.

Why, and why does it matter?

It matters because it speaks to and reinforces our national character; are we a republic or empire?

What are we looking for that we reach to these symbols? What is missing from our own lexicon of iconography? If we constantly reach for the icons of empire, autocratic militarism, and the trappings of mercenaries, what does it say about who we are?

Icons, idols, ideals, and cultural references are important. They define a people, and by their use, can over time alter the character of institutions and nations.

We are a young nation, but we have a rich civil, cultural and military history to draw on; a history more than worthy of reference in a martial sense; minutemen, patriots, rangers, etc. It is all there, and yet, it does not seem to be enough.

As a people, we can often signify what we aspire to be via the symbols we wish to be known by.

What, by design, are Americans and the fighting force that defends us? 

At birth, we were designed to be, and for most of our history aspired to be, a mercantile republic resting on a foundation of individual liberty and an engaged civil society. A society always struggling to improve itself and to grow to meet the high standards it aspired to meet. 

We were a republic with a military as needed, to be drawn from the people to defend the people. Even as we rapidly expanded as the inevitable momentum of a growing, hungry industrial age people will against a shrinking, stone age people, we were never overly militarized. Our founding documents discouraged it, but when war called, we rose to the call against enemies foreign and domestic, and then quickly returned home to pre-war norms.

We were knocked off our habit when the Cold War would not let us demobilize after WWII and by default, we became a global empire with client states relying on our sword and shield to protect their commerce, with them serving as auxiliaries.

Generations of American leaders, festooned with the trappings of imperial power and bureaucratic bloat that all empires develop, knew no other world - and were too vested in it to want it to change.

As the government grew imperial in its habits, how could its military not feel the same pull?

We had about a decade without a justification for empire after the fall of the Soviet Union until September 2001. A lot changed at that decisive point in our history, in more ways than perhaps we fully appreciate.

We now have a military sprinkled with devotees of spartans, warriors, warfighters, and gladiators; we find ourselves in the third decade of the 21st Century adopting not just foreign iconography, but words that to previous generations would not have been seen in a positive context for our republic’s military.

Let’s just look at a few words that seem to fit the zeitgeist; warrior, warfighter and gladiator.

From dictionary.com, take a look at their change in usage. Something happened after 2001;


This goes well beyond the occasional pirate iconography that dates back to WWII, this is something else.

We should think about the words we are using, the icons we put in front of us, the references we think reflect how we see ourselves.

To pull from an exchange earlier today about the use of “gladiator” to describe senior NCO’s, why would we want to use that term to describe our military?

Gladiators were mostly slaves, former slaves or condemned prisoners who existed only to maim, kill or be killed for the economic benefit & entertainment of a detached public who derived pleasure from witnessing violence and bloodshed of and by other people.

Should senior leaders see themselves as slaves, suffering under oppression and serving a system that sees them as less than human?


Even worse, we’ve seen an easy slide in to using Spartacus in a positive connotation. Do we see as an example for our senior leaders to look towards insurrection to the political system they serve as a response to grievances they have?

Is it mal-education around history? I don’t think that can explain things when all of human knowledge is but a click away.

Is it a lack of knowledge and respect of our own traditions? Perhaps.

Is it a search for some martial characteristic we desire and feel is missing in ourselves?

Is it trying to find something that is more relatable to how they see ourselves?

If the later, how did the military of a free people decided that they were aligned not with the citizen soldier that gave them a free republic, but with the shock troops of a slavery-fueled monarchy, the Waffen SS, tribalistic raiders, vigilantes, mercenaries & slaves who fight for little but money or survival?

Or could it just look cool, the meaning be damned?

2 comments:

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