I want to take another stab at convincing some of you there’s an important — essential — distinction between a warrior and a terrorist, and it’s not based on the cause they’re fighting for. It’s a theme I’ve brought up from time to time in the blogging I’ve done.
In Greek histories, Spartan mothers sent their sons to war with the commandment, “Come back with your shield, or on it.”
Spartan mothers loved their babies, too — they did not want to see dead bodies of their son brought back, as was the custom, sprawled on their shields. But if a warrior returned alive and unarmed it meant he had broken ranks and run. It meant he had thrown away the shield that protected — not his own life, but, in the old method of fighting in phalanxes, the life of the man next to him. He had broken faith with his comrades; he had forgotten his warrior’s code.
They wanted their sons back alive, but whole in spirit as well as body. They wanted them with honor intact. Everyone today who loves a soldier, sailor or Marine understand this. We want them alive, we want them victorious — and we want them to have lives worth living when their battles are over.
Modern armies sweep into their ranks hundreds of thousands of people. Not all are fit to be soldiers. Those who are not, when discovered, should be weeded out and sent home, and if they have committed crimes in the meanwhile they should be punished for them.
But this is not a matter of good soldiers and bad apples. Certain kinds of combat, or duty, wear down the military codes of honor. The warrior’s code frays, then the seams fall apart. Then horrible things begin to happen.
Warrior codes, whether in Sparta or in West Point, distinguish soldiers from murderers. Warriors have rules that govern when and how they kill. Learning them is part of the purpose of military training. We give soldiers the power to take lives, but only certain lives, in certain ways, at certain times, and for certain reasons.
The purpose of a code “is to restrain warriors, for their own good as much as for the good of others,” writes Shannon E. French, an assistant professor of philosophy and author of “The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present.” “The essential element of a warrior’s code is that it must set definite limits on what warriors can and cannot do if they want to continue to be regarded as warriors, not murderers or cowards. For the warrior who has such a code, certain actions remain unthinkable, even in the most dire or extreme circumstances.”
Yet the greatest danger of crossing that thin, sharp line that separates warriors from murderers is not in a war not among great powers, evenly matched. But it lurks when well-equipped armies are pitted against weak but merciless foes who hit and run and hide among civilians. It lurks in the places where people blow up public buildings to make a political point. There is no warrior code in that; a terrorist is a terrorist, however he justifies himself.
It is not the justness, or lack of it, in a war that makes this happen. Japanese soldiers, brutalized by experience in China, massacred and mutilated surrendering American soldiers in the Pacific in World War II, and Americans did it in turn to the Japanese when they found out about it. Tennessee soldiers who fought with honor and discipline at Shiloh in 1862 turned into murderous bushwhackers by 1864. Many soldiers in Hitler’s army behaved to the end with utmost military discipline. Some of the Soviet troops who defeated the Nazis raped and pillaged their path halfway across Europe.
When warriors and murderers clash, the murderers risk nothing but death. The warriors risk more. “Their only protection is their code of honor,” French writes. “The professional military ethics that restrain warriors — that keep them from targeting those who cannot fight back, from taking pleasure in killing, from striking harder than is necessary, and that encourage them to offer mercy to their defeated enemies and even to help rebuild their countries and communities — are also their own protection against becoming what they abhor.”
[That’s something written three years ago, thinking of the U.S. in Iraq. I could make the same point again in fresh words, with references to the current situation in the Mideast. But here it is with nothing tilted or spun for the sake of the case in view.]