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Book Review: Steven Pressfield’s “The Warrior Ethos”: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint by Edward Carpenter

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

This review is kind of different from what I normally do as it is mainly a review of book written as a critique and alternative to another book.  The main review is of Edward Carpenter’s Steven Pressfield’s “The Warrior Ethos”: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint, which is response to the inclusion of The Warrior Ethos on the Marine Corps Professional Reading List a few years ago.

That is unfortunate as The Warrior Ethos is essentially a piece of garbage book.  Steven Pressfield is a historical fiction author who decided to write a book about what a warrior s and should aspire to be for the modern military.  The Warrior Ethos is the result.  It is essentially a cherry picking of historical and same fictional events and anecdotes that purports to be a moral and behavioral guide for the modern warrior.  Almost all the anecdotes and events are drawn from ancient history, particularly Sparta.  He is a former Marine having served in the 60’s but never having seen combat.

I think what gets me the most about this book is the almost adulatory tone towards the Spartans, a people who routinely exposed babies they saw as unfit, kept the majority of their population as slaves, mandated military training for all males, and looked at war as sport.   There are some things about Spartans that are admirable, and their military abilities are one them.  The oppression and abuse they heaped upon themselves to achieve that greatness extracted a high price tough.  A price I am not convinced was worth the payoff.

The Warrior Ethos is a small book, only 112 pages and takes about 1 ½ hours to read.  It is essentially new-age, psychobabble pap with a basis on a tyrannical, repressive ancient regime that did not survive more than 400 years or so.  I am actually shocked that the book ended up on a professional reading list.

That being said Steven Pressfield’s “The Warrior Ethos”: One Marine Officer’s Critique and Counterpoint by Edward Carpenter is not very large either at only 124 pages.  That is mainly because it does not require a lot of space to destroy what are the patently absurd ideas contained within Pressfield’s book.  Edward Carpenter is a currently serving Marine Major and as he states in the foreword of his book, he felt compelled to write a critique after reading it.  MAJ Carpenter divides his book into two parts; part I is the critique of Pressfield and part II is his counter-proposal for what a Warrior Ethos should consist of.

In part I he takes Pressfield’s assertions about warriors and warrior-hood and does an outstanding job of debunking them one by one often using text from Pressfield’s own book to do so.  I don’t think I have seen a better job of hoisting someone on their own petard in good long while.  Part I was actually a joy to read and I was unhappy that it was not longer as the idiocy in Pressfield’s points and assertions are brutally exposed for the fallacies they are.

Part II is the answer part to Pressfield’s assertions.  It essentially goes through Pressfield’s book point by point and offers a countervailing view of what a warrior is and what a warrior ethos should contain.  This part is likewise well written but I personally have many issues with the points he makes.  That is probably due to my background as a combat arms soldier with combat under my belt and 23 years of experience.

If I have any issues with part II it is because from my perspective it is written from the PC point of view enforced by the modern military.  He likes to toss out the overused and now essentially meaningless adjective of something or someone being misogynistic.  That is a sop to the modern military fetish for ignoring the differences between men and women and heaping derision on those that point out such differences.  There are in fact, observable and quantifiable differences between men and women and they cannot be put into the same box.  That is not to say that men and women cannot be part of the same team, just that men and women largely cannot do all of the same things.  Men and women complement each other, but do not replace each other.  The modern military ignores this aspect at their peril.

I also have the traditional disdain of the line soldier for support troops.  I acknowledge that without the clerks and jerks in the rear I would not have been able to engage in my passion for blowing things up and breaking stuff.  However, there are attitude, mental, and motivational differences between somebody sitting in an ambush position waiting for the enemy and the guy running a fuel point on a secure FOB.  I don’t think you can truthfully say that everyone wearing a uniform in the modern military is a warrior.  That is just as much new age garbage as Pressfield’s ostensible claim that the only warrior is some bloodthirsty brute with veins in their teeth looking to kill.  I don’t buy the notion that the “fobbits” and the guys going out the gate on a daily basis are equivalent.

I disagree with Carpenter’s definition of a warrior as “a person who willing to subordinate themselves to the demands of a country or a cause, and is willing to aid other members of their organization to engage in violence, and to kill or die or risk severe injury themselves to advance the interest of that cause.”  That broad definition includes terrorists but I don’t have a problem with that.  I have a problem that the definition equates the clerk working in the finance office with the spear thrower on the firing line.  I would submit that the two activities are categorically different and the warrior is in fact the person on the line engaging in combat in the effort to “close with and destroy the enemy through the use of fire, maneuver, and shock effect” as my last Cavalry squadron’s mission statement put it.

He goes on in this vein through the rest of pat II attempting to craft a definition of warrior that is all-encompassing and therefore allows every person wearing a uniform in the modern military to style themselves a warrior.  I understand the logic behind the effort having seen it at work during my last decade of service, I just disagree with it.  A freedom I have, now that I am retired and no longer required to toe the party line in my words and actions.

I find that MAJ Carpenter’s book is well worth reading, especially his counterpoint, which gives some perspective on the way modern US military leadership is expected to think and the mental hoops they have to jump through to do so.  As I state above, I understand the necessity for support troops.  Some support troops indeed have inherently dangerous jobs such as EOD teams, fuel handlers, ammo handlers, and truck driver’s.  That those jobs are inherently dangerous does not the people performing those jobs warriors though.  A fuel line I not actively trying to kill you.  That is why I firmly believe that the warrior is still and will always be the front line combat arms soldier.

I highly recommend MAJ Carpenter’s book as both a needed critique of The Warrior Ethos, but also as a look into how professional military officers have been trained to see the profession of arms.  In order to fully understand the work though, you need to read Pressfield’s book first.  The greater hope is that MAJ Carpenters erudite destruction of Pressfield’s garbage will cause the powers that be to rethink including Pressfield’s book on the professional reading list and will prompt its removal.