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To Live and Die by the Sword: In Search of the True Meaning of Warrior

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.


I’ve been a martial arts practitioner for over thirty years now. I love doing it, watching it in movies and matches (including MMA), and discussing it. I don’t think most people know that martial artists, both traditional (TMA) and modern (MMA), are sort of their own community, and made up of their own sub-communities. As such, despite so much to learn, respect, and adapt, there are some elements I equally find annoying and misguided. One of these being the idea of ‘being a warrior’.

It’s not just in the martial arts community, but society at large as well. Warrior is used to describe everything from religious devotees, to people dealing with sickness and soldiers. We all use it as a term of empowerment, to feel that we have some measure of control and confidence in our lives. And to be certain, a lot of these uses deserve respect.

The point of contention for me lies in what the differences are between soldiers and warriors. When I look into ancient history, many cultures don't describe their fighting men as ‘soldiers’, but warriors. Even more so for individuals who stand out amongst the rest, or for societies that produce fighting peoples from extreme violence.

It was not a term used lightly. And now I wonder what the difference is between an MMA fighter calling themselves warriors and bearded killers of the Foreign Legion described as the same.

Individual Achievement

Leaving out any personal benefits aside, I think the differences lie in precedent of the practice: what it has traditionally meant and implied when compared to other combat- oriented activities.

Soldiers I find is a generic term to describe the fighting person recruited from their society to fight. I think there's an implication often times that if they could be doing something else they would be. At best, it might be a career, but I rarely hear of ‘soldiers seeking glory’.

The Greek soldiers at Thermopylae were fighting there because they had to. The French fighting in the Napoleonic wars were fighting because they were inspired by a gifted-but megalomaniac leader. Soldiers who fought and died in the wars of the last century did so because their leaders said so, or were prompted to by invasion.

The Battleground of the Arena

Ok, so lets say then that warrior implies an individual aspect to it. There’s something more personal in it for them. Therefore by that logic, combat sports practitioners would be well justified in referring to themselves as warriors right?

Well if that's the case, why not refer to themselves as ‘gladiators’ instead, or in pairing with warriors? I mean if anything there’s more of a connection between the two I would think. They both fight in an arena of sorts and within the definition of ‘games’. That world has rules and they have certainly varied from the bloodsports of old where lives were forfeit, to today where you can brutalize someone, but not maim or kill them. Even the term ‘fighter’ I think maybe more appropriate here.

Even mercenaries or mercs, while fighting outside of arenas are also fighting for something more…generic, like money. It’s not like they’re going out killing people for the hell of it.

So if we decide to go with that then, what defines a true warrior?

"When men meet in fight, better is stout heart than sharp sword"

— Volsunga, C19

Defined by the Sword

In modern western lexicon, the warrior is someone who is strong, fierce, independent, tough...and also has a moral code.

If we were to go by the above descriptions, many who call themselves warriors certainly fall into one of the categories here, yet it equally feels like there’s still an aspect missing. Some pieces that I know should be there but aren't.

Moreover, much of the time the term is commandeered by outside forces like marketing and capitalism, and nationalism.

It doesn't make them weak by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s limits. Put a TMA or MMA person against a street fighter, the odds are pretty stacked in their favor, short of multiple or armed attackers. Put them against Army or Marine soldiers and more often than not, they get their asses handed to them. Usually because the soldier is willing to go further than an athletic fighter. Maybe a gladiator might give them more of a run for their money since supposedly those fights were death battles and armed.

Even still, soldiers don’t just fight hand to hand or one-vs-one battles, but full on battlefield situations. No rules. Absolute chaos except for one’s own training, discipline, mental fortitude, and will to survive or to win. All that said, most soldiers I’ve met would always rather not be on the battlefield and who can blame them? There’s certainly no shame in it. They want to serve their nation, but also have families they want to get back to. Again no shame in that whatsoever.

Then I looked at what passed for a warrior when the term was not so easily bestowed and I started to get a picture.

During Japan's imperialistic wars of the 1930's and 40's, the government took full advantage of the nation's martial history of bushido to inspire loyalty.  This included manufacturing katana swords in factories. Something in the past that took years

During Japan's imperialistic wars of the 1930's and 40's, the government took full advantage of the nation's martial history of bushido to inspire loyalty. This included manufacturing katana swords in factories. Something in the past that took years

Why are the Norse almost always referred to exclusively as warriors, or samurai, or even janissaries? I think the answer, as well as the difference from the earlier terminologies, lies in the term itself: war-iors.

Warriors are primarily defined by extreme, chaotic, and absolute violence. It’s what they live for. Not for family, not for country, but for the glory of the violence of itself. I’m not referring to some idealistic notion of war like so many of us have today. Rather most soldiers would say that you don't want to go to war. But clearly not everyone felt that way about battle.

Vikings were fully aware of the violence they were inflicting on others and yet continued to go back for more. Same with Samurai. Warriors of the Aztecs and Incas fought, captured and killed for the glory of their gods and it defined them as men and as a class. Musashi Miyamoto, Japan’s greatest swordsmen, started out as a life and death dualist, then a soldier, and then back to a duelist before swearing off killing while still continuing to duel and teach it. He used his remaining years to write on his philosophy of life and battle.

These I believe are the characteristics that define what a warrior is. Note also that morality is not a key component. A warrior could just as much rape in a village as they could show mercy on a child...maybe. There are a diversity of people that are different that fit this bill. Some are loud and boisterous but have the body count and scars to back it up. Some are quiet and reserved. You would never know the violence that person may have inflicted unless they chose to tell you or you happen to catch them at some moment where a hint of that leaks through. Yet the common thread through this diversity is that character-defining lifestyle of violence.

Warriors are defined by war. They are extensions of war itself made manifest in flesh. If a soldier retires from the military and later finds themselves signing up with a overseas security force or merc group, you probably could call them warriors because they no longer know what to do with peace. Polynesian warriors of some tribes would initiate a war if they felt their ability as warriors was questioned or being taken away, even if the latter was by peaceful means.

Many of history's most tragic incidents were committed by warriors. So when I see most people calling themselves that, no matter how tough they may be, I almost always disregard it. Because they do not live, breathe, and die by war.

Everyone has their own definition of course and mine are not absolute nor above reproach. But I believe that if you like the comfortable life, family, friends, and fighting only when necessary, then you do not want to be a warrior.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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