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The military’s self-characterization as ‘selfless servant warriors’

Posted by John Reed on

Selfless warriors

‘I’m a soldier’

Back in the late 60s, one of my West Point classmates announced that he had begun to answer that question with the phrase, “I’m a soldier.” I reacted sharply saying it was melodramatic and self-conscious. When people ask what you do they are not interested in any philosophical or psychological posturing. Calling yourself a “soldier” sounds in your face and defensive. Hardly anyone uses such phraseology. Rather, they would say “He’s in the Army” or say, “He’s a sergeant or captain or whatever in the Army.”

Indeed, that classmate said that when he tried it a couple of times on single women he was pursuing, they reacted with surprise and concern that they had offended him by asking. Makes my point.

Lately, I have noticed that military people are constantly describing themselves as “selfless servants” and “warriors.” West Point graduate Nate Sassaman wrote a book called Warrior King which I reviewed. I assumed as I began reading the book that Sassaman got that name from his commander or some media reporter. Nope. He apparently named himself that.

Spare us.

Based on Sassaman’s self-description, I would agree that he was extraordinarily aggressive in carrying out his duties in Iraq. But that covers it. There is no need for the melodrama of a word like “warrior.”

If you risk your life, you get a pass when you speak bullshit

This is yet another example of military people getting a pass on obvious bullshit because they sometimes risk their lives. Nowadays, most American are draft dodgers and are afraid to criticize military people in any way. This, as I have said elsewhere at this Web site, is dangerous to the nation. In fact, the military is one of the most screwed-up institutions in our society. The last damn thing we need is to compound that crime by immunizing them from criticism. Reluctance to criticize the military is one of the main reasons the military is so screwed-up.

Way back in 1925, Army Air Corps legend General Billy Mitchell said,

The traditional military mind is notoriously sensitive to any breath of criticism, and any attempt to tear away the veil of its mystery is apt to be greeted by cries of sacrilege.

Lots of professions risk their lives

The military has no monopoly on risking their lives. Alaska crab fishermen, cops, and firemen do, too. Highway workers reportedly have the highest death rate per capita of any vocational category. School crossing guards probably die at an extraordinary rate if highway workers do. Hospital workers risk infection from needles and airborne and surface germs.

More people died violently in Obama’s South Side of Chicago neighborhood in 2008 than soldiers who died in Iraq in 2008. I am a Vietnam vet. 58,000 of us died there, but that was only about 1% of those who served there. The fatal casualty rate in Iraq and Afghanistan is about the same 1% of those who serve there. Plus, perhaps 20% to 33% of those who die in combat zones actually die from non-enemy events like friendly fire and accidents. Tens of thousands of Americans die annually on our roads in vehicle accidents.

Combat fatalities are vivid and dramatic and thereby capture our imagination more, but the guy who was holding the slow/stop sign is just as dead. The military should not receive extra credit for the increased cinemagenic nature of their risks. Even if the risks taken by military personnel were uniquely extraordinary, that would still not warrant reluctance to criticize unsatisfactory performance or behavior. Indeed, the matter is circular. Unsatisfactory behavior increases the risks the military face. That means their demands for above-criticism treatment are akin to the young man who murdered his parents then asked the court for mercy because he was an orphan.

I was almost killed twice in Vietnam. Once, I was just missed by a deuce-and-a-half truck where the idiot enlisted man driving it roared up to the spot in the motor pool where I was walking and slammed on the brakes. Written on the windshield of the truck in question in grease pencil were the words “No brakes!” The speeding truck was instead stopped by the building that was about ten feet behind me upon impact. Had I been killed, my death would have been added to the total that military personnel point to as evidence that they deserve special treatment because they often risk their lives. My name would be on the Vietnam memorial wall in DC as another of its “heroes.” In the case of the many such stupid accidental deaths in the military every year, the military deserves an ass-chewing, not additional respect.


Our active-duty and retired military “selfless servants” get to stay cheap in a military-only hotel called Hale Koa at Fort DeRussey on Waikiki Beach right next to the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Hale Koa means ‘House of the Warriors” in Hawaiian.

I stayed at Fort DeRussey in June, 1965 when I was an 18-year-old rising sophomore cadet at West Point. I hitched rides there on Air Force planes after my freshman year at West Point. It was my first time on an airplane. But there was no high-rise Hale Koa then; just a one-story temporary WW II building with paper thin walls. It may have been a quonset hut. It wasn’t called Hale Anything. If it had a Hale name it would have been just “Hale Active Duty and/or Retired Military Personnel and their Families.” We just did our jobs without the PR hype and self-aggrandizement back then.

Indeed, the word “warrior” would have seemed a bit retro to us. From from 1789 until September 18, 1947, America had a War Department. That was changed to the Department of Defense in 1947. House of the Defenders would seem more politically correct than House of the Warriors.


The word “warrior” has an aboriginal connotation. Where I live now, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have warriors, namely, the Golden State Warriors NBA basketball team. Years ago, their team logo would have been a painting of an aboriginal American Indian wearing war paint. Using pictures of American Indians is now considered politically incorrect so they just have a logotype “W.” Using a picture of an Indian to represent the Golden State Warriors would be like using a picture of a leprechaun to illustrate Notre Dame teams. Irish people might be offended. (I am 1/16 Cherokee, 1/2 Scots-Irish, and 1/4 Irish. I am proud of the Fighting Irish and would be proud of the Charging Cherokees or whatever if such a name were allowed by the NCAA.) I am not proud of a bunch of overweight, chain-smoking civil servants who have an average of about 20 seconds total per person combat experience calling themselves “warriors.”

A 1979 movie called Warriors was about a street gang. A series of Children’s fantasy books is called Warriors. In that series, the warriors are wild animals of the cat family. The word “warrior” is also used for video games depicting superhuman fantasy avatars.

Lots of combat experience

The word “warrior” also suggests significant combat experience—actually, lots of old-time hand-to-hand combat experience. To put it in current U.S.-Army-awards-and-decorations terminology, the typical aboriginal warrior would have a combat infantryman’s badge, half a dozen Purple Hearts, and two or three Distinguished Service Crosses (the second highest bravery medal after the Congressional Medal of Honor). That’s my definition of someone who has the right to refer to himself as a “warrior.” If that’s not you, give us a break with that kind of talk.

Does this describe all U.S. military personnel? Ha! Maybe a dozen guys in the whole U.S. military.

I am probably a typical U.S. combat veteran. I did a tour in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. Most of the time, nothing happened. Occasionally, our base would receive incoming enemy rockets—like monthly at most. I drove through a North Vietnamese ambush once. They did not fire apparently because they did not want to waste a good ambush on one jeep with a first lieutenant and sergeant first class. They ambushed a U.S. truck convoy a few minutes behind us instead.

As a communications guy, I spent more time than most driving and flying around to various bases including some “as far forward as you could get” bases like Bunard and Firebase Wade (?) in Loc Ninh. I was about as exposed as you could be in those travels and bases, but the enemy, for unknown reasons, chose not to attack us. Some guys were in fire fights that lasted hours or days like Hue, the Ia Drang Valley, and Khe Sanh. Thankfully, those were unusual. The enemy could not afford to reveal their location to us for long because of our extreme firepower advantage.

In October, 2009, I was surprised to learn that former VA head and U.S. Senator Max Cleland had more or less the same job that I did. He was a communications officer in an infantry battalion in the 1st Air Cav in Vietnam—same job I had in the 82nd Airborne and almost the same job I had in a mixed-heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam. He got a silver star in the Battle of Khe Sanh but received his famous injury—losing his right arm and both legs—at the hands of a stupid U.S. enlisted man who got the bright idea to loosen the pins on his grenades. (So he could throw them quicker?) One fell on the ground when they were getting out of a helicopter at a cold LZ (no enemy fighting go on) where he was to set up a radio relay station. The pin came out and the handle popped off starting the 4-second fuse burning. Cleland assumed it still had its pin in and bent over to pick it up. When his right hand was five inches from the grenade, it blew up.

Was I a ‘warrior?’

So was I a “warrior?” The way the word is being used today, I would be. Hell, they call guys who never set foot in a combat zone “warriors” nowadays.

Do I think I was a “warrior” in Vietnam? Hell, no! I was a communications officer making my rounds. Was I risking my life? Sure. We all were. But it was no big deal compared to the other 500,000 guys there at the same time. We were all doing various versions of what I did.

It certainly did not constitute warriorness. I was never an aborigine. I never laid eyes on an enemy other than a P.O.W. once. I never fired my weapon. (One of my high school football players asked me if I ever killed anyone in Vietnam. “I never fired my weapon,” I answered. Shocked, he asked, “Why not?” After a suffer-fools-gladly pause I said, “I never saw a bad guy who had a weapon. You don’t shoot unless you have an armed bad guy in your sights.”)

I was single in the Vietnam era. I shudder at the thought of the reaction I would have gotten if I had told a single woman I was trying to get to know that I was a “warrior.” Probably something like, “Ooookay. Oh, look at the time! I have to go. Have a good time warrioring.”

If you truly were slugging it out with the enemy in an extended fire fight or multiple fire fights, not just some guy who completed basic training and AIT and was stationed in the motor pool in the Green Zone, God bless you. Thank you. I salute you. But lose the “warrior” bullshit. It does not become you and it is not necessary.

‘Where there’s never a boast or a brag’

In 1906, George M. Cohan wrote a song for his Broadway musical George Washington, Jr. The song was You’re a Grand Old Flag and it incuded this chorus:

Ev'ry heart beats true
'neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.

Well, there may never have been a boast or a brag in the United States in 1906. But we do it all the time nowadays, after every touchdown, every sack. And every damn man or woman in the U.S. military has taken to bragging shamelessly that they are “selfless” and “warriors.” I prefer the Americans of 1906. They had more class and integrity and they were a lot closer to selfless warriors charging “over the top” of their trenches with fixed bayonets into “no man’s land” and enemy machinegun fire than the $52,869.60-a-year, air-conditioned-quarters, armored-humvee-riding, body-armored “selfless servant warriors” of today.

I am aware that 6,000 American military have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am also aware that 9.6 million allied soldiers and marines died in World War I. And as far as I know, the World War I American vets never referred to themselves as “sefless servant warriors.” If you could ask them if they were “selfless servant warriors,” they would almost certainly be taken aback by the question wording and say, “No. I was just another doughboy doing my job, doing my duty.”

Lawyers and doctors do not do this

True professionals like lawyers and doctors have not gone this melodramatic self-aggrandizement route. Lawyers do not call themselves “justice warriors.” Doctors do not call themselves “saviors” or “lifesavers.” True professionals do not have to embellish or spin what they do. Only insecure wannabe professionals do. As long as the military engages in such gratuitous, self-conscious melodrama, they will simply be reminding the rest of the world of the military inferiority complex—a well-deserved, well-earned inferiority complex.

If military people want to be called these names—by others not themselves, please—they need to earn them, not proclaim them unilaterally. You want “selfless,” cut your overly generous benefits. You want “servant,” lose the aides, enlisted drivers, salutes, “sirs,” “command performance” parties, and all that. You want to be called “warriors,” start killing more enemy fighters literally. Start winning wars rather than occupying countries for a decade or more issuing news releases on how much “progress” they are achieving. You want to be called a “professional,” get an advanced degree in killing people and destroying enemy equipment and infrastructure and stop spending decades as a nomadic temp who is a jack of a dozen bureaucratic chores and a master of no profession.


Then there is the phrase “selfless service.” Sassaman uses that to describe himself as well, but as with warrior, he is far from alone among today’s military personnel in doing so. I see it and hear it all over the place with regard to today’s career military people.

Again, spare us.

The first name that comes to mind when I hear the phrase “selfless service” is Mother Theresa. Older readers might also think of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. But I wonder if even she deserved it. She was a celebrity. Fame is compensation of a sort. For some, it’s all they want. In my eight years on active duty, I never met a fellow soldier who would have inspired me to call him a “selfless servant.” Never, and that included a tour in Vietnam during that war. There were many selfless acts there with regard to fellow soldiers, but not selflessness toward the nation being “served.”

Mother Theresa has been beatified by the Pope. That is the first step toward becoming a saint. As far as I know, no U.S. military person has been beatified or canonized. To hear U.S. military people describe themselves nowadays, one would think they believe you should be canonized just for hearing cannon fire.

A reader tells me Father Capodanno, a Navy Chaplain killed in Vietnam who was post-humously awarded the Medal of Honor. On May 19, 2002, Capodanno's Cause for Canonization was officially opened, and so he is now referred to as a Servant of God.

We got paid

We had a job. We got paid. The pay was about the same as we would have gotten in civilian life. For those who stayed in for twenty years or more, the retirement benefits were scandalously generous: half pay adjusted annually for inflation, more if you stayed in longer than 20 years, total free medical care for you and your dependents and PX and commissary privileges for life. In garrison in the U.S., our hours were early in the day and maybe one hour more than civilian jobs, but not so bad. The on-base parking lots were suspiciously empty in the afternoons and more so as the weekend got closer. We had little or no pressure like you have in civilian jobs to make a profit or get things done quickly. At times, we were sent to what Army officers call “gentlemen’s courses.” These were schools—Signal Officers Basic, Radio Officer School and Satellite Communications Officer School in my case. We wore the military equivalent of a business suit and tie, attended class for less than eight hours a day, frequently had Friday afternoon off, and did not work weekends or pull guard duty or any of that. We also got TDY pay, substantial extra money that was tax-free.

The officers get saluted and called “sir” all day long. For official business trips, they have to be driven everywhere by an enlisted man. Some servants.

In other words, we were not making some big sacrifice to be in the Army. Being in Vietnam sucked like being in a bad Boy Scout camp. The living conditions were substandard. The food was sometimes bad. We were far from friends, relatives, and many creature comforts and recreation opportunities that civilians back in the States take for granted. Plus there were occasionally enemy shooting at us. But it was not selfless service. We were getting paid as before plus combat pay. We had free, first-run movies. Famous celebrities came to visit us. (I never met one.) On occasion, I played ping pong and volleyball in Vietnam. We played so much ping pong at one base that we got scary good at it—like deliberately aiming, and hitting, at the edge of the table with a wrist flip curving shot. At one location, we had a gnarly, above-ground swimming pool made out of black rubber.

Not only were we paid to be there, we went under threat of being court martialed and shot if we refused to go.

Pain in the ass? Yes. Selfless service? No.

‘Civil’ not ‘selfless’

The more accurate description of being in the military is civil service, not selfless service. Those who use the “selfless” phrase are grossly exaggerating their own wonderfulness. Most career people stay in the military longer than they have to because they like it and think they would, or might, like civilian life less. They do not stay because they are making some total altruistic sacrifice for their fellow man. They think the military is a better financial deal than they would get in civilian life.

The real selfless servants in this world are those who care for a sick or injured or handicapped relative without market-rate pay or fame or benefits. God bless them. Almost no one on active duty in the U.S. military fits that description. The Vietnam P.O.W.s during their captivity were selfless servants in the way they helped each other without assurance they would ever be paid or rewarded or recognized for doing so. Medics in a fire fight are selfless. Chopper pilots flying into or out of a hot LZ are selfless. But just wearing the uniform does not make you a selfless servant.

‘The Army takes care of its own’

Here is a quote from a U.S. Army Family Team Building Web site:

In the past it was said, "The Army takes care of its own." Today's saying is more appropriately: "The Army takes care of its own by teaching its own to take care of themselves."

Neither of those suggests selfless service. Each expresses a different way of “taking care of Number One.” The statement “The Army takes care of its own” is the Army equivalent of the old saying, “Charity begins at home.” It has a tribal, us-versus-them meaning, belying their other claims on other days to be the servants of “them.”

There is nothing wrong with any of those four sayings. They express common, legitimate human virtues. But when a group of people who subscribe to those statements also claims to be “selfless servants,” eyebrows should be raised and the hypocrisy thus revealed ought to be noted.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omisions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.

Certified good guy

There are a number of careers where just joining the occupation makes you a certified great person. They include:

• priest
• nun
• doctor
• nurse
• fireman
• police
• Coast Guard
• military

Clearly, many who join these professions do so because they have some sort of psychological need to be viewed this way. I was raised as a Catholic and went to Catholic school. I especially noticed that many priests and nuns seemed to be nobody special but by joining those professions, they were treated as exceedingly special by almost everyone. This was especially annoying to me because the priesthood and convent seemed to me to have no standards—and that was before any pedophile or sex scandals. You got treated like a saint without having to do anything but wear black clothes and hang around the church and school buildings.

It has been said that politics is Hollywood for ugly people. I thought the word “ugly” was a bit harsh. Didn’t they mean ordinary-looking people? Then I noticed Harry Reid, John Murtha, and Arlen Specter and realized, no, they really mean ugly.”

I have paraphrased that to say that the military, especially the tough-guy, so-called “elite” units is the NFL for unathletic, ordinary-sized people. With this “selfless servant” nonsense, the military is trying to become the priesthood, if not the sainthood, for carousing, chain-smoking, drunken, pot heads. The non-medical-clergy occupations on that list are also getting a cheap, in many cases, certification as an action-figure hero. The military is full of desk jockeys and truck mechanics who have never been to a war zone and who strut around in the civilian world in uniform getting drinks bought for them by easily-awed and guilty-about-their-own-lack-of-military-service civilians.

The recurring theme is that merely joining an occupation with such a public image, even where the occupation has no standards or easily-met standards, transforms in a matter of months or a few years you into a certified wonderful person.

Some would say becoming a doctor or a nurse has high standards. High academic standards, yes. But getting an MD or RN designation does not mean you are a good nurse or doctor, only that you were a good academic student of MD and RN subject matter.

To become a certified wonderful person, you ought to have to do wonderful things repeatedly.

The problem with the above list of certified good guy occupations is they can be joined too cheaply. The problem with those who seek them for the purpose of being a certified good guy as a result is that they apparently have some sort of mental problem that would be better served by psychiatric therapy than this training. There is also the problem that these occupations are often important and therefore ought to have as their members those best suited for them, not those most in need of the short-cut to self esteem and public esteem.

Here is a link to a Psychology Today article that seems to say much the same thing as I said:

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