I look to the era before the Enlightenment with the kind of nostalgia that only comes to those who never actually had to live through it. This was an era when people fought for belief. The era when men fought with the confidence that the heavens and deities were on their side.
In the quest to secure the most sacred site in Christendom, a Christian crusader bathed his sword in blood knowing with all certainty that he was pleasing God by doing so.
His Muslim opponents committed similar violence while equally sure that Allah smiled down upon them for defending the one true faith against the infidels.
Vikings joyously called upon the names of Thor and Tyr in the heat of battle with the hope of reuniting with their brothers in Valhalla.
Philistines worshipped their god Dagon with blood and bodies.
When these survivors returned from battle, they did so to a culture that embraced and sustained such values. In a Hobbesian world that is “cold, brutish and short,” societies need warriors who can effectively engage and destroy enemy in close and vicious combat. They need warriors who can do so because they have the confidence of their divine mission, that God supports their endeavors because they are defending His people. Their cause is just. Societies that did not cultivate this belief at the core of their warrior culture were often annihilated – at least eventually.
This moral assurance sustaining such warriors in modern times has largely disappeared, particularly due to the after effects and general disillusionment resulting from World War I. A dogma of belief that enabled the moral justification of violence committed by the warrior in order to simplify the life and death struggle of combat has largely been rendered defunct. This transformation likely has significant ramifications for the warrior community and society at large.
Before I am accused of advocating a return to religious warfare, let me just say that I do not believe we should go back to it. As it is, there is no real danger of doing so anyway, at least in the Western secular world. We have taken that kind of moral surety and cast it aside into the realm of zealots and religious extremists.
On the other hand, let us consider what we have lost in doing so.
What happens when the reason for war, its divine justification, is taken away from the warrior? What happens when the land and people he protects no longer assures him that he is on the side of God when he pulls that trigger? Taken further, what happens when that same nation has significant factions within it that tell him that he should be morally condemned for doing so? How does such a society ultimately survive in a world of chaos and violence when its warriors lose such confidence?
Some will agree with this sentiment. They are able to successfully hang up their weapons, diving into and thriving in the uneasy peace of modern man. Some will feel the burden of guilt for their actions over there, seeing war as something which they must wash off their souls clean of.
Others will disagree vehemently, and list reason after reason justifying “their” war. In the GWOT generation, these few are actually refreshing to me: they who can look at their time in Iraq and/or Afghanistan with the belief in its purpose and outcome.
But our culture mocks belief. The notion is inconvenient at best, and dangerous at worst. We are a generation who is asked to kill, often in the absence of belief. The culture of our country is one that looks upon warriors with admiration only if they are able to see past the motivations for fighting: in other words, a jaded man is much cooler than one who believes in what he is doing.
What happens when the warrior looks at his nation, his countrymen, his reason for fighting, and deems them unworthy of his sword? Worship literally means “to assign worth to something.” Indeed, what does it mean if this designation of “worth” is shifted or transformed among those in the trenches? The warrior has spent years honing the craft of marksmanship, tactics, armor, communication, and turning his body and mind into a blade’s edge. When belief is gone, to whom should he offer his services?
Take away the motive behind all of that, and some turn War in and of itself into something beyond a drug, it becomes many’s version of god. They long for it, especially in those peaceful days at home when the starving, pants-shitting reality of combat is far from their couch.
It is one thing to dedicate your life to war when it is your job, when you will likely deploy to combat. It is another altogether to continue its worship after the rifle has been laid down.
It is one thing to continue warrior disciplines such as fitness, marksmanship, and awareness – carrying the best of the veteran culture into the civilian world. It is another thing entirely to deny that there is more to life than turning skulls into canoes.
War becomes the most convenient of gods, because no matter where they fight, the warrior is sure that he battles on the side of his deity. Even aged and decrepit, or broken in a VA bed, he can look back and say, “I fought when so few fought. That is what made me pure. I knelt at the sanguineous throne of Almighty Combat and brought Him a sacrifice of my own blood and flesh, and the souls of my vanquished enemy.”
If that scenario sounds appealing to you, first realize that you are far from alone. There are many in our emasculated culture who would be happy spending hours imagining themselves as ax-wielding Vikings, sword-swinging knights and Samurai, or kitted-up Direct Action teams. After all, it is so much easier to throw your life into a cool idea like combat than it is to invest yourself in a society you have given up trying to understand. At least when War is your god you can make cool memes with Vikings and wolves and Tom Hardy.
You should also realize that War is a fickle god. Worshipped alone, He takes your life and rapes your soul in exchange for nothing. If you put all of your worth into War even after you leave the military, He will take away peace in your family and make stable employment a rare thing. Placed on a pedestal, it is the worship of a negative, kneeling to a means to an end, bowing to a non-entity. It is a convenient comfort zone that causes stagnation and ultimately nihilism.
Consider that you might very well be missing something else entirely, something real in which you can believe.