I think a lot about warriorship. Funny term isn’t it, quaint, nostalgic, a bit stuffy. Except that it’s not when you understand it’s full, delicious, powerful potential. Let me explain.
Quite a while ago now I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. First time I got introduced to it I totally wasn’t ready, being sure it was about a philosophy that did not have anything to do with my life at the time — which was centered on drinking beer and flying helicopters (but not both at the same time!). But when I finally did read it. Mind blown.
Among many other searing insights Zen paints such a beautiful picture of the warrior. Not the hardened, one-dimensional caricature we’ve been misled to think. No. The warrior as a brilliant polymath:
Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing arête.
Warriorship has far more in common I think with what we would these days bestow on our coolest friends, and not the try-hard cool ones either, the really genuine cool ones you want to grow up to be like. The ones you catch yourself reflecting on secretly, all the while wondering how they pull it off. The ones you’d wistfully call a renaissance man. That’s warriorship.
Major General Walter Piatt of the U.S. Army was interviewed about his meditation habits recently by Dan Harris, the fidgety skeptical news anchor who did too much blow and had a panic attack live on the ABC morning news. If you think top military brass meditating gets a few raised eyebrows, wait til you hear the Maj Gen tell you how he believes that compassion can win more battles than bullets ever could. Warriorship is quaint? This is the force that creates revolutions. Compassion, he goes on to say, is what gets you to a true understanding with the enemy, so that they’re not actually your enemy any more. Compassion, true understanding, is what allows you to be disarming. That’s real. That’s what modern warriorship allows you to do. It’s a superpower. A national security asset.
What an Angry Mob Taught me About Warriorship
A few years ago I had the privilege of being an embedded civil liaison officer in an army security patrol in central Afghanistan. I say privilege, because I got to experience how a close knit team of professional soldiers operate in the rugged mountains of the Hindu Kush when you’re miles and miles from any support. One day we were out on patrol investigating a tip-off about a weapons cache hidden in a cave just outside a village in one of the surrounding valleys. We set up a cordon as best we could to keep the locals away, just in case anything went wrong and we accidentally tripped something off, not wanting to cause any harm to the many passersby through this steep valley thoroughfare. As the day worn on, and we had to hold more and more locals back at the cordon out of our legitimate safety concern, things started to get heated. Soon, the entire village came out in angry protest at what they perceived as a blatant tyrannical curtailing of their freedom. There was me, my interpreter, and 10 other guys. There must have been at least 400 villagers.
“We will stay and fight and die!” They screamed at us. “We will not be told how to live on our own land!”
Of course they were upset — they should have been upset. I would be too if some strange force rocked up in my backyard and started saying where I could or could not go. And what was the only worldview they had to reference us against? The Soviets. No wonder they were angry.
So there’s me and my interpreter in front of 400 soon-to-be violent Afghans with only my voice and my compassion standing in the way of us all getting home safely after this, or it all going horribly, horribly wrong. So I just started agreeing with them.
“Yes, yes I couldn’t agree more, this IS some bullshit. You absolutely have a right to be angry. Let me tell you I would be pissed too, believe me. We don’t want to be here either, we just want to make sure you’re all safe and you won’t accidentally trip something off. Just as soon as we can let you through safely we are out of here.”
We drove away peacefully that night, after we’d made sure some local kids didn’t accidental step on a trap, or a goat-herder didn’t accidentally walk into some smuggler’s guarded lair. And it wasn’t because we muscled our way out of that situation like some stiff, fixed-thinking, hair-trigger robot. Our patrol got out of there, and all the locals got back safely to their homes more importantly, because we showed up with our hearts and with our willingness to understand.