Way of the Warrior in the 21st Century

2013 ShinsaAs a kendo practitioner I am attracted to the concept of being a “modern warrior” but I really don’t know what that means. The concept is seductive and empowering but mis-application can lead to ridicule and even injury.

Step one in exploring this concept is understanding what is a warrior. I completely agree with Wikipedia’s definition of the term “warrior.” It is a person dedicated to the art of war and who’s world view and personal behavior is bound and defined by a personal and philosophical code of honor which dictates his (or her’s) every action.

Definition of honor, in my mind, is the concept of a higher code of ethics and personal responsibility that exceeds the value of the life of the person. In effect, death should be less frightening than dishonor.

Are modern soldiers warriors? The term “warrior” is applied to soldiers in the US as a sign of respect, especially in light of the terrible treatment that Vietnam-era soldiers suffered at the hands of their citizens.

In reality, though, soldiers are not warriors. Their behavior is dictated by military policy that demands obedience over anything else. The reason is sensible and derives from the time of fixed-formation movement as far back as ancient times. A soldier cannot ignore an order even if it goes against his code of honor (though he can ignore an order that goes against military policy but that is not the same thing).

Are mercenaries warriors? They can pick and choose their fights and have more freedom than soldiers. I suppose that is possible but most mercenaries (or contract soldiers like those who protect ships from pirates or who work for military contractors) are usually fighting for money which is not something that appears in ethical or moral codes (unless there is an Ayn Rand-themed band of warriors that I don’t know about!).

I think the door has closed on the warrior concept being realized in current times but that doesn’t mean that we cannot take some of the higher concepts from the warrior codes and apply them to our lives, here and now.

Budo, the Japanese concept of the modern martial arts does this really well. A person can study martial arts (whether a budo practice like kendo or the actual science of swordsmanship like one of the traditional sword styles that do not have a sport application) and just taste some of the deeper concepts that once permeated the air of those ancient warriors.

In practice, one can choose to be just, treat others with dignity, and dedicate one’s life to a physical and mental practice that expands their view of themselves and the world around them.

It may be just a taste of a bygone age, but it can still be a sweet and satisfying one.

Poetry of Cao Cao

Reprinted from my nascent G+ blog:

The Chinese TV series, Three Kingdoms, is a great program and one of the best I’ve seen about this great historical story (more here about The Romance of the Three Kingdoms).

All of the actors were well-chosen for their characters and it is a real pleasure to watch them become these famous people of ancient history.

The character of Cao Cao is neither hero nor villain. He has conflicting sides to him, which makes him real. His poetry reflects that and I’ll leave you with this:

Though the Tortoise Lives Long (龜雖壽).


Though the Tortoise Lives Long


Though the tortoise blessed with magic powers lives long,

Its days have their allotted span;


Though winged serpents ride high on the mist,

They turn to dust and ashes at the last;


An old war-horse may be stabled,

Yet still it longs to gallop a thousand li;


And a noble-hearted man though advanced in years

Never abandons his proud aspirations.


Man’s span of life, whether long or short,

Depends not on Heaven alone;


One who eats well and keeps cheerful

Can live to a great old age.


And so, with joy in my heart,

I hum this song.

Roman Art: Sex & Violence

Pan and Goat Priest and SonsThe BBC site ran an essay by Alistair Sooke, art critic for The Daily Telegraph newspaper. In it he detailed some of the art from ancient Rome that was shocking by modern standards as well as that of our Renaissance fore-bearers.

Some of the artworks were sexual in nature while others were violent. Frankly, I found his tone to be stiff and uptight, as if somehow our ancient ancestors were barbaric (though I think he purposely did this in order to create a false sense of surprise or outrage). Yet he also acknowledges that they were learned and, in the broadest sense, perhaps; civilized.

So why the apparent tension between shocking sexuality, violence and the existence of all of the trappings of civilization? I think the answer is that we humans have two hearts, beating at different paces. One is a slower, more careful, pace that allows us to build civilizations, create written languages, etc. The other is a darker, more passionate or base heartbeat. This is what drives our personal desires, inclinations to personal violence, sexuality, and even our dreams.

Our Roman ancestors, living in time where man interacted more closely with his neighbors (in cramped ancient cities) and with nature (in the vast forests and waterways of an undeveloped world), felt the tension of these “two hearts” and their art and literature reflected that.

Even now, we feel this too. Our desire for a brutal punishment for those who hurt children or revenge for a country that attacked us in war. Yet we also know that we cannot live in a dark world of passions. We also need the more rarefied air of compassion and philosophy that our Roman ancestors (and our ancestors in all parts of the world) also needed.

Our ancestors knew this and they wrote thoughtful poems, built societies based on law and vast cities; while also indulging themselves in the more base arts.

Timeless Time

A 2011 interview with William Gibson got me thinking a little about the nature of time and perception. Gibson’s books (Neuromancer, The Difference Engine, and Count Zero) explore the impact of technology and alternate realities caused by technology on humans.

While often quite dystopian, his worlds raise his reader’s consciousness by essentially “hacking” what we would perceive as “normal” and offering potential alternatives in the form of worlds and people that struggle with the chaos and never-ending change wrought by technology and society.

In the course of my meditation on his work I was struck by his mention of how the steam engine shook people’s view of time and distance, causing widespread wonder and unease as centuries of accepted travel times and methods were overturned. Where once people traveled at an average pace of 2 miles per hour they now could be carried along at 15 miles per hour without doing anything other than purchasing a ticket.

Black Steam Train Meiji Train

This and subsequent improvements in engineering and technology dragged people closer together and accelerated the pace of human interactions. As a result, language become more streamlined, matching the new demands for communication to be as efficient as travel.

With the change in language and technology came a change in the sense of time and movement that people experienced. The “new normal” was a world with diminishing quiet spots and a sense of living in a linear, streamlined world, with an uncertain future.

Contrast that with a past that consisted of fixed traditions and technology where people were the benchmark, not machines. The subtleties of language and the importance of nuance in relationships were richer in the past because they had to be, since people relied upon each other instead of machines to produce the necessities of life. It was timeless time.

With this accelerated time that we live in, working longer hours with fewer rest periods, and with schedules that seem to expand but never contract; only the wealthy and those willing to give it all up have access to those quiet spots that once filled the globe.

To be sure, we live longer and healthier lives (though not by much and in some places, not anymore) but to what end? Are we able to control and enjoy the time that we have?


Ragnor and FamilyHistory Channel has taken an uncharacteristic turn away from aliens and Hitler with its new series, Vikings.

Despite some historical inaccuracies (unlike in the series, Vikings were well-aware that England lay to the west and Scandinavian society was remarkably egalitarian whereas, in the series, the Viking chieftain is an autocratic ruler), the show is well-produced and has excellent actors, including Gabriel Byrne and Gustaf Skarsgard.

In the show, Viking attacks are merely reasons for plunder while recent scholarship has shown the possibility that Viking raids were retaliation for mass executions and forced conversions by Christian kings, specifically those of Charlemagne against the Danes.

History aside, the show is great. Produced by the same people who did The Tudors, it is rich and violent, perfectly reflecting the spirit of Dark Age Europe and the rise of the powerful Scandinavian force that we call the Vikings. A force that ranged across Northern Europe, Russia, and even to the walls of Constantinople.

Let There Be Light

This is an amazing reality documentary made in 1946 by the legendary film-maker John Huston. It is unscripted sessions with soldiers from World War II who were suffering from what we now call PTSD but was then described as “shell-shock.”

In addition to the heart-breaking discussions, it also shows mixed-race servicemen together, ground-breaking for its’ time. Of course the Army ultimately suppressed the original film until 1980, re-releasing a heavily-edited version using actors instead.

An amazing and sad view into the effects of war that have remain unchanged since Homer’s time.

You can learn more and see the entire movie here.


First it was Fight Club, then the rise of mixed-martial arts, then the Paleo lifestyle, and now books like Sex At Dawn and my most recent read, Manthropology. Mix in the rise of CrossFit and Gym Jones and I get the picture that we as a culture may just be tiring of our modern and considerably weaker life-style in which a long run in the park our an hour at the local health club is considered a real workout.

According to Manthropolgy’s author, Peter McAllister, we have been blinded by our version of history in which we told ourselves that, thanks to technology and science, we are healthier than any of our predecessors.; living longer and supposedly happier lives.

In fact, while average life spans have increased since the beginning of the modern age, that is more an improvement of the high-stress and mortality of life from the time of industrialization and the growth of dense urban living, than it is a real rise in life expectancy since per-historic times.

Our ancestors before then lived well into their 70’s and 80’s and did so in a more healthy way. Ancient soldiers fought in battles well into their 60’s and even 70’s, while people in societies everywhere were generally stronger and tougher than even athletes of today. Studies of pre-historic bones showed considerably thicker density than similarly-aged people now.

Past scientists had compared those bones to modern people (by comparing their density with the assumption that the brittleness and early disease of modern man was natural to all people in all times) and so assumed that pre-historic man only lived to 40 while. In fact, the high-protein, high-cardio, and low-stress life of hunter-gatherers allowed for them to live healthier and longer functional lives.

Manthropology walks us through the records of ancient athletes and warriors who out-marched and out-fought our champions of today. Case in point, the US Army fitness test requires that soldiers be able to to march 12 miles in 4 hours with a pack weighing just 40 pounds. Well, Roman soldiers routinely marched 20-30 miles per day with packs weighing close to 100 pounds because each man was also supposed to carry the pieces of their wooden palisades that they had to put together after the march.

The imperial soldiers of the Wu dynasty in China were required to maintain their fitness levels to allow them to quick-march 80 miles per day as well be ready to fight at the end of the march. The same was true of Zulu warriors who had the added skill of doing the same as their Wu counterparts but barefoot!

McAllister goes on to write that these levels of excellence also existed in ancient realms of singing and poetry. As late as this century, there existed bards in the former Yugoslavia who were able to recite 65,000-line ballads as well as create equally-large ballads on the fly. In contrast, modern rap artists generally average 5,000 lines. The Greek poet Homer’s massive oral rendition of the Illiad and the Odyssey put everyone to shame.

The author, who writes in a fun style that makes the book a great quick read, does not say that we should despair. Rather, this is a call-to-arms for men and women to take back their health and happiness by creating a more challenging environment and bring forth all that lies within, dormant and waiting.