The Holy Warrior

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Every culture that I know of has a mythical archetype of the “Holy Warrior,” the man (woman in the case of Joan of Arc) who stands outside the usual moral strictures and is authorized by God to kill and wage war in the name of all that is Good and Holy. Some examples that come to mind are Joshua, King David, Saint George, Beowulf, Mithras, Gilgamesh, Sir Galahad and (though flawed) King Arthur. The people killed by these holy warriors deserved to die because they were enemies of God, and the warfare was a sort of sacramental offering.

This sort of image is terribly seductive, especially to young boys, and I remember reading about the Knights of the Round Table and their quest of the Holy Grail with an attitude of reverence. As I listened to stories of World War II, I carried that awe and reverence over onto the soldiers who fought the Japanese who were (according to the propaganda) enemies of God and all that is good. This is where we Christians got the notion of the Crusade, and the Muslims got the idea of Jihad, and the Japanese got the notion of Bushido; and all of those remain tremendously potent images in our collective subconscious.

It’s only at age 55, after I’ve seen Cold War, Vietnam, the Balkans, and Iraq I and II that I find myself questioning this at a deep level. Despite the strong feelings from my youth, how can we call a warrior holy if we have a commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” It’s all very confusing.

Don’t misunderstand me: I have tremendous pride and respect for the people in our armed forces at all level. Whether they intended or not, they agreed to give up their lives for me, if they had to; and that’s a very heavy debt to repay. And I honestly think that American soldiers are taught to wage war in as humane a way as is possible – though that often very difficult – and the ones I’ve met have been uniformly decent, honorable people. So any serviceman or woman I encounter starts with a gold star in my book and get my respect from the first meeting.

But that doesn’t make their actions holy, and it certainly doesn’t elevate their war to a Holy War or a Crusade. They may be honorable as individuals, but war is dirty, desperate fighting where atrocious things happen, not as anomalies, but because that’s what war is. General William Tecumsah Sherman is widely remembered for his quote, “War is Hell.” but the full context was this, in an address to the cadets at Michigan Military Insitute:

“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

So what do we do with this ancient archetype of the Holy Warrior? Can we still afford him or her in this era when war has grown beyond anything Sherman could have conceived? Does he or she still make sense in a time when wars are fought by suicide bombers and decimation of civilians?

I really don’t know – I believe Jung was right when he said that all our archtetypes have arisen from our common soul for some legitimate purpose and that we cannot simply abandon them, but what do we do with this one? How do we get the Holy Warrior off the propaganda posters and out of politicians’ speeches and get people to think about the proper place of the archetype?

I’m sorry that I can’t end today’s entry with a simple solution and a benediction, but this one is still hanging over my head – I just thought I’d spread the confusion around a little.

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Source by Bruce Taylor

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