Bushido: The Soul of Japan
Inazo Nitobe, 1899.
Warrior Race: A History of the British at War
Little, Brown & Co., 2001.
The recent release of The Northman, along with my reading of two fascinating books, Bushido: The Soul of Japan and Warrior Race: A History of the British At War, has prompted me to share some thoughts on the nature and trajectory of Western warrior culture and its place in the West today. The Japanese concept and path of Bushido (“the way of the warrior”) is a useful tool for examining Western warrior culture because it is perhaps the only such system outside the West that offers some striking similarities. And yet there are also enough differences between Bushido and the history of the Western warrior to bring into sharp relief those qualities that make the European experience unique. In the following essay I want to offer something between a book review and a contemporary social commentary. It should be obvious that at the heart of the problem of the West is a failure to participate in the basics of life: to reproduce, and to compete with other groups. Competition in modernity has been reduced to a mostly economic exercise, accompanied by sports only insofar as those sports serve the goal of hypnotic mass entertainment and provide an impotent outlet for the universal instinct towards tribalism and conflict. The classic motifs of the way of the warrior (disdain for death, quest for individual glory, and the building of a morality around concepts of honor rather than simple “fairness” or “equality”) have today either been sublimated to the point of becoming almost invisible, or have vanished entirely. Whence the Western bushido?
Honor and Death
Perhaps the best content found in Lawrence James’s Warrior Race concerns the culture of the ancient Celtic Britons, and that of the Roman and Germanic invaders they came into conflict with. Common among all three, though more pronounced among the Celts and Germans, was the individual quest for honor and prestige. James writes that “personal honour, pride in his unit and reverence for his commanders and the state they served motivated the Roman soldier.”James, Warrior Race, 8. Among the Celts meanwhile, were “professional warriors attached to tribal rulers. Their fighting methods were Homeric, with each man deliberately seeking to prove his audacity and prowess in the manner of a champion.”James, Warrior Race, 11.
Warrior bands were united by shared pride in courage, and by loyalty to a noble lord. James comments that
If [a warrior band] leader was slain, his followers would fight on to the death. For the Romans, such behavior was another example of barbarian madness, but within the Germanic and Celtic traditions it was a mark of the highest distinction. And it long remained so. A fifth-century Roman was puzzled by the fact that among the Alani ‘a man is judged happy who sacrificed his life in battle.’ Six hundred years later, the gravestone of a Scandinavian warrior proclaimed: ‘He did not return at Uppsala, but fought while he could hold weapons.’Ibid, 31.
(James, Warrior Race, 11.)
The uniqueness of the Western warrior’s contempt for death is thrown into even sharper relief when considered alongside Japanese accounts. In Nitobe’s Bushido, it is remarked that the samurai warriors of feudal Japan possessed a “stoic composure in sight of danger or calamity, that disdain of life and friendliness with death.” This disdain of life, however, did not manifest in the ‘Homeric’ quality in battle alluded to by James. Nitobe adds that the Japanese warrior was not seen to “run all kinds of hazards, to jeopardize one’s self, to rush into the jaws of death.” The modern manifestation of the kamikaze is probably the closest Japanese behavior to the European example, but even here it is too goal-orientated, and rooted too heavily in shame-avoidance (suicide attacks being more effective in attacking warships than conventional attacks), to compare with the assertive seeking of death and honor found among the Europeans.
There is a calculated aspect to the Japanese warrior that is much less evident among the classic European ‘berserker’ type. James points out that “Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, Pictish, and Irish warriors held similar values, followed similar codes of conduct, admired the same qualities, and shared a common pride in their calling.” Personal honor and reputation were primary, since “it gave the warrior status in his lifetime and renown after death, for his exploits would be relived by the versifiers and minstrels who entertained fighting men as they ate and drank in their lord’s hall.” Disdain for death was assisted among all the Northwest European tribes by the common practice of entering an animalistic and predatory state. The Irish called this process riastarthe, which may be rendered as ‘battle fury,’ and in the annals concerning the Irish hero Cuchulain some literary license was employed in explaining how its onset was accompanied by a terrifying physical transformation:
You would have thought that every hair was driven into his head. You would have thought that a spark of fire was on every hair. He closed one eye until it was no wider than the eye of a needle; he opened the other until it was as big as a wooden bowl. He bared his teeth from jaw to ear, and he opened his mouth until the gullet was visible.
Germanic fighting men, who raised themselves to a similar battle fury, became ‘berserk’ (bear-like) or ‘as mad as dogs or wolves; they bit their shields and were as strong as bears.” James suggests that
vulpine characteristics were particularly cherished, for wolves hunted in packs and their savagery was proverbial. Warriors clad in wolves’ skins absorbed that beast’s ferocity. They are described in the ninth-century Norse poem Raven Song: ‘Wolfcoats they are called, those who bear blood-stained swords to battle; they redden spears when they come to the slaughter, acting together.’
One of the remarkable features of the history of British warfare is the long persistence of such traits in the population. James argues that the knights of the middle ages were, after all, “direct descendants of Germanic and Celtic super-warriors.” An excellent case in point is the English lord Sir Giles D’Argentine, who distinguished himself against Scottish forces at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314):
At Bannockburn, when the tide turned against the English, Sir Giles scorned to join the general retreat. Instead, he spurred his horse straight into the ranks of the Scottish spearmen shouting his war cry ‘Argente!’ and was killed. Those of his enemies qualified to judge on arcane chivalric matters rated him ‘the third best knight of that day.’
Even into the nineteenth century, it was believed that the aristocracy could not rely on lineage alone to prove their elite status, but rather should demonstrate it by deeds, especially those involving military courage. In 1855, during the Crimean War, Viscount Palmerston addressed Parliament after news emerged of a heroic charge:
Talk to me of the aristocracy of England! Why, look at that glorious charge of cavalry at Balaklava — look to that charge, where the noblest and wealthiest of the land rode foremost, followed by heroic men from the lowest classes of the community, each rivalling the other in bravery.
A French officer observing another British attack on Russian lines was “astonished by the cold, drill-book manner in which the British moved forward.”James, Warrior Race, 322.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of the persistence of the link between death and honor, found in Warrior Race, concerns an 1803 dispute between Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Montgomery, Household Cavalry, and Captain James Macnamara, Royal Navy. Both were walking their dogs in London’s Hyde Park when the dogs began fighting. Montgomery’s dog was badly wounded, and Montgomery demanded that Macnamara call off his dog or “I’ll knock it down.” Macnamara retorted that such language and conduct was not befitting a gentleman. This was a serious charge, and resulted in the declaration of a duel. The following morning the men met at a secluded part of Chalk Farm were they fired upon one another with pistols. Montgomery was fatally wounded. Three weeks later Macnamara appeared in court charged with manslaughter but defended his actions on the grounds that his role as leader in the Navy demanded that he maintain integrity of dignity and character, and defend his personal honor. He told the court, “It is impossible to define in terms, the proper feelings of a Gentleman; but their existence has supported this happy country for many ages, and she might perish if they were lost.” Macnamara was acquitted and eleven years later he was promoted to rear-admiral. James comments:
By deliberately facing death in a nonchalant manner, the duellist proved his capacity to suppress that most deeply implanted of all human impulses: the urge for self-preservation. If he surrendered to his animal reflexes or his reason, he would simply run away and reveal himself a coward. Cravenness was inexcusable in a gentleman and automatically disbarred him from the company of his equals.
The Fluid Hierarchy
Western social structures and class barriers were more fluid than those among other peoples, and is another difference between the Western warrior culture and the Japanese bushido who followed a rigid hereditary samurai class. Western warrior culture very often rewarded individual heroism with social promotion and the granting of lands, and the long tradition of piracy and battle-looting, which stretched back to the times of the Saxons and Vikings, persisted well into the nineteenth century. James describes how
Some years ago, a member of a Scottish landowning family told me how her ancestor, one of several sons of a crofter, had been taken by his father to enlist in a Highland regiment at Inverness. There was no alternative, for the family land could only support his eldest brother. The young man in question was literate and was promoted quickly, for the could attend to the orderly book, and the high wastage of officers in the Crimea secured him a commission. He served in the army that relieved Lucknow in 1857 and ruthless looting gained him sufficient cash to return home and purchase an estate.
James refers to the long history of such social fluidity, pointing out that
Early modern British society was hierarchical but fluid. A man acquired the public status of gentleman when he secured the symbol of knighthood, a coat of arms. In Elizabethan England and afterwards, they were freely available to anyone who would pay the herald’s fees and convince them that they lived either by their intelligence, if they were lawyers, or had acquired land, if they were merchants or, for that matter, a playwright property-owner like Shakespeare.
For the samurai, bushido was informed by both Zen Buddhism and Shinto. Nitobe comments that the former inculcated a “calm trust in Fate, a quiet submission to the inevitable,” while Shinto encouraged loyalty to the sovereign and for ancestral memory. Pre-Christian religious influences on Western warrior culture are evident in the transformative, animalistic battle rituals of the ancient Celts and Germanics. It is worth pointing out that Christianity did very little to dull the edge of Western warrior culture, and in fact complimented it very well. As indicated in the early ninth century Saxon poem Heliand, Jesus Christ was embraced as an ideal warrior king who had arrived on Earth as the Ruler’s son, gathered about him a loyal band of men, and, as the “Might-Wielding Christ” had embraced a heroic end in battle against Satan and Death and will one day return upon a white horse to “judge and make war.” Lawrence James stresses that
Superficially at least, the Christian faith condemned all violence, but there were significant exceptions which together added up to the canonical concept of the just war. St Augustine of Hippo argued that force could be used in defence of the weak, to chastise rebels and oath breakers and, of course, against heretics and pagans. … There was little here that would have disturbed the conscience of an early medieval king who, ostensibly, only went to war to protect his otherwise defenceless subjects from aggression or to suppress rebellions. Furthermore, the church respected the calling of the warrior, the more so if he used his arms in pursuit of aims of which it approved.
The Present Day
What remnants of Western warrior culture exist today? Not many. Ted Kaczynski’s concept of “surrogate activities” is appropriate for a wide range of phenomena in the modern West, and involves an activity that is directed toward an artificial goal that people set up for themselves merely in order to have some goal to work toward, merely for the sake of the “fulfillment” that they get from pursuing the goal. Kevin MacDonald has written, referring also to Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, that extreme sports are “a context of implicit Whiteness.” MacDonald writes
In this analysis, White men jumping off buildings and sky surfing are reenacting a fundamental script of Western culture—the same script that underlies Western energy, inventiveness, exploration and creativity. While I argue that this berserker military ethos of daring and adventure is not the whole story of Western individualism (there are also the morally constructed egalitarian ingroups that feed into today’s stifling political correctness; see here, p. 23ff), I think Duchesne has a key insight that explains the psychology of a great many White men and is likely a critically important aspect of the evolutionary psychology of the West.
Such activities are impressive, and are certainly a way to “make ones name” in modernity. But they are also fundamentally without meaning or lasting legacy. For this reason, MacDonald expressed the hope that “such men develop an explicit sense of their White identity and interests and that they redirect their sense of physical daring and adventure to lead their people in the struggles that lie ahead.”
Another layer to “surrogate activities” is that key instincts are “outsourced” into entertainment forms and petty clannishness. This is especially obvious in the sporting world, where the instinct towards tribalism and conflict is directed into spectacles that are ultimately without meaning. Watch a European soccer game and you will very like hear rhythmic mass chants and clapping that are reminiscent of what once could have boomed over an ancient battlefield. In Europe, until recent times, soccer matches would be accompanied, both before and after the game, by mindless and meaningless running street battles between one faction of fans and another. One of the fastest rising sports in the last 15 years is mixed martial arts (MMA), in which men fight in a cage under a relatively loose set of rules (in the original Ultimate Fighting Championship there were hardly any rules at all). One positive effect of this has been a boom in martial arts training among White males, and Whites remain dominant as trainers and instructors.
Coupled with superhero movies and action films of all kinds, however, violence is now primarily something that entertains, rather than something that informs ones view of life and death. Lawrence James closes his history by discussing modern British office workers fighting with paint guns in forests as corporate “team-building exercises,” and the trend for those seeking some kind of personal fulfilment to undergo training programs devised by the Special Air Service. The warrior-aristocratic ethos of violence and conflict that lay at the heart of chivalry and blended with Christian ideals of social responsibility and Renaissance notions of virtue has largely disappeared from the culture of the West. It has been replaced with commercialism, crudity, vulgarity, and overwhelming cowardice.
The social structure of the West remains fluid, but the warrior and gentleman is no longer present in the hierarchy. He has been ousted by the oligarch, the technocrat, the merchant, and the career politician. The military elite is now nothing more than a tool of these forces, rather than a directing force in its own right. Long gone are the days when European heads of state led their troops into battle, earning their right to lead through courage and daring. Although aristocratic dominance of the armed forces in Britain persisted until well into the 19th century, the total wars of the twentieth century “democratized” and watered down the nature of warfare, reducing war to a calculation of numbers and technology in a manner that continues to this day. Where is the warrior in the age of the drone and the intercontinental ballistic missile?
Religion has also collapsed as a support of the European warrior ethos. Long-gone in the West is any hint of the “Might-Wielding Christ.” Today Christianity has been largely reduced to a foot-kissing immigration-assistance network. Look at any mainstream church and you’ll hear plenty about being meek and humble, and nothing about treading down one’s enemies like a winepress (Rev. 19:15). The result is that Christianity will undergo a shift in which less liberal, and more masculine, males gravitate towards very small enclaves of ultra-traditional Catholicism or Orthodoxy where asceticism and older visions of Christ prevail, while mainstream churches become more and more female-dominated.
Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Inazo Nitobe lamented the gradual decline of bushido in Japan, but remained hopeful that remnants of it would somehow persist:
Bushido as an independent code of ethics may vanish, but its power will not perish from the earth; its schools of martial prowess or civic honor may be demolished, but its light and its glory will long survive the ruins.
I wonder, if Nitobe observed Japan today, whether he would agree that bushido has survived the ruins. For my part, I find myself surveying the ruins of Western culture, and finding only debris.
 James, Warrior Race, 8.
 James, Warrior Race, 11.
 Ibid, 31.
 James, Warrior Race, 322.