Warrior Values

Alexander the Great, mural from Pompeii

These are the U.S. Army's 'warrior values' as defined at West Point. As you study the excerpts from great epics in religion and literature, see if you can find examples of the values. Are there differences in the way these values are conceived by different religions and cultures? Or are they truly universal values? Also note the way these values are symbolized by the warrior's armor. With what values do you armor yourself for the battle?

Selfless Service
Personal Courage

In some epics, the armor and sword of the king are empowered with sacred force. In Homer's Iliad, special armor is made for Achilles by the god, Hephaestes (Vulcan). In the Arthurian legend, the sword ex caliber must be removed from a stone by the warrior who would be king. To receive the helmet from the old hero is the highest honor for a young warrior in the story of Beowulf, Europe's most ancient epic.

Ironically, in the Hebrew scriptures, the armor and sword of the king are rejected by the young David, who chooses to enter the battle against Goliath without weapons or armor. He has only a child's sling-shot.
What moral lesson is this Biblical story conveying to us?

When we read the New Testament, and the writings of Eastern scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita, the armor of the warrior, and even the battle itself, become highly symbolic.

In Islam, the Koran's concept of Jihad is highly ambiguous. Some Muslims consider Jihad to be literal war; others emphasize the inner Jihad, warfare against the lower tendencies of our own mind.

One more note: the power of grief in the warrior's life. Notice how the ancient warriors grieved openly for their fallen comrades, and wept heroically. Does modern warfare permit warriors to grieve?


Book 18 and 19 describe the Greek hero Achilles in grief over the death of his best friend, Petroclus. The battle stops so that soldiers can mourn their fallen brothers. Achilles' grief is inconsolable. His mother, the sea nymph Thetis, convinces the Olympian god, Hephaestus, to make special armor and shield for Achilles to use in battle against Hector and the Trojans. For the grieving Achilles, the act of donning the armor is almost a sacred ritual of dedication. * What does this rite accomplish? * How does it help Achilles deal with his grief? * What warrior values does Achilles demonstrate? * How would you describe his mental state at the beginning of the passage? * Why is he tempted to reject the duty of a warrior? *What changes his mind?

From Book 18

Thetis wept: "My son, your end is near at hand - for your own death awaits you soon after that of Hector."

Then said Achilles in his great grief, "I would die here and now, because I could not save my comrade. He has fallen far from home, and in his hour of need my hand was not there to help him. What is there for me? Return to my own land I shall not, and I have brought no saving, neither to Patroclus nor to my other comrades who have been slain by mighty Hector...

"Therefore, perish strife both from among gods and men; and anger, in which even a righteous man will harden his heart; anger which rises up in the soul of a man like smoke, and the taste thereof is sweeter than drops of honey... I will force my soul into subjection as I must. I will go back to war. I will pursue Hector who has slain him whom I loved so dearly, and will then abide my doom when it may please Zeus and the other gods to send it..."

Then Achilles told his men to set a large tripod upon the fire that they might wash the clotted gore from off Patroclus. Thereon they set a tripod full of bath water. They threw sticks on to make it blaze, and the water became hot as the flame played about the belly of the tripod. When the water in the cauldron was boiling they washed the body, anointed it with oil, and closed its wounds with ointment that had been kept nine years. Then they laid it on a bier and covered it with a linen cloth from head to foot. Over this they laid a fair white robe. All night long did the soldiers gather round Achilles to mourn Patroclus....

From Book 19

Thick as the chill snow-flakes shed from the hand of Zeus and borne on the keen blasts of the north wind, even so thick did the gleaming helmets, the bossed shields, the strongly plated breastplates and ashen spears stream from the ships. The sheen pierced the sky. The whole land was radiant with their flashing armor, and the tramp of their marching rose from their feet.

In the midst of them all, Achilles put on his armor. He gnashed his teeth, his eyes gleamed like fire, for his grief was greater than he could bear. Thus, then, full of fury against the Trojans, did he don the gift of the god, the armor that Vulcan had made him.

First he put on the goodly greaves fitted with ancle-clasps, and next he donned the breastplate about his chest. He slung the silver-studded sword of bronze about his shoulders, and then took up the shield so great and strong that shone afar with a splendor as of the moon. As the light seen by sailors from out at sea, when men have lit a fire in their homestead high up among the mountains: even so did the gleam of Achilles' wondrous shield strike up into the heavens. He lifted the redoubtable helmet, and set it upon his head, from whence it shone like a star, and the golden plumes, which Vulcan had set thick about the ridge of the helmet, waved all around it. Then Achilles made trial of himself in his armor to see whether it fitted him, so that his limbs could play freely under it, and it seemed to buoy him up as though it had been wings!

He also drew his father's spear out of the spear-stand, a spear so great and heavy and strong that none of the warrior, save only Achilles, had strength to wield it....


10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.


Like an aging officer who must be re-deployed and face battle again, the Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, has gained the highest name in slaying the monster Grendel, saving the Danes. He goes back across the sea to his own land and rules for 50 years. But a terrifying dragon must be slain, and only he has the prowess to do it.

He slays the dragon, but in the battle is mortally wounded. The younger soldiers have all fled in terror, except one, who remains beside his commander to slay the dragon. In the following scene, Beowulf gifts his helmet to the young warrior, for they have become, through battle, like father and son. (Translation by Seamus Heaney)

Now the young thane unequalled for goodness
with his own hands washed his lord's wounds,
swabbed the weary prince with water,
bathed him clean, unbuckled his helment.
Beowulf spoke: in spire of his wounds,
mortal wounds, he still spoke
for he well knew his days in the world
had been lived out to the end: his alotted time
was drawing to a close, death was very near.
"Now is the time when I would have wanted
to bestow this armor on my own,
had it been my fortune to have fathered an heir
and live on in his flesh..."

Then the king in his great-heartedness unclasped
the collar of gold from his neck and gave it
to the young thane, telling him to use it
and the war-shirt and the gilded helmet well....

The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf,
stacked and decked it until it stood four-square,
hung with helmets, heavy war shields
and shining armor, just as he had ordered.
Then his warriors laid him in the middle of it,
mourning a lor far-famed and beloved.
On a height they kindled the hugest of all
funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
and drowned out their weeping, wind died down
and flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
burning it to the core. They were disconsolate
and wailed aloud for their lord's decease.
A Geat woman too sang out the grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.


1 Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah. They pitched camp at Ephes Dammim, between Socoh and Azekah. 2 Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. 3 The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.

4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet [a] tall. 5 He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels [b] ; 6 on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. 7 His spear shaft was like a weaver's rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. [c] His shield bearer went ahead of him.

8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, "Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us." 10 Then the Philistine said, "This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other." 11 On hearing the Philistine's words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul's time he was old and well advanced in years. 13 Jesse's three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. 14 David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father's sheep at Bethlehem.

16 For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand...

32 David said to Saul, "Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him."

33 Saul replied, "You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth."

34 But David said to Saul, "Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine." Saul said to David, "Go, and the LORD be with you."

38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. "I cannot go in these," he said to Saul, "because I am not used to them." So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42 He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, "Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?" And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 "Come here," he said, "and I'll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!"

45 David said to the Philistine, "You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give all of you into our hands."

48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.



The literal Arabic meaning of Jihad is not "holy war" but "struggle in the path to God." Mohammad, in his Hadith (sayings of the prophet) said that there is "a lower Jihad and a greater Jihad." The lower Jihad is to fight with outer weapons. The greater Jihad is to struggle inwardly against one's own immoral tendencies. Do you believe that the contemporary political situation in the Middle East presents a true reflection of these verses from the Koran, or a distorted one? Note that there is no story-telling, and no symbolic armor: just straight and unequivocal rules.

“Fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, but commit no aggression, for God does not love aggressors.

“Slay them wherever you come upon them and expel them from where they expelled you: for their persecution (of you) is a more grievous sin than your slaying (of them).

“But fight them not near a holy mosque until they fight you there: then, if they fight you there, slay them: such is the recompense of unbelievers.

“But if they surrender, surely God is all-forgiving and all-compassionate.

“Fight them, then, until they end their persecution, and religion is God’s.

“If they surrender, there shall be no hostility, except for evil-doers.

“The holy month is for the holy month alone: holy things demand retaliation (when desecrated).

“Whoever fights against you, do you fight against him to the same degree that he has done it against you;

“And submit to God, knowing that God is with those who submit to Him.”


Arjuna, warrior and prince of ancient India, is on the battlefield
in his chariot, surveying the troops before the fight. He is overcome by a wave of grief, and like Homer's Achilles is tempted to become a pacifist. But Arjuna's grief is not for those who have died: it is premonitory grief for those who are about to die. This should not be misinterpreted as cowardice. The Lord in the form of Krishna appears in the warrior's chariot and instructs him on the eternal Self (Atman) which does not perish even when the body perishes. He also teaches the essential Hindu doctrine of Dharma: Duty. There is no sin when a righteous warrior does his or her duty. In fact, doing one's duty with a mind established in the peace of God is the purest path to liberation. And this is as true for the warrior as for the "holy man."
(Excerpt from Bhagavad Gita, chapter 2)

Arjuna said: My heart is overcome by the weakness of pity, and my mind is confused about Dharma (Duty). I request You to tell me, decisively, what is better for me. I am Your disciple. Teach me who has taken refuge in You. (2.07)

I do not perceive that gaining an unrivaled and prosperous kingdom on this earth, or even lordship over the gods will remove the sorrow that is drying up my senses....(2.08)

I shall not fight! (2.09)

Then Lord Krishna, as if smiling, spoke these words to the despondent Arjuna in the midst of the two armies:(2.10)

You grieve for those who are not worthy of grief, and yet speak the words of wisdom. The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. (2.11)

There was never a time when I, you, or these kings did not exist; nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future. (2.12)

Just as the Atma acquires a childhood body, a youth body, and an old age body during this life, similarly Atma acquires another body after death. The wise are not deluded by this.

The contacts of the senses with the sense objects give rise to the feelings of heat and cold, and pain and pleasure. They are transitory and impermanent. Therefore, (learn to) endure them, O Arjuna. (2.14)

Because the calm person, who is not afflicted by these feelings and is steady in pain and pleasure, becomes fit for immortality, O Arjuna. (2.15)

There is no nonexistence of Sat* (Truth) and no existence of the Asat (Illusion). (2.16)

Know that Truth, by which all this universe is pervaded, to be indestructible. No one can destroy the indestructible. (2.17)

Bodies that house the soul may cease, but the soul itself is eternal, imperishable. Therefore, fight, O Arjuna! (2.18)

The one who thinks that Atma is a slayer, and the one who thinks that Atma is slain, both are ignorant, because Atma neither slays nor is slain. (2.19)

The Atma is neither born nor does it die at any time, nor having been it will cease to exist again. It is unborn, eternal, permanent, and primeval. The Atma is not destroyed when the body is destroyed. (2.20)

O Arjuna, how can a person who knows that the Atma is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and imperishable, kill anyone or cause anyone to be killed? (2.21)

Just as a person puts on new garments after discarding the old ones, similarly Atma acquires new bodies after casting away the old bodies. (2.22)

Weapons do not cut this Atma, fire does not burn it, water does not make it wet, and the wind does not make it dry. (2.23)

This Atma cannot be cut, burned, wetted, or dried up. It is eternal, all pervading, unchanging, immovable, and primeval. (2.24)

The Atma is said to be unmanifest, unthinkable, and unchanging. Knowing this Atma as such you should not grieve. (2.25)

If you think that this (body) takes birth and dies perpetually, even then, O Arjuna, you should not grieve like this. (2.26)

Because, death is certain for the one who is born, and birth is certain for the one who dies. Therefore, you should not lament over the inevitable. (2.27)

All beings, O Arjuna, are unmanifest before birth and after death. They are manifest between the birth and the death only. What is there to grieve about? (2.28)

Some look upon this Atma as a wonder, another describes it as wonderful, and others hear of it as a wonder. Even after hearing about it no one actually knows it. (2.29)

O Arjuna, the Atma that dwells in the body of all (beings) is eternally indestructible. Therefore, you should not mourn for any body. (2.30)

Considering also your duty as a warrior you should not waver. Because there is nothing more auspicious for a warrior than a righteous war. (2.31)

'Art of War', by Sun T'zu
Taoism is the source of the martial arts. In the 6th Century BC, China, Sun T'zu wrote this treatise on military strategy that is still studied in military academies throughout the world. What principles of Taoism do you recognize in these teachings? How might you apply these principles to modern warfare? What are the warrior values which Sun T'zu holds highest?

3. The art of war, then, is governed by five constant

factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations,
    when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.

4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth;
(4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

5,6. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete
accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him
regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

7. Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat,
times and seasons.

8. Earth comprises distances, great and small;
danger and security; open ground and narrow passes;
the chances of life and death.

9. The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom,
sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.

10. By method and discipline are to be understood
the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions,
the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance
of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the
control of military expenditure.

11. These five heads should be familiar to every general:
he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them
not will fail.

12. Therefore, in your deliberations, when seeking
to determine the military conditions, let them be made
the basis of a comparison, in this wise:--

13. (1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued
with the Moral law?
(2) Which of the two generals has most ability?
(3) With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven
and Earth?
(4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?
(5) Which army is stronger?
(6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained?
(7) In which army is there the greater constancy
both in reward and punishment?

14. By means of these seven considerations I can
forecast victory or defeat.
2. When you engage in actual fighting, if victory
is long in coming, then men's weapons will grow dull and
their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town,
you will exhaust your strength....

6. There is no instance of a country having benefited
from prolonged warfare.

7. It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted
with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand
the profitable way of carrying it on.

8. The skillful soldier does not raise a second levy,
neither are his supply-wagons loaded more than twice.
1. Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best
thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact;
to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is
better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it.

2. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles
is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists
in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.

3. Thus the highest form of generalship is not to attack the enemy,
but to attack the enemy's strategy....

6. The skillful leader subdues the enemy's
troops without any fighting; he captures their cities
without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom
without lengthy operations in the field....

17. Thus we may know that there are five essentials
for victory:
(1) He will win who knows when to fight and when
not to fight.
(2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior
and inferior forces.
(3) He will win whose army is animated by the same
spirit throughout all its ranks.
(4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take
the enemy unprepared.
(5) He will win who has freedom in strategic decisions, and is
not interfered with by the emperor....

18. If you know the enemy
and know yourself,
you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

If you know yourself but not the enemy,
for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will
lose every battle.


As we study the Old Testament, I ask students to write
their own Psalms and Laments. They learn the ancient
Hebrew literary forms, then write within that form,
filling it with their own experience and concern.
The following Lament speaks for itself. It was written
by a soldier in Iraq who has been in the infantry for 16 years.

Lord, be with me and watch over me, because those who plot
my death are many and dangerous.

The dangers are many in this place where I dwell; home is so
far away and the days are lonely.

The faces are strange and the language so different;
hate can be seen in their eyes each day.

My family I have left, so that I can protect those
who cannot protect themselves;
but who protects me in this place that is not my home?

Trouble and death fill my heart,
because this could possibly be my last day.

Lord, be with me and keep me safe;
bless my courage and strength.

Keep my enemies away, dear Lord.
Weaken their hearts' desire to rise up against me;
cast down their will to fight;
and make my strength endure their hatred.

You have never forsaken me;
you keep me close to your bosom.

Bring me home to my wife and children,
so that my eyes can see no more death and pain.

I have wept for friends you have called home to you,
but your love has kept me here.

Strengthen my hope and courage,
so that I can strike down my enemy.

I crave the courage to perform every day,
but it is you, dear Lord, who feeds that hunger;
I need to go on.

Strengthen my hope and courage so that I
can strike down the wolf that stands at my door.

I feared death and wanted to cower;
you comforted me, and became my sword and shield.

Let peace fall unto the children of Babylon,
so that the Eagle may depart the unforgiving land.