in: Character, Military, Podcast

• Last updated: February 21, 2022

Podcast #625: The Code of the Warrior

Editor’s Note: This is a rebroadcast. It originally aired July 2020.

War is a violent and bloody business, but it’s rarely a no-holds barred free-for-all. Instead, codes of conduct that determine what is and isn’t honorable behavior on the battlefield have existed since ancient times.

My guest today explored these various codes in a book she wrote during the decade she spent teaching at the United States Naval Academy. Her name is Shannon French, she’s a professor of ethics and philosophy, and her book is The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present. Shannon and I begin our conversation with the pointed questions she used to pose to the cadets she taught as to how being a warrior was different than being a killer or murderer, and when killing is and isn’t ethical. She then explains how the warrior codes which developed all around the world arose organically from warriors themselves for their own protection, and how these codes are more about identity than rules. Shannon and I then take a tour of warrior codes across time and culture, starting with the code in Homer’s Iliad, and then moving into the strengths and weaknesses of the Stoic philosophy which undergirded the code of the Romans. From there we unpack the code of the medieval knights of Arthurian legend, what American Indians can teach soldiers about the need to make clear transitions between the homefront and the warfront, and how the Bushido code of the samurais sought to balance the influence of four different religions. We end our conversation with the role warrior codes play today in an age of increasingly technologized combat. 

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. War is a violent and bloody business, but it’s rarely a no-holds-barred free-for-all. Instead, codes of conduct that determine what is and isn’t honorable behavior on the battlefield have existed since ancient times. My guest today explored these various codes in a book she wrote during the decade she spent teaching at the United States Naval Academy. Her name is Shannon French, she’s a professor of ethics and philosophy, and her book is The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present. Shannon and I begin our conversation with the pointed questions she used to pose to the cadets she taught as to how being a warrior was different from being a killer or murderer, and when killing is and isn’t ethical. She then explains how the warrior codes which developed all around the world arose organically from the warriors themselves for their own protection and how these codes are more about identity than rules.

Shannon and I then take a tour of warrior codes across time and culture, starting with the code in Homer’s Iliad and then moving into the strengths of weaknesses of the Stoic philosophy, which undergirded the code of the Romans. From there, we unpack the code of the medieval knights of Arthurian legend, what American Indians can teach soldiers about the need to make clear transitions between the home front and the war front, and how the Bushido code of the samurais sought to balance the influence of four different religions. We end our conversation on the role warrior codes play today in an age when artificial intelligence and drones are having a bigger role in combat. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at Shannon joins me now via

All right, Shannon French, welcome to the show.

Shannon French: Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a professor of philosophy who specializes in ethics, particularly ethics in warfare. How did that happen?

Shannon French: I get that question a lot. Well, first of all, I had always had a fascination for military history. In fact, that goes so far back that I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since I was eight years old a few years ago, and he said that he saw that I had written a book on code of the warrior, and he said, “Well, that makes sense.” So apparently, even as an eight-year-old child, I had shown an interest in this area. But going forward, when I got into graduate school, my work was focused around the very difficult issues where self-interest and ethics seem to conflict, and in looking at that area, of course the stakes are never higher than when it’s life and death. That led me into military ethics, and what ultimately changed my life was getting the position to teach that at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that. So you taught ethics at the Naval Academy, and you had one class called Code of the Warrior, which you turned into a book that we’re gonna talk about today. What was the response in to that class to this idea of the code of the warrior?

Shannon French: Well, I have to say I have so many wonderful memories of that time in my life and that experience of teaching code of the warrior to the midshipmen. Essentially, this was an opportunity for them to really look at the issues that they would be facing very soon after their graduation and commissioning, and to look at them from this background of not being the first people on Earth to face the kind of problems that were in their future, to feel part of something longer, a legacy that they were joining. And so there was actually quite a lot of enthusiasm around that course.

And I will say we also had a lot of fun with it. And it sounds strange perhaps to talk about having fun with a military ethics course, but what we were doing was trying to, as much as possible, let ourselves get into the mindset of these different warrior cultures and individual warriors and really try to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what they faced and what we could learn from them going forward. And that of course is something that could not have been more relevant, and unfortunately, while I was at the Naval Academy, in the time that I was there, in the 11 years that I was there, we went from a force that was largely focused on things like humanitarian interventions to 911 happening, and Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and my students were going off to war. So it went from being a course that they enjoyed to almost having an urgency to it.

Brett McKay: It became extremely relevant very fast.

Shannon French: It did.

Brett McKay: And you talk about in your book The Code of the Warrior, on the first day of this class, you’d often ask your students, you’d just give them a thought problem, and it was this, it was, explain the difference between words like warrior, killer, murderer, fighter, etcetera. First off, how do they typically answer that question, and then what were you hoping you would get your students to see going through this problem?

Shannon French: Yes, absolutely. That exercise was critical to getting to the core of the point of the course and really also the point of the book. What I wanted them to think about is that the act of killing is usually taboo. In fact, it’s one of the strongest taboos that we have as humans. The idea that you would take another life is not taken lightly. So what is the difference that could be found in killing in war, and how do we identify where those lines are? So when I ask them that question… It was interesting, sometimes the responses were almost angry, like, “How dare you even think to compare what people do as war fighters to murderers, or even just killer,” which sounded cold and purposeless to them, for example, and murderer sounded definitely immoral, unethical.

And looking at the different choices though, and analyzing them, they were able to identify why it mattered so much to them, they did not want to be correctly labeled any of those other labels, they wanted to know, and they wanted to believe that what they were doing was distinct in an important way, and not a way that would fall apart in the stress of actually having to make these decisions in real time.

Brett McKay: And then I think it also shows even when you’re engaging in warfare and you think, “Okay, it’s… My killing is legitimized.” There’s still a line there that you can cross eventually, and some of these students picked up on that as well.

Shannon French: They absolutely did, and I think that’s one of the most important things, is that they recognized that you can commit murder during a war, that there is still an understanding that some types of killing in war fall under the heading of still being a war fighter, being a warrior, but others do cross that line and they become personal, and they have to do with rage or vengeance or despair in some cases, and even hatred, and certainly large helping of dehumanizing the people on the other side that you’re fighting against. And that if you do cross that line into those kinds of understandings of what the killing is that you’re doing, it’s really hard to get back out of that place that you go, and that’s something we talked a lot about, that if you cross the line and you kill out of one of these emotions that is not in any way linked to just doing your job, but is that deeply personal kind of killing, then it’s really hard even to find your way back to the person you were before.

Brett McKay: And what is so great about this book is you explore warrior codes from throughout history and throughout cultures, and I think the big point is that this is… Warrior codes are ubiquitous in humanity, we often think that 21st century westerners or whatever that we have had sort of moral superiority over people who lived thousands of years ago. But as you point out, even the ancient Greeks grappled with this issue in their way, it wasn’t as maybe how we do it, but they were grappling this between this line, between being a murderer and being a warrior. Why do you think that is? Why do you think humanity has come up with codes of warrior throughout time and culture?

Shannon French: Well, I think, first of all, that it’s good to point out as you just did, that this isn’t a new invention, and occasionally I will get folks who think that even worrying about having limits or concepts of restraint for those who fight wars is some kind of… Even like fuzzy, touchy-feely, new agey kind of thing that came up recently, and that’s simply not the case. And one of the main reasons that it’s not the case is that all of these different codes throughout history were not imposed from the outside, they came up organically within these warrior cultures, primarily as a way to protect the warriors themselves, that is the absolutely central point that I want people to grasp in the book, and that I used to teach in the course, is that while of course, we do need to care, and all of us do care about restraining actions in war in order to protect innocents innocence, that’s how these laws of war are written in the first place. But at the end of the day, the codes that the warriors embrace are there to protect them, to protect their humanity.

They’re being asked to do something that puts them at great risk for moral injury, and moral injury is connected to PTSD, it’s connected to suffering, it’s connected to a sense of losing your connection to the rest of your society, being isolated from them, being even driven out. We don’t wanna do that to those that we’ve already asked so much of, that we’re asking to fight and sacrifice on our behalf, and the best protection we can give them is to give them these lines that they can rely on that help them see what they’re doing has meaning, has limits, and is within that kind of structure, and that is absolutely crucial to preserving really the well-being of warriors themselves.

Brett McKay: And a lot of these codes, some of them do have very specific rules and regulation, most of all. Today, there’s laws that govern warfare, there’s rules of engagement, but for the most part, the code, this is a little bit of more amorphous, it’s almost Aristotelian and in its ethics where it’s just like, just be a good person, and it doesn’t say exactly what you have to do to be a good soldier or be an ethical warrior, but people, I think inherently understand it.

Shannon French: Yeah, I think that’s a really good insight actually, because what you’re looking at with most of these warrior codes is not so much a list of rules, but an identity that you’re assuming. You’re taking on the mantle, you’re taking on an identity that actually requires you to for example, be honorable, not act dishonorably, and that is gonna be vague, and it is going to depend in part on how it’s defined through action within your own group. But a lot of why it’s vague is that rules by themselves are perhaps too vulnerable. Once you create just a set of rules, there’s always the chance, the situation that you find yourself in doesn’t match the rules, and then if you have nothing else to fall back on, you’re lost with no guidance. Assuming an identity that… And you mentioned Aristotle, which is a perfect connection here, an identity that requires you to embody certain virtues, gives you something still to rely on in those complicated situations. You can still say, “Okay, there’s nothing in the rule book about this, but if I still want to be a just person, if I want to be an honorable person, if I want to be a fair person, and so on and so forth, then I need to figure out how to still embody those virtues in this situation, through my actions. I need to wrestle through it myself, but with those as my guide posts.”

The other worry with just having a list is that people will also take that as just a the minimum. This happens a lot. I so often have to clarify the difference between ethics and mere compliance. And compliance with the law doesn’t make you a good person. Just think of it this way. If at the end of your days, the only good thing someone could say about you is, “They weren’t arrested,” that wouldn’t be great. Just managing to stay out of trouble isn’t the bar we’re setting. And so these codes try with that intentional vagueness to set the bar higher and to say, “I want you to be excellent, I want you to try to embody all these virtues at once, I want you to try to find that balance point, even though it’s hard.”

Brett McKay: A modern example you gave of that in the book was the Marines. You talk about there was this commander whose whole thing was just, “Marines don’t do that.” That was it. And it was very vague, but that as soon as someone came across something that seemed kind of like squidgy, it’s like, “Yeah, and Marines don’t do that. It’s not what we do.”

Shannon French: Yeah, there’s a wonderful story about that in Mark Osiel’s book on obeying orders, which I love because it’s from the Vietnam War, and it’s a true story, and it explains how those simple four words actually stopped someone from effectively committing a war crime, but what it brings across for us is this point that the identity there is stronger also than the rules in the sense that you’ve chosen to be, for example, in that case, a marine. You chose that identity, you’ve embraced it, you’ve gone through all of the rights of passage and so forth to make you feel part of that community.

And so betraying that is a big deal, and it’s a big enough deal that psychologically, it can overcome the other pressures you’re gonna feel, because certainly, you can’t have these conversations without talking about how incredibly hard it is to hold this kind of restraint in some of these circumstances. That you are in fact going to be tempted to do the wrong thing. That’s something that I always tried to talk about in my class, that I didn’t want them to give me pat answers. If I said something like, “Would you ever shoot an unarmed POW?” If I just asked it like that, the students would of course say, “Why no ma’am, that’s wrong, I would not do that.” But that’s unhelpful, that it’s just a pat response to a straightforward question.

What you have to do instead is actually construct a scenario in your mind where you might really be tempted, where the person you’ve been dealing with has been picking off members of your platoon and you’ve had to see them die in your arms. You finally confront, say, the sniper who’s been picking off these folks that matter to you, who are like brothers and sisters to you, and they are smug and surrender in a way that says, “What are you gonna do now?” Wouldn’t you, on some level, wanna shoot him? You have to admit that you would want to before you can talk about why you shouldn’t. And so getting them there is so important to have the conversation around, why does that identity matter? Why would you want it to be true that even when sorely tempted, there would be lines you would never cross.

Brett McKay: So it seems like warrior codes are about really about identity. It’s really trying to get the soldier to think about their identity as a warrior, and warriors behave in a certain way, in an a ethical way.

Shannon French: Yes, that’s absolutely true. And I feel like I should mention at this point, because there is a conversation that’s happening even as we speak in the US military, probably and in others as well, around that word ‘warrior’. For some, that word is uncomfortable. They don’t like that as the choice to define themselves because, for example, they associate it with media portrayals of or even potentially video game portrayals of people fighting and killing who don’t have restraint, who don’t have limits. And so they don’t like that word ‘warrior’, it sounds like a sort of Conan the Barbarian sort of thing to them.

And so I don’t wanna get completely… Even though my book is called The Code of the Warrior, I don’t wanna make it all about that word exactly, but instead, to make it about the word you use, that identity. If your identity is as a soldier, a sailor, an airman, a marine, maybe warrior doesn’t work for you, maybe your unit-specific identity works for you, but the key is it has to be something to which you have fully committed yourself. And it has to be something that is linked to these ideas of different virtues and lines that you won’t cross, because it isn’t a meaningful identity if you can hold on to that identity regardless of how you behave. It has to have those kind of limits. It has to be that, “But if you do X, you’re not one of us anymore,” and that sounds harsh, but that’s a really important part of all of this.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about some of these warrior codes that you highlight in the book. And you go all the way back to the ancient Greeks or even pre-Greek. This is like… This is, we’re talking about Homer’s Iliad, Achilles and Hector and there. What was the code that governed them that you found looking at the texts that we have from there?

Shannon French: Well, first of all, that is a helpful example of where you can talk about these issues using fiction. Because while we think that Homer was inspired by real events, we still classify his epics as some kind of fictional works, it’s embellished, there’s a lot of Greek gods that come in and have cameos and so forth. But the point of them is very realistic because what it does is it examines, again, the internal experience of being at war. And those two figures that you mentioned, Achilles and Hector in Homer’s Iliad, are particularly relevant today. You might think that’s odd, but it is true, because for example, Achilles, from the very beginning, the first word of The Iliad is “rage” or “wrath.” We sing about the rage of Achilles. Sing, Goddess, the rage of Achilles. And the rage that he feels is in large part incredibly relatable to our modern troops, because it’s the fact that he’s been stuck in a seemingly unending conflict, he feels so far away from home, he’s not sure if anyone back home cares anymore or if anything he does there really affects them at all or matters to them, and he is doubtful of the leadership that he’s under and he’s not confident that he’s being led well, and all of that plays into his growing despair about his experience.

And that’s how we meet the great Achilles, is him really struggling with these psychological concepts that are very familiar to troops today in the forever wars. And then later we meet Prince Hector, who has a clearer sense of what he’s fighting for because the Greeks are literally attacking his home, so he knows what’s at stake, but he is also close to despair because he knows he’s outmatched, he knows that he can’t ultimately defeat the God-like Achilles. And he would, quite frankly, love to just run away and not have to deal with any of this, but he feels the pressure and responsibility to continue. And then when these two men clash one against another, you also see these issues of honor and dishonor. Because for Hector, even in the midst of everything that… All the pressure he’s under and everything that he’s enduring, he does maintain his code and his internal sense of honor and even judged against an external sense of honor in his community.

Whereas Achilles, having lost his best friend and in some ways the last person he really deeply cared about in that situation, having lost him, he cracks in a way, he loses himself, he loses that identity. And he ends up going into this one-on-one battle with Hector, having thrown off any of the restraint, having no longer embraced his warrior’s code, but instead acting almost just on pure instinct like an animal, and he is prepared to destroy Hector and it is very personal, and it is more like a murder than a killing in war.

Brett McKay: Yeah, even then, the ancient Greeks had a… There was a line that you did not cross, and Achilles crossed that line.

Shannon French: He does, and he, in a sense, the point that is so poignant in the story is that while you understand his grief and his pain, because we’ve gotten to know Hector too, there’s a sense that Hector you know does not deserve what Achilles does to him. And Achilles actually strips the body naked and drags behind his chariot. This is desecration of a corpse, and this is something that most cultures, even today, of course, consider to be a gross violation. And when he does that, the horror of it strikes everyone on both sides of the conflict, and again, I mentioned they had… The story has the Greek gods in it, and the gods are horrified, that’s how far he’s gone over the line. And at that point, it no longer matters that Achilles is objectively the best fighter, ’cause he still is, there’s… Nobody doubts that, nobody questions that. But he’s lost this essential quality. He’s no longer honorable, having done that to the corpse.

Brett McKay: And he even realizes he crossed a line when Hector’s father Priam comes to Achilles to get his body, get Hector’s body back.

Shannon French: Oh, yes, and I love that scene. It’s an incredibly powerful scene in the epic, because what you end up seeing is an old warrior near the end of his life who knows that there’s not much left for him. So this is the king who has seen so many of his sons die and now his favorite son and heir Hector has died, and he knows his city’s going to fall, it’s just… There’s no good news on the horizon for him, and he has to swallow his pride and go beg for his son’s body back from the man who killed him and the man who desecrated that body. But when they actually confront on one another, Achilles looks at the older version of himself, in a sense, and he’s incredibly moved, and he… The two of them weep together, and they talk about, in a sense, the horror of war, but they also talked specifically about basically the unfairness of life and how, from their perspective, the gods dole out good things and bad things, but they never give anyone just good. They only give a mix at best, and for some people nothing but sorrow. And so they see themselves as equal sufferers in this experience.

And Achilles relents and essentially gets his soul back, gets some of his soul back from that experience, and he does return the body, because he has seen that what he did was wrong and that he wants to be worthy again, and he does make that ultimate decision. Now, I will say, in the way that the Homeric cycle proceeds, it happens outside the bounds of the Iliad, but the God still punished Achilles, and his punishment is significant too, in that he’s ultimately killed by someone who isn’t worthy. So the gods actually help Prince Paris shoot that arrow that famously hits Achilles in his heel, his one week spot, and that is shameful under their culture to be killed by someone who is less than you are. And so there too, the punishment does still come to Achilles.

Brett McKay: Alright, it sounds like from the Iliad, we can learn that the ancient Greeks did had a Code of Ethics in war that it could cross the line, and Achilles is a manifestation of that. And I think Hector also just a great example of an ideal soldier that you’d want to embody, he knew he was gonna lose, but he still felt duty-bound to defend his own, defend his country.

Shannon French: Absolutely, and he’s another example of someone who is very relatable even in modern times, because he is honorable, but it’s not in a kind of empty reflex way, he thinks deeply about what he’s facing, and he admits privately, we get a glimpse inside his mind, and he admits that he wishes he could run away from it all. And there even is a moment before he has his ultimate, almost wanna call it a duel with Achilles where he actually does run away, so he has a moment of weakness that is so human that it kind of just makes him a little bit more lovable.

Brett McKay: Right.

Shannon French: He sees Achilles with armor made by the gods and recognizes that he has no chance of surviving, and for a moment, his will cracks and he runs away from him. But then what brings him back is also relatable, he believes that he sees one of his brothers, so imagine that in kind of a band of brothers sense, and that reminds him again, if this identity. He’s reminded of who he is and what he owes others, and it’s actually that love that he feels for Troy and for his fellow Trojans that makes him stop running and turn and face his inevitable death at the hands of Achilles. And that is, again, I think a moment where people really recognize that this experience is timeless, that you can put yourself in this character shoes from millennia ago and recognize things that we could see in any modern conflict.

Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s fast-forward to the ancient Romans. And you say the Romans had sort of a Janus-faced view towards military ethics, what do you mean by that?

Shannon French: Well, on the one hand, the influences on the Romans were partly from the existing religion that was there at the time, which was a follow-on in many ways to the one that we saw in the Iliad, the Greek religion, polytheistic with many gods. And they had philosophies that were dominant at the time that the Roman legion was at its height, and they influenced the troops certainly at the time, and probably the one that is most relevant for that is Stoicism, and that has absolutely survived until the present day and has helped many people in trying to reconcile themselves to their fates, in war and other conflicts. But there was also a thread of what we would today call sort of hedonism, but the idea that if there is no after life, which many of the Romans believe there was not, or there wasn’t a meaningful one, there wasn’t one where you would be sorted based on your behavior, that all there is is this life, and so you probably heard the old saying, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”

So there’s a bit of a being torn between a almost devil may care attitude on the one hand, and the stoic philosophy, which is incredibly demanding. In fact, Stoicism is so demanding that it does not allow any wavering from honorable behavior, even if you are tortured, even if you are put under extreme duress, there’s just no excuses in that original tradition. The idea is that you must always do the right thing, kind of to use another expression, “Though the heavens fall.” And so all of which is to say that Roman legions going off into far corners of the empire, had to decide which of these inspired them and which of these got them through, all in the context of fighting in disciplined units, where you had to be able to rely on the man next to you, and you had to know that that man was going to keep his shield where it needed to be to protect your flank, and if they weren’t there, then you were dead. So it’s an interesting, I think, tradition to study, because you have to look at how all those things played together and how people found their way with all these different influences.

Brett McKay: On that Stoicism side, for a soldier or a military leader, Marcus Aurelius is the most famous military leader who is also a Stoic philosopher. What did it mean to be a virtuous warrior? If you took that stoic idea?

Shannon French: Well, it was the ultimate no complaints, no excuses philosophy. So for Marcus Aurelius, and you’re quite right, he was someone who led troops into combat and was himself right there with them in a lot of cases, so he wasn’t leading from back at the capital. He had the belief that everything was pre-determined, that you had a role to play. And whether we wanna play that out as fate or however you wanna think of that, but the important thing was you were assigned a role, and if your role was a soldier in the Roman legions, then it was your entire purpose in life to do that role as well as you could. So whatever task you were given, every one of those tasks had that same point of pressure on it. So what I mean by that is that you couldn’t slack off anywhere. If you were told to clear a forest, then by God, you needed to clear that forest the best way a forest has ever been cleared. You were meant to take everything as absolutely defining you.

So maybe you think of it in this term, in these terms, it would be to imagine that if you were told to guard a particular point, then imagining that that would be the entire story that could ever be told of you, whether or not you guarded that point was the way you needed to approach that. And so that actually carried on. And I mentioned this with the torture analogy, that you should not sacrifice those tasks and those assignments, you shouldn’t fail those roles regardless of what happens to you. So Marcus Aurelius made the point that the one thing you have control over is your response to external events. The external events are gonna do whatever they’re gonna do, and the people around you are gonna do whatever they’re going to do. But the one thing you have control over is your response, how you react. And so it was absolutely imperative for a stoic warrior to always react honorably with literally no regard for the consequences to themselves. So it’s a very, very high bar. And I don’t think there’s many that are much higher that you can find.

Brett McKay: And as you said, the stoic deal still lives on today. Many soldiers across the world go to stoicism as a way to help them manage their role as a soldier.

Shannon French: It still speaks to a lot of people, in part because their lives, they know are going to be filled with things they can’t control. And as I mentioned at the very outset, a lot of those things are going to be incredibly high stakes, they are gonna be life and death. So when you’re faced with a lot of awful things, including the losses that you’re going to experience and the harms that you yourself have to cause in your job, then having this very strict philosophy to fall back on has its comforting elements because you can tell yourself that “I have to do these things, I have to lose these people, but the only thing I can control is whether or not I do the absolute best that I can, and as long as I do that, I am fulfilling my role, and that is all that I have charge of,” and so it is something that makes you feel a bit more empowered in an otherwise helpless situation. And unfortunately, troops find themselves in those kind of situations a lot.

Brett McKay: Right. Well, James Stockdale, a famous prisoner of war in Vietnam, who went on to become a professor, I think the War College, he famously, he used stoicism to get through his years in Vietnam as a prisoner of war.

Shannon French: Absolutely, and he made it completely clear that he does not think he could have survived without that philosophy. Because if you talk about feeling helpless, there is no more helplessness than being in that kind of prisoner situation where everything you experience is being controlled by others, with the aim of breaking you down, with the intentional aim of trying to make you give up those ideals, make you violate the trust that you’ve established, make you betray your friends. And the only way he found to resist that was to say that these things are happening to my body. These things are happening externally to me, but the me that I control is untouchable. And that’s the part of me that responds to it. And that’s what got Stockdale through, was clinging onto that idea that he wasn’t powerless as much as he appeared powerless. He wasn’t. Because he could control his reactions, and his writings on that are wonderful to read. And I will say his legacy lives on in many ways, including that there is a Stockdale Chair in Ethics that’s currently held by my very good friend, Pauline Shanks Kaurin up at Navy war college. And at the Naval Academy where I used to work, there is a Stockdale Center for Ethics. So we have not forgotten Admiral Stockdale.

Brett McKay: Do you think there are any downsides to using stoicism as an ethical framework for a soldier or warrior?

Shannon French: The part that I struggle with, and I think I say this with the understanding that not everyone will struggle with it, and so I don’t wanna discourage anyone from embracing stoicism if it is helpful. They need what they need. But for myself, I think what I struggle with is that it does require you to have a certain kind of emotional detachment from suffering and loss, not only in the moment, but permanently. And that, I’m not sure is sustainable for everyone. I think that depends a lot on individual psychology. And what I mean by that is, it’s one thing to say that you can’t unfortunately take time to mourn your losses in the middle of ongoing combat. If you did, more people may die. You have to, to some extent, embrace stoicism to get through that moment with any hope of seeing future moments.

But I like better the idea that then when you are finally allowed out of that urgent moment and allowed a moment to breathe, that you can also fully mourn and remember those you’ve lost and feel that pain and experience it, maybe even weep the way that Achilles wept with King Priam. And I think that to suggest that there’s any weakness to that is a bad idea. And I’m not sure stoicism necessarily does accuse anyone of weakness, but it certainly does discourage taking those moments later. And for myself, I believe that it’s really important to give people the time and the space to mourn and fully feel what they’ve gone through. And in fact, other warrior cultures that I studied have more about that and more about how that can help with the transitions.

Brett McKay: Alright. Let’s fast forward to medieval era and particularly the Round Table, the Knights of the Round Table, which is probably the most famous code in the west, because this is especially when you in Malory’s Arthurian Tales, you actually see a code sort of explicitly laid out, ’cause the knights have to take this oath. So for those who aren’t familiar, what was the oath? Sort of the general tenants of it?

Shannon French: Well, what’s wonderful about this idea and the way that Malory wrote it. I mean, again, we have to note that this is someone writing a work of fiction and trying to create an ideal and that ideal has inspired many people. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think that sometimes in fact, these fictional works because they allow us inside the minds of these different people experiencing war are more helpful than any other source in allowing us to work through what is needed for a good code. So in Malory’s work, what we’re looking at an idealized code of chivalry, and it includes things like never to do outragosity, I love that word [chuckle] or murder. It requires you to always do sucker for those who are in need and particularly damsels in distress. Basically the broad strokes of it are to require the knights to be servant leaders.

And I like talk about this particularly now, because I think this is a concept that a lot of people who work in the space of leadership are familiar with, but that doesn’t always make it into the public conversation around what leaders should be. And in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and in other works about King Arthur, one of the things that really does come through is the idea that knights, while they had the power, while they were the best armed, they had the equipment, they had the skills to just be bullies, to just be tyrants. They voluntarily took an oath to use that power to help those who were weaker than themselves and to not abuse that power. So the whole outragosity point is that you are not to use this strength that you have as a way to take advantage of others, but instead to advance what’s right.

And that’s really relatable again, because it fits nicely with the idea that, and I saw this with my midshipman and I still see this with the troops that I get to work with today, the people who sign up for the military in this country, they don’t want to be the bad guys. They don’t… They’re not joining for the most part to simply be able to take people out. They actually have more of a guardian role in mind. And that is this chivalry ideal in a lot of ways, it’s this concept that you take the strength and you use it as a force for good in the world and you use it to protect the weak. And I think a lot of that does come in the west from this concept of the Knights of the Round Table and what that ideal represents for people.

Brett McKay: So you devote a section to Native American warrior codes and Native American culture, every tribe is different, has its own unique warrior culture. For your book, what tribes did you focus on?

Shannon French: Well, I absolutely could not do justice to the incredible wide range of tribes of Native Americans. And that’s, again, only looking at Native Americans is there’s so many other indigenous groups around the world. So what I ended up doing was to focus on the plains tribes. And I did that largely because I wanted to bring in particular points of wisdom that I didn’t think were necessarily captured in the other cultures that I’d looked at yet, and that I think again, have great relevance for modern troops. And in particular, what I wanted to bring out that I thought the plains tribes were really quite brilliant at was the understanding of these transitions that people who fight need to make. And what I mean by that is when you have to cross that line of taking a human life, even if you do it within the boundaries of a warrior’s code, it still does something to you. Even if you have no doubt in the moment that you had to do it, that it was you or him, even if it falls even in a square place of self-defense in your mind, or if you were defending someone else, you still took a human life and that has a cost. And you also simply participated in a level of violence that doesn’t fit anywhere else, that if you did the same behavior in another context in your society, it would horrify everyone.

So you need some help transitioning from that experience and even from the structure and living with other warriors that you have been in, in order to do whatever mission you’re on, to transition from that back to being with your family, being with your tribe, in this case. So, what they put in place, and it does differ for different tribes, but to give you the gist of it, were different transition rituals that really acknowledged this need to feel that you were setting aside that part of you that was the warrior and returning to the peaceful part of you that could be with your family and that would not commit what we would call today acts of domestic violence, for example. They would do things that would mark the point where you have stepped away from your combat role and you were stepping back into your peaceful role within the tribe. They would allow you to purge yourself, whether it’s, for example, a sweat lodge ceremony where you’re literally sort of sweating out that experience, but also talking about it. One of the things that isn’t always understood is that there’s an element of group therapy in a lot of these rituals where you and others who have seen what you’ve seen and done what you’ve done are in it together, and you’re all letting it go, and you’re all taking this moment to acknowledge it and process it before you return to your families so you can change modes. I just think that’s something that we have lost sight of.

There’s been tremendous work by folks who work in the space of moral injury, I particularly admire the work of Jonathan Shay, who’s done just marvelous things, he wrote the book Achilles in Vietnam and also Odysseus in America, and others who have understood this importance of transitions. But it hasn’t made it all the way, again, through the culture, and it hasn’t made it into policy and practice to the degree I would like to see it.

Brett McKay: That idea of rituals for transitioning into warrior mode and then transitioning out of warrior mode is something that we could… An insight we can get from Native American culture.

Shannon French: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Okay, let’s move on to an Eastern warrior culture, and probably the most famous that people know about here in the west is the Bushido code of the Samurai. First, can you give us a little bit of background on the samurai because I think it’ll help us understand why they developed this code that they did.

Shannon French: Oh yes, it’s just absolutely fascinating, it’s no surprise that people have heard of it because it draws you in. Once you start studying and learning about the Samurai and Bushido, it does definitely draw you in. The starting point is already incredibly complex because they’re influenced by four different religions, and finding the balance point there amongst four different influences is quite the trick. They’re influenced by the indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto, but also Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, and all of those are woven into this fabric of a Warrior’s Code, where you are to balance things that aren’t necessarily, at least on the face of it, all that compatible, and what I mean by that is… So on the one hand, Shinto requires you to honor your ancestors and act in a way that reflects on or on them, and that is a kind of an attachment that you have to the past and to a legacy and to a tradition. And you can understand that being very powerful in warrior’s code, but when you blend that with Buddhism, the core tenant of which is non-attachment, it’s hard to know how you find again the balance point for that.

But Buddhism, amongst many other things, teaches another point that you can imagine being very helpful to warriors, and that is this idea that as you go through life, you are trying to find the middle path between extremes, and that if you allow your experiences in war to drive you to one of these extremes then you are pushing yourself further from Enlightenment and you have to keep bringing yourself back and trying to find that middle path, that middle way. It also has these defined limits around right action and trying to find how you can behave correctly as a warrior in that role and still be moving towards a better understanding of your place in the universe. And it helps deal with death as well, because ultimately the goal for a Buddhist is not any kind of individual survival, but to really merge with the infinite, to be one with the universe. And the piece that is meant to come from that is an end of all suffering. So you could see that as something held out as hope for warriors who are seeing a lot of suffering and having to endure a lot of pain and discomfort. But then they’re also balancing those two influences with Daoism, which is something that, what I emphasize in the book is that really, when you have to go into a combat situation, the level of focus that you’re required to maintain…

We often talk about people having their head on a swivel and having to be on a level of alert that is incredibly much of a strain to maintain for a long period of time, that that wears you out in a unique way and throws you out of balance. And Daoism is all about balance, and it’s about balancing things like the yin and the yang, and finding your other side to put yourself back at peace. So it is helpful for the Warriors, and actually the Samurai played this out in a fascinating way, because they thought of, “Well, if I’m going to be fighting and the combat side of me is going to be bringing out all of that violence then in my downtime, I need to intentionally choose to do things that are the opposite of that.” So they would do things like water color painting and origami and flower ranging and being out in nature. And I find it fascinating that modern work in neurology and neuroscience, neuro-ethics even, all of this area, it’s in emerging fields that are fascinating. Bear this out, that it is really helpful for a healthy and stable brain to cycle in this way, that if you’re experiencing too much of one kind of stimulation, you need to intentionally balance it with these others.

So they had an intuitive sense of that. And then last but not least, this confusion influence has a lot to do with your relationships with other people, in particular power relationships. And that’s something that a lot of people think of when they think of the samurai, because they had a tremendously strong sense of duty to those in leadership roles and the idea that you would always help those above you save face and that you would do everything in your power to not embarrass them and to make them look good, even at your own expense. And so all of these play into how the samurai tried to shape their code.

Brett McKay: And this code, I mean, it influenced Japanese soldiers all the way into world war II.

Shannon French: It absolutely did. And one could even argue that it still influences a lot of Japanese business tactics today. There’s still this idea that saving face is important and that that can work both ways. What I mean by that is, on the positive side, it is selfless, it is putting the interests of the mission or the unit above yourself, but it can be bad if it’s around simply covering up bad things, covering up negativity or bad news from people who actually need to know it in order to make sure that no one is embarrassed. And you can see those struggles even today in Japanese politics and other elements of their culture, that on the one hand tremendous loyalty and some selflessness that that can be astounding. But on the other hand, sometimes covering up bad things or bad news in a way that delays proper responses.

Brett McKay: So with all these codes, I mean, I think even today we can see the influence of these ancient warrior codes that we’ve talked about even today, even with our rules of engagements, laws of warfare that we have, I think most soldiers go in understanding that there’s a higher code, a more and more vague code that they’re called to fill. Do you think with the way that war’s changing today, let’s say with asymmetric warfare, drones, cyberwarfare, do code need to change or are they gonna stay the same?

Shannon French: The need for the code is not gonna change. And in fact, arguably it’s more important than ever. The details of any one code, and we’ve talked about them being vague to start with, but the identities that are developed will have to match what jobs they have. But I think it’s a huge mistake to imagine that warrior codes will ever be a thing of the past long as there is war and conflict, as long as people are dying. And an example I can give is when we first started using UAVs and so forth, drones, there was a mistaken belief. And I even fell into this briefly at the beginning, just when I first heard about them before I had a chance to reflect on it further or talk to folks about it, there was a sense that people thought maybe those fighting from so far away with video screens in front of them would be immune from things like moral injury, that they would be… It would feel to them like a video game.

That was the concern that people had. And also for some, even a positive that, “Oh, well maybe we will have fewer incidents of trauma amongst these folks.” But as things played out, we realized that sadly, that was not the case. And in fact there were high incidents of, for example, PTS and other trauma responses among drone operators. And one of the reasons was that they were not detached, although they were physically away from the moment of the impact, for example, of what they’re doing, they could see it and they could see it in Hi-Rez. They could see a highly pixelated details of the people they were watching, the people they were effectively stalking and then ultimately killing and then see the effects of those deaths on the family members nearby and so forth. So it actually was more important than ever that they understand where their lines were, and when those killings were justified and when they were not. Because to the degree that they couldn’t see a difference between what they were doing and murdering someone with a sniper rifle, if they couldn’t see that difference, then they felt themselves that they had done something vile.

And so we have to, again, for the sake of the warriors themselves, we have to make sure that these lines are clear and that they exist. And a lot of that pressure is also on policymakers, because it is a betrayal of our troops to ask them to do things that cross too many lines. And that is in fact, undermining them, not making life easier for them. It always drives me nuts when people who have a distanced perspective to all of this will say, “Why should you have any rules for our troops? Just let them take the gloves off and fight any way they want.” That’s not doing our troops a favor. That’s actually making life worse for them. You don’t help them by removing the code. The code is there for their protection. It’s there to allow them to hold onto their humanity and to know that what they’re doing has honor to it. And if you strip that away from them, you’re harming them more than any bullet ever could.

Brett McKay: Well, Shannon, this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?

Shannon French: Well, absolutely. I mean, we’re quite proud of the fact that at my university, at Case Western Reserve University, we’ve actually started the first military ethics master’s degree program in the country. And so you can go to military ethics at and learn about that program there and my work. And we have some videos and things there that you can watch. And also of course the book itself, but this work is ongoing and we are always trying to recruit more people into military ethics to help us wrestle with the problems of the past and the future.

Brett McKay: Well, Shannon French, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Shannon French: Thank you so much.

Brett McKay: My guest here is Shannon French. She’s the author of the book, The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present. It’s available Also check out our show notes at where you find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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