The 1996 movie THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS tells the tale of an English bridge builder working in Africa during the late 19th Century when lions attack, kill and sometimes eat workers on the bridge. Based in part upon true events, the film’s focus is upon Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson, the bridge builder played by Val Kilmer, and his hunt for these lions. Eventually Patterson receives help from professional hunter Charles Remington, portrayed by Michael Douglas.
During one scene, a group of Maasai warriors are performing a ritual dance in the background while Remington and Patterson and others are speaking around a campfire. At the end of the conversation, Remington goes to join the Maasai, saying “I’m going to join them now, while we try to convince each other we’re still brave.”
That last line says a lot about the Remington character, showing that he understands fear but is willing to rise against it, and that he recognizes the importance of warrior rituals.
Some might consider warrior rituals trite, full of nothing more than bravado and machismo, especially in this oft-called enlightened age. There might be a little truth to that, but only a little.
Warrior rituals have been around for thousands of years, likely even beyond recorded history. Every nation with a military, every warrior society, has had rituals which have helped build up the courage of those going on the hunt or into battle. This has been necessary.
Facing death is not a natural seeming thing, especially when one is doing so intentionally. Every soldier knows they might not make it back from a fight. Hunters, especially those before the modern era, realize their prey might turn on them at any moment and become predator.
It can take a lot of nerve to rush into battle or to face down a large animal, perhaps especially for those who have yet to experience combat or hunting. Training does indeed help a lot, improving one’s chances of survival, but experience is its own teacher. Yet even those who have faced the worst, who have been wounded, who have witnessed the wounding or death of comrades, who have seen with their own eyes the suffering of the innocent, who have had to deal out death themselves, even they can feel feint of heart when the battle horns ring out.
Which is why warrior rituals are important. Such rituals help steel us against the seeming insanity of rushing into combat with swords slashing and guns blazing. Pride, bravado, such words might seem almost quaint in today’s world, but they are needed by those who have to protect us.
The Maori people of New Zealand to this day have a war dance to inspire their warriors. Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II drank a brew of sake together before taking flight. Ancient Greeks and Romans made use of ceremonies and priests to make offerings to gods in hope of triumph during battle. Even in the Bible the Israelites blared their horns and made sacrifices when gathering for war. Warrior rituals are as old as time and serve a purpose.
To quote George Orwell: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
And here’s another Orwell quote: “However little we may like it, toughness is the price of survival.”
There’s a lot of truth in those quotes.
Our warriors, our protectors, they need our support and our understanding. That doesn’t mean we have to stand by if one of them does wrong, but it also doesn’t mean we need to badger them all the time. It also means we need to give a little leeway to warrior rituals. We might not always understand them, but they are important. They build resolve. They help those facing the worst to put up emotional walls that can not only help them survive, but help them survive the surviving, help them deal with the emotional trauma that comes from facing the worst.