Warrior Ways: Explorations in Modern Military Folklore


Warrior Ways is one of the first book-length explorations of military folklife, and focuses on the lore produced by modern American warriors, illuminating the ways in which members of the armed services creatively express the complex experience of military life. In short, lively essays, contributors to the volume, all of whom have close personal or professional relationships to the military, examine battlefield talismans, personal narrative (storytelling), “Jody calls” (marching and running cadences), slang, ...

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Warrior Ways: Explorations in Modern Military Folklore

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Warrior Ways is one of the first book-length explorations of military folklife, and focuses on the lore produced by modern American warriors, illuminating the ways in which members of the armed services creatively express the complex experience of military life. In short, lively essays, contributors to the volume, all of whom have close personal or professional relationships to the military, examine battlefield talismans, personal narrative (storytelling), “Jody calls” (marching and running cadences), slang, homophobia and transgressive humor, music, and photography, among other cultural expressions.

Military folklore does not remain in an isolated subculture; it reveals our common humanity by delighting, disturbing, infuriating, and inspiring both those deeply invested in and those peripherally touched by military life. Highlighting the contemporary and historical importance of the military in American life, Warrior Ways will be of interest to scholars and students of folklore, anthropology, and popular culture; those involved in veteran services and education; and general readers interested in military culture.

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Editorial Reviews

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"Readers should regard this book as offering a smorgasbord of information, ideas and opinions. Sniff or skim or even ignore some selections, but digest and ponder others—a perfect recipe for good reading."
—Tom Phillips, The Journal of America’s Military Past
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780874219036
  • Publisher: Utah State University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2012
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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Warrior Ways

Explorations in Modern Military Folklore

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-903-6

Chapter One

The Things They Bring to War

Carol Burke

Luck is always borrowed, never owned. —Norwegian saying

Today's US Army soldiers deploy with three sets of grayish green ACUs (Army combat uniforms) or three sets of the more trendy "multicams"; with a helmet that comes with pads, strap, and cover; with three pairs of G.I. boots that soldiers mold to their feet by wearing them, when new, in the shower; with canteen and cover, trenching tool, "Gerber" (a utility knife), and gloves; with both goggles to protect from sandstorms and sunglasses ("eyepro") that are only marginally more stylish; with wet-weather gear, jackets and fleece for cold weather, and even subzero-weather gear and insulated underwear. The outerwear is of high quality, but soldiers complain that the basic uniform is far too heavy in the sweltering summer heat. They haul their Kevlar body armor (with attachments for neck, shoulders, and groin) and the hefty "small-arms protective inserts" (SAPI) plates that fit into the vest and protect against high-velocity rifle rounds, and two sleeping bags—one for warm weather, one for colder weather with the option of fitting the former inside the latter. Then there's the "bivy," the bivouac sack that insulates the sleeping bag from the cold and wet. Any soldier will tell you that the only way to sleep in Army sleeping bags is nude so that body heat will be reflected off the synthetic bag. They also carry an air mattress, a rain poncho, ammo pouches, a laundry bag, a waterproof washing bag, more protective gear, a "CamelBak" (water reservoir), and eating utensils. Everything, along with a few personal items, fits snugly into one rucksack, three hefty duffles, and an "assault pack," a small backpack for toiletries, laptop, underwear, socks, and towel for the several-day trip to their destination.

Among the personal items, soldiers bring books for the online courses they will complete during their year away and extra sheets to transform a bunk bed in a tent shared with eleven to twelve other soldiers into a private space. They bring pictures of lovers, husbands, wives, and children and metal bracelets with the names of fallen comrades from previous deployments. Because most forward-operating bases (FoBs) maintain generators to heat and cool every tent and plywood structure and to keep the lights on, the computers working, and the showers hot, the soldiers and civilians who live on them bring earplugs to drown out the constant drone of generators. Some need more help in getting to sleep, and they bring white-noise machines and doctor-prescribed medication to counteract the psychological scars from previous deployments.

Deployed soldiers sport their current unit's patch on their left shoulder and the patch from a previous deployment on their right shoulder. That's on the outside; on the inside they bring their freshly inked deployment tattoos or the designs of tattoos commemorating previous deployments. Marines typically have themselves inscribed with the Marine eagle, globe, and anchor or the motto "Death Before Dishonor" as "visible reminders of who they are," according to retired Marine Corps commander Colonel Mike Denning. Other soldiers wear images of skulls, flames, and weapons attesting to their power to vanquish whatever menace might come their way. Some soldiers who have come "downrange" (soldier-speak for deployment) to Iraq and Afghanistan have brought with them a second set of dog tags, what they refer to as their "meat tags," an exact image of their official dog tags inked onto their torsos. Since the single most deadly weapon in the insurgent's arsenal in these con- flicts is the improvised explosive device, many soldiers make sure that their body, should it be blown up by an IED, can be distinguished from the remains of others. The stated purpose, however, is probably not the real function this practice serves. First, every squad leader and his platoon leader know who is going out on every mission and would instantly know who is missing. What's more, bodies would likely be charred and the "meat tag" unrecognizable were the explosion to leave only a torso. No, the ritual of going with buddies to get such a tattoo allows soldiers to acknowledge the worst that might happen, note that harsh fact on their flesh, and then get on with the mission. Meat tags function in the same way as macabre battlefield humor; they symbolically inoculate the soldier against thoughts that might otherwise incapacitate.

Those seasoned soldiers who have been this way before bring to war tales of other deployments. Sometimes they are simply short descriptions of a character they've encountered. One Marine, who asked that his name not be used, had served some hard time on previous deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan and had lost close friends, but kept those stories to himself. He did, on the other hand, tell stories that showed his fondness for the locals he'd encountered. One of these colorful characters was affectionately named "Tooth" because he appeared to have only one tooth in his mouth, holding onto it as if it were a survivor's medal. Tooth, a groundskeeper at the US embassy in Kabul, loved all Marines, and those who worked at the embassy were fond of him, giving him one of their extra rank pins or a challenge coin. He sported them all. Whenever he spotted a Marine, Tooth would holler a jovial "Hey, Jarhead!" or "Hello, Devil Dog!" one day a Marine said, "Hey, Tooth, how old are you?" The man didn't know. "Were you ever a soldier?" the Marine asked. "of course," said Tooth. "Did you fight the Russians?" said the Marine. Tooth dropped the lighthearted demeanor and looked seriously at him and said, "yes." "Did you kill some Russkies?" asked the Marine. Tooth paused, then answered, "I've killed more Russians than cancer." Not only had Tooth fought the Russians; he had resisted the Taliban takeover as well. Because of his resistance, the Taliban came to his home and killed every member of his family in front of him. He was being tortured and would have been killed as well had a small unit of Marines not rescued him.


When civilians and soldiers go off to war they leave their families, their civilian friends, their favorite hangouts, and their possessions; they enter a walled community separated from the local population, which they regard as potentially hostile. It's a place where the unexpected is to be expected, where there is little one can do to mitigate risk other than rely on skills learned in training, stay alert, and keep a clean weapon. Even so prepared, there are no guarantees. War is about hidden danger waiting for the opportune time to present itself. In today's wars of counterinsurgency there is no territory to be taken, no mass of troops to eliminate. There are only the hearts and minds of a population to win. In areas where insurgents still maintain strength, the sympathies of this population are, of necessity, split. Despite their overwhelming military superiority, occupying forces in these regions cannot protect the residents of every small village, so those villagers, who typically want little more than to work their land, to feed their families, and to see their children grow and prosper, must live with what they cannot change.

To move outside the protection of the base the American soldier wears the best body armor, carries the best weapons, and rides around in the best patrol vehicles. In spite of this, an insurgent can for a few bucks construct an IED that will erase the advantage. In the face of such unpredictable danger, those who deploy carry protective objects brought from home or acquired while "in country." In this essay I will be discussing the use of such objects in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is worth noting that taking such tokens to war is not a recent development. Spanish soldiers in the late 1800s carried charms with "détente bala" (stop bullet) written on them. World War II Japanese soldiers wore 1,000-stitch belts that sisters, mothers, or wives had patiently assembled (figure 1.1).

According to tradition, every stitch of these belts had to come from a different person, so Japanese women would stand at a busy market or intersection asking passersby to make a simple stitch. Most displayed no pattern to the stitches; they simply fell in rows across the cloths, typically worn by soldiers around their waists or heads. Some of these gifts came with a special pocket in which could be inserted a good luck saying or a good luck coin— a sort of amulet within an amulet. Other Japanese soldiers took with them send-off banners emblazoned with the rising sun and inscribed by the family or friends who wished the soldier well. All were believed to bring protection to the wearer and ensure his return to his loved ones.

Talismans have also been used more recently in Thailand. On February 2, 2011, journalist Saksith Saiyasombut reported in the Bangkok Post (2011) that Thawatchai Samutsakhon, Second Army chief in the Thai Army, feared that the Cambodian troops stationed just across the border from his Thai guards might be sending curses their way, so he decided to give his soldiers extra protection. He issued all of them talismans with the image of a Thai monk whom the Army chief revered, and instructed his Thai soldiers to wear the protective devices on top of their body armor so that the monk's image would face the enemy. The Cambodians on the other side would not confirm the use of such unconventional weapons, but they would not deny it either. Their spokesman said that the Cambodian soldiers would likely perform rituals at a nearby temple in order to counteract the magic of the Thai talismans. Although designed for border soldiers, such protective devices are also showing up on the body armor of soldiers charged to face down antigovernment forces in Bangkok, the capital.


Many soldiers, Marines, and officers bring to war the religious objects of their faith. As retired Marine colonel Mike Denning explained, "I wore a miraculous medal as a visible symbol of my faith, a touchstone" (2012). Although Denning obtained his medal on a trip to Lourdes with his wife, most amulets of war, including religious artifacts, are not purchased but are given by a friend or family member. Denning himself gave a young man about to deploy to Afghanistan a St. Michael medal. The archangel who tramples Satan and St. Christopher rank as the most popular saints among both Catholic and non-Catholic soldiers. The gift of an amulet circulates from one soldier to another, one officer to another, one Marine to another, as a token of the bond between those who have served and those who are currently serving.

Like Denning and other religious American military personnel, Afghan soldiers also carry with them objects that represent their faith. They wear necklaces inscribed with a verse from the Quran and necklaces with a gold or silver cylinder that holds a small scroll with a Quranic verse. They typically receive these tokens of their faith from a mother or grandmother. The wearing of these necklaces, like praying to saints, was outlawed during the reign of the Taliban, and the practice still invites controversies in some Islamic communities. Along with any religious artifacts that Afghan soldiers bring with them, they experience daily reminders of their faith. Although exempt from reciting their required prayers when out on a mission, Afghan soldiers on base typically stop what they are doing, pull down their prayer rugs, and recite their prayers in answer to the call to prayer that broadcasts from the base loudspeaker five times a day.

Their speech, too, is infused with references to Allah. The most common Afghan expression, a saying that at one time or another irritates most American commanders, is "Insha'Allah" (literally, "God willing"). To an Afghan, such a closing to an agreement to do something in the future attests to the overriding power of Allah, in whose hands everything rests, and the saying rhetorically gives the speaker cover in case he fails to do what has been promised. To an American Army company commander, it indicates unwillingness to assume personal accountability. When an Afghan National Army platoon leader agrees to meet for a joint mission at 6:00 a.m. and arrives at 7:00, the platoon leader, with the magic expression "Insha'Allah," invokes the divine, and the American commander chalks it up to incompetence (see also chapter 3 by Eliason in this volume).

American troops also have their own verbal magic. In a conversation one night with a crusty sergeant first class (SFC) who had served multiple deployments, I mentioned that I had gone off base with a patrol convoy and that we had returned via the wadi. Wadi is an Afghan word for a waterway that is usually fairly dry. Except during the spring snow runoff, Afghan wadis double as large-vehicle highways far easier to navigate than the small dirt roads designed for carts, donkeys, and motorcycles. The sergeant stopped me: "Ma'am, we don't use that word anymore. We say arroyo," he paused, "because shit happens in the wadi." The words one uses come with their own magic. Prayers before missions, unit chants, traditional songs that a unit plays either before or during a dangerous mission offer their own form of protection.

Military personnel don't always bring all the protection they need from home. Sometimes they acquire it "downrange." Chip, a major in the Army Reserves, had deployed to Afghanistan three different times. He recalled that his second deployment in the volatile east of Afghanistan, where he was training members of the Afghan National Police, came with the most danger. After a frightening encounter with insurgents, his commander took him aside, reached into his pocket, took out a set of Islamic prayer beads, handed them to Chip, and said, "I think you need these more than I do" (Chip 2010). Every foray after that Chip took the beads with him, and he credits them with keeping him safe. Neither Chip nor his commanding officer is a Muslim, neither knows that the beads are called tasbeh, and neither can recite the ninety-nine names of Allah that a typical believer reviews when "saying" the beads. The magic of the beads came from the fact that they were a gift, and the accumulation of days that he carried them without injury added to their power.

Like Chip, other members of the military attribute the power of protection to a religious object of a faith that they may not share. Captain Marc Motyleski was serving in Bagdad, working with a civil affairs unit outside the base and outside the protected Green Zone, when he found himself trapped and under direct fire:

While on my second deployment in Iraq, I was conducting an assessment of a substation, which was at the bottom of a small hill. Then all of a sudden we were taking small-arms fire. While peeking our heads out to look around for ways to get out, we received continuous fire. Our battalion commander came on the scene and called in some Apache helicopters. And, of course, the shooting stopped once they came on station. After I came back to base, my friend, Ray Wallace, gave me the LDS [Latter-day Saints] dog tag, saying, "you need this more than I do." He was at the time at a desk job on base. This story ends sadly, however, when my friend was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. (2010)

one side of the silver oval of the LDS dog tag read, "In case of need notify LDS Chaplain or member" above an image of the famous Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. The reverse read, "I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints." Motyleski was not a Mormon nor did he intend to become one, but he attached the amulet to his key chain and never again went in harm's way without it. His friend had given him an object that attested to his own faith and with the gift came the object's power, regardless of the faith of the receiver. The power resides with the object, a material thing that can be given away. Protective objects are, in the eyes of their owners, special because of their gift status, not so much in the Maussian sense of gift as a commodity implicitly demanding a reciprocal exchange (Mauss 2004) but more akin to the giving of a medicine bundle intended simply to protect the receiver. Both of these stories are what I call "you need this more than I do" stories, and they illustrate not just the power of an object to protect but also the bonds formed between members of the military. Ray Wallace did not deliberately lay down his life for his friend by handing over his amulet, but his generosity, perhaps a fatal one, suggests that he would have made such a sacrifice.


Excerpted from Warrior Ways Copyright © 2012 by University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of Utah State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Modern Military Folklore, Retrospect and Prospects Tad Tuleja Eric A. Eliason 1

Part I Deploying

1 The Things They Bring to War Carol Burke 19

2 Know Thy Enemy: Camel Spider Stories among US Troops in the Middle East Justin M. Oswald 38

3 "Folk-Folkloristics": Reflections on American Soldiers' Responses to Afghan Traditional Culture Eric A. Eliason 58

Part II Sounding Off

4 Where Is Jody Now? Reconsidering Military Marching Chants Richard Allen Burns 79

5 Upper Echelons and Boots on the Ground: The Case for Diglossia in the Military Elinor Levy 99

6 Sea Service Slang: Informal Language of the Navy and Coast Guard Angus Kress Gillespie 116

Part III Belonging

7 Taser to the 'Nads: Brutal Embrace of Queerness in Military Practice Mickey Weems 139

8 Making Lemonade: Military Spouses' Worldview as a Coping Mechanism Kristi Young 161

9 Oppositional Positioning: The Military Identification of Young Antiwar Veterans Lisa Gilman 181

Part IV Remembering

10 Colonel Bogeys March through Folk and Popular Culture Greg Kelley 205

11 Soldier Snaps Jay Mechling 222

12 "Americas Best": Cultural Poaching on "Ballad of the Green Berets" Tad Tuleja 248

Selected Bibliographies 271

Contributors 277

Index 281

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