Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Returning Home, Warriorship, and the Society for Creative Anachronism

The morning after I came home from serving as a Peacekeeper in Bosnia, a friend knocked on my door at some early hour. I wanted to sleep in, but he had another plan. There was something we absolutely had to go do, something he had become involved in that he knew I would love. I have never accredited this particular friend with an over-abundance of brains, but in this case he must have been divinely inspired. What he had in mind was not necessarily something I might love, but in the end it was exactly what I needed.

Though I was in my apartment in Johnson City, Tennessee, I had really only taken the first step in “coming home”. On that day I had no idea how hard the next few years were going to be, or what I needed to not only survive but to come through them a transformed person. I did not yet know that I was not “all right”… I did not even know that though my body might have come home, my mind, heart, and soul had not.

As Dr. Edward Tick talks about in his book “War and the Soul”, a soldier is not the same as a warrior. Modern warfare has created the soldier to be a “replaceable part”, one of many with nearly identical training that can fill a particular spot in any unit’s roster. The soldier understands their role in the larger whole, and understands that the responsibility for what they do rests more with that larger whole than with themselves. The ideal of the soldier that I was taught in basic training is someone “obeys orders” in the same way that a carburetor in your car does what it is designed to do. More adaptable than an auto-part, the soldier can fill multiple roles and within certain parameters can make their own decisions and evaluations… but there is still a “plug and play” aspect to the modern understanding of the soldier.

What is important in understanding this concept of the soldier is that the majority of the responsibility for making meaning from what they are called to do in war is not the soldier’s, but someone else’s. The responsibility for that meaning supposedly rests in the politician, in the generals, in the media, in the American populace. You hear it all the time… the soldier is “doing their job or, as one drill sergeant said to me “Pyle, when the Army thinks you need a reason they will issue you one!”

Yet when I came home, I found that knowing I had “done my job” was not enough. I found that I could not depend upon anyone else to put back together my shattered understanding of the way the world was supposed to be. I found that I had to learn myself how to make meaning from what I had experienced, and from what I had done.

In the coming months and years, I would run the whole gamut of physiological reactions to trauma often associated with PTSD. I would be hypervigilant, looking for threats on the ridgelines of the Tennessee mountains as I rode at high rates of speed on my motorcycle. I would only feel safe when I had a firearm with me (hidden, but there). I would have an intensified startle reaction to loud unexpected noises (and I still do, though thankfully not as profoundly). I would have dreams of destroyed cities, three-legged dogs, and jewelry made from brass shell casings on wounded children. I would have dreams of mass graves.

I found help in a counselor who was a Vietnam vet, and I talked of my experiences and became friends with those memories and stories… but that was only a part of my journey home. The other part began on that first morning back, with an over-enthusiastic friend banging on my door, demanding I go somewhere with him.

That somewhere was the “fighter practice” of a chapter (Shire) of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

If you are not familiar with the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), it is sometimes referred to as a “medieval re-enactment” society. Actually, it would be better to refer to it as a “medieval re-creation” society. Whatever was done in the middle ages (art forms, armored combat, service…) you can do in new and creative ways in the SCA. In reality, (not something most SCAdiens value overmuch) the SCA is a caring group of friends who share a similar interest and have created a unique sub-culture together.

The ways in which the SCA helped me journey home are profound. It provided a community where it did not matter what I had done in order to have friends. In creating a “persona”, or a historical character I played at SCA events, I gained the distance to begin learning who I was again, and to realize that I was no longer the David who had left for Bosnia the year before.

The martial-art aspect of the SCA gave me a safe outlet for the anxiety, for the anger, for the violence that I was feeling within, and it did so in an environment that made that expression monitored, safe, and within a prescribed set of rules… a code of honor. Heavy Armored Combat in the SCA (SCAdiens in medieval armor, carrying shields, and engaging in a martial art that uses billy-club like swords made of rattan) not only gave vent to that aggression, but re-focused and re-framed it so that it was no longer aggression, but defense; no longer war, but a martial art.

It taught me to honor and to love those who stood upon the opposite side of the field of combat, and when we took off our helmets after a bout we would hug, slap each other on the back, and then get ready to “lay on” again. That lesson began a re-framing of my understanding of the “Former Warring Factions” of the Bosnian war, not as evil, but as people… as human.

The SCA provided me with a mentor and friend who was a Gulf War Veteran, who had walked the same walk years before, and found his journey home through the SCA. We built medieval armor together over a period of two months, and we talked of war, of warriorship, and of what the difference is between a “soldier” and becoming a squire or a knight.

In essence, the SCA taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life. It took a wounded, questioning, distraught soldier and made a warrior of him… and in that transformation, I found a new hope, a new vision for my life, and a way to find and continue to find meaning.

Warrior is a loaded word, perhaps even more loaded than soldier. Where the soldier is a replaceable part in a larger military machine, each warrior is unique. Where the soldier wears a uniform identical to all others, each warrior carries that which identifies them as individuals. For the Braves of my Cherokee ancestry, it was specific jewelry and decoration. For the warriors of my Irish/Scottish ancestry, it was the designs of the woad die they wore on their faces. For the knights and squires of my English ancestry, it was the design of their heraldry and shield devices.

Through the SCA, I designed my own heraldry. I carried a shield with a hawk in flight, on a golden triangle pointing downward, on a green and black background. It represents a warrior spirit forever in flight, soaring and questing. The green and black represented my soldier past. On days when I felt my spirit want to retreat, to live in the fear that inspired my hypervigilance and reliance upon a hidden firearm, I would look at that hawk on my shield and remember the ideal I had set for myself… one that faced my fear, that soared above it, and that continued on.

Dr. Robert Moore, in his book “King, Warrior, Magician, Lover,” discusses the need to re-understand the warrior archetype. So much of modern media, of movies, of video games, and of actual human history has focused on the “shadow side” of the warrior… that which rapes and pillages… the taker, not the protector. The shadow warrior is the perpetrator of injustice, not the defender of justice. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, psychologist and West Point professor says a similar thing when he seeks to inspire in police and soldiers an ideal of the Paladin/Knight in his audio series “The Bulletproof Mind” and his book “On Combat” instead of the shadow side of the warior.

The Archetype of the Warrior is always with us, whether we want it or not, because it is deep in human society and psychology. Dr. Moore talks of how the warrior archetype is manifested not only by police and soldiers, but also by justice advocates and peace protestors. Yet we have lost the ability to tell the difference between the “Warrior in their Fullness” and the “Shadow Warrior”… and as such we have forgotten the ways of insuring that those who manifest the warrior archetype do not fall into its self-serving and society destructive shadow side. We have forgotten how make sure that the warrior become a paladin, not a terrorist.

Or, we have almost forgotten… because on those days when I was teetering on the edge of my “shadow warrior”… when I had spent six months in a nation destroyed by the rampant release of the “shadow warrior”… when I was hearing the voice of the shadow side that rests within… In those days an enthusiastic friend dragged me to a fighter practice for the Society for Creative Anachronism, and what I learned and experienced there kept the shadow side at bay.

Honor, Loyalty, Duty, Service, Justice, Peace, Compassion, Hope… These are the ideals of the Paladin Warrior… and they also happen to be the ideals upon which my Unitarian Universalism rests. I have learned to express my warrior self through ways of peace, through a dedication to justice. I no longer carry a weapon of any kind… the shield device and the sword on my wall are symbols, reminders.

I no longer participate in the SCA (for it has its own shadow side), but the lesson it taught me changed my life, and I carry it with me every day. In learning this new understanding of myself and the purpose and place of the warrior within, I was finally able to come home.

Yours in faith,

David

3 Thoughts on “Returning Home, Warriorship, and the Society for Creative Anachronism

  1. What interesting ideas! I have been giving much thought to the issues you raise (although I won’t face them for years) because my daughter has just gone to Swaziland for a couple Peace Corps years as an AIDS/HIV educator. Since Swaziland has the highest AIDS rate in the world (and average life expectancy of something like 32, 35 years) I predict she will have her own form of PTSD when she returns.

    At 25, she has been a gamer for 15 years, and has written several gaming books for White Wolf. But gaming, like CA, has its dark side too. (I think you could write a whole nother piece on that dark side.)

    I am entering Meadville-Lombard this fall with the expectation that I will be a community minister, possibly a lobbyist even, but I have a continuing attraction to being a military chaplain, altho I’d guess that as a woman in her 60s it would be an unlikely selection.

    Your distinction between soldier and warrior is nicely done and I am grateful for it. This was a terrific post. Thank you.

  2. Are you aware that Dr. Moore teaches at CTS, just down the street from M/L? I’m sure he’d welcome conversation with you on the issues and ideas you raise in this post.

  3. Good post. We have much in common, besides having served in Bosnia I also have an interest in the concept of “Warriorship” and have a blog on the subject.

    Keep up the good work.

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