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Show me your war face!

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Let me see your face of war!

We all know the metal jacket line from the movie when Gunny Hartman yells at Private Joker, “LEMME SEE YOUR WAR FACE” and actor Mathew Modine tries to twist his face into something like a war face, but it seems awkward rather than intimidating.

Even Gunny Hartman couldn’t help but say, “You don’t scare me. Work on it.”

Throughout history, warriors have tried to appear more fearsome to their enemies before and during battle. They used paint, tattoos, helmets, and mannerisms to try to make their faces look more bloodthirsty and savage. Which is a little odd when you think about it. Here is a warrior equipped for battle, with weapons, armor, maybe even an armored horse with an entire army around him. Do you really need a face of war to signal an intent to commit bloody violence beyond all of this?

The essence of human beings can be seen in their faces, in battle you can try to look where the sword swing is about to strike, but you look at his face a lot. In the movies, the face-covered villain looks less human and more creepy because you don’t see the human qualities that come through in the facial expressions. In the end, the villain almost never dies without his mark being removed. It’s the closure we need from the villain’s end, to see his face and affirm his humanity, and perhaps ours too.

Throughout the world, the War Face has different expressions depending on the era, culture and geography of the warrior.

They are not all the same.

Below, we’ll see what “Let Me See Your War Face” looked like in a few different cultures.

Norse Berserkers painted their faces and possibly even tattooed them to look fiercer. Except their own faces weren’t considered scary enough, so they wore animal skins on their bodies, including the heads of animals like wolves, bears, and boars. As if that weren’t enough, it was believed that they drank a concoction made from fermented deer urine that acted like methamphetamine on their system. Greatly amplifying their physical abilities and making them immune to pain.

In battle they were said to be terrifying, apparently possessed by rage and violence, driven mad. Where does the word berserk come from in our language.

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The war face of New Zealand’s Maori.

New Zealand Maori tribesmen had elaborate rituals where they sang and danced a Haka trying to impress their enemies that they were mad and therefore not afraid of death. Sticking out your tongue, I suppose, was the main indicator of madness in this culture. The Maori were defeated by the British when establishing the colony of New Zealand

Photo; New Zealand: Maori Culture 001. Steve Evans

The Romans, a warlike face with Stoic calm

If a Roman centurian had said to a legionary, “Let me see your face of war,” he probably would have seen almost no change in his expression. The Romans were Stoic in philosophy and rewarded virtue and discipline especially in their army. In AD 70, during the Battle of Jerusalem, the Roman general Titus decided he wanted a defensive wall built around Jerusalem, eight kilometers from it. Titus assigned each Legion a section of the wall to be built in competition with the other Legions. The Legions then assigned the Cohorts within the Legion a smaller section of their part of the wall with the result that each Cohort within the Legion was in competition with each other.

It took them three days to build 5 war miles.

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Rewards for the virtue and discipline of Titus.

Relief of a battle scene between the Roman legion and the barbarian, from the marble panel of the Arch of Constantine, central Rome (2nd century AD)

Almost above all else, the Romans valued silence in the ranks at all times. Whether in formation, on the march or meeting their enemies with javelin, sword and spear. The Roman legionnaire was silent. They neither shouted nor yelled. Believe it or not, much of our current army and its pattern of discipline is taken directly from the ancient Romans, including our own practice of maintaining silence in the ranks. Why was silence so important? Because the legionnaire needed to hear the orders of his centurians and his tribunes.

It was also said to be unnerving for enemies who raised a ruckus in theirs to prepare to fight to see a legion in formation, silently advancing towards them.

In the heroic art of Roman civilization, consisting mainly of sculpture, the face of the Roman soldier is always taciturn, even in murals and elaborate marble columns like those of Trajan in Rome. The sculpted faces of legionnaires are not twisted into expressions of rage when fighting barbarians. They appear calm and placid, which strongly suggests a cultural preference for this behavior in battle.

Samuraiantiqueworld, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Denver Art Museum

Japanese War Face

Going back to 1192, Japan had ended a civil war that lasted hundreds of years, seeing the Minimoto clan emerge victorious and establish the Shogun system that would rule Japan for around 700 years. The mark left on the country and the culture would be indelible. During the Edo period (1603-1867) of Japanese history, Japan experienced nearly 250 years of relative peace and calm. Samurai culture, its traditions and ethics, and even its martial skills fell into disuse until the samurai as a class in Japanese society was finally abolished around 1870.

What they left behind are writings, poetry, paintings, armor and of course what is widely considered to be the finest sword ever made. the Katana.

In battle, samurai were said to be fanatical in their aggressiveness, and even suicidal in their determination. Victory meant glory and honors and defeat almost always meant death. The simple shame of defeat would result in the surviving samurai committing suicide.

Battles between samurai were usually single combat and consisted of a constantly practiced set of thrusts, parries, and slash attacks combined with careful footwork intended to maintain both balance and striking power. Unlike medieval period warfare in Europe which saw heavy swords slay each other, the Katana of the samurai almost never touched another sword blade to blade, they were far too delicate to withstand this kind of blunt and snapping punishment.

Samurai were covered in iron or steel armor and their face of war usually took the form of an iron mask. The masks themselves are an art form and depict demons, deities, mythological creatures and even old men with long mustaches and eyebrows.

The purpose of the mask was to dehumanize the samurai and reveal nothing to an enemy in terms of fear, confusion, or pain they might feel during a fight. Each of these expressions would be of some use to an enemy after all. For the Japanese Samurai, the War Face was a mask frozen in a single expression that the Samurai chose to show.

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