Lemme See Your War Face!

We all know the line from the movie full metal jacket when Gunny Hartman screams 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 comes off looking goofy 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 look more frightening to their enemies prior to and during battle.  They have employed paint, tattoos, helmets, and mannerisms to try and make their face appear more bloodthirsty and savage.  Which is kinda curious when you think about it.  Here is a warrior kitted out for battle, with weapons, armor, maybe even an armored horse with an entire army surrounding him.  Do you really need a war face to signal the intent to do bloody violence beyond all that?

The essence of human beings shows on their faces, in battle, you may try to watch where the sword thrust is about to strike but you are looking at his face, a lot.  In movies, the villain with the covered face seems less human and more frightening because we can’t see the human qualities that come out in facial expressions.  At the end, the villain almost never dies without his make being removed.  It’s the closure we need from the end of the bad guy, to see his face and affirm their humanity, and perhaps ours as well.

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

They are not all the same.

Below we will have a look what “Let me see your war face” looked like in a couple of different cultures.


The Norse Berserkers painted their faces and may have even tattooed them to appear more fierce. Except their own faces weren’t considered scary enough so they wore animal skins on their bodies including the head of animals likes wolves, bears, and boars.  As if that was not enough, it was believed they drank a concoction made from fermented deer urine that acted like methamphetamine on their systems.  Greatly amplifying their physical abilities and making them immune to pain.

In battle, they were said to be terrifying, seemingly possessed with rage and violence, gone berserk.  Which is where the word berserk comes from in our language.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike


The War Face of the Maori of New Zealand.

The Maori tribesmen of New Zealand had elaborate rituals where they chanted and danced a Haka trying to impress their enemies that they were insane and therefore unafraid of death.  Sticking their tongue out I suppose was a the prime indicator of insanity in that culture. The Maori were defeated by the British in establishing the colony of New Zealand

Photo; New Zealand: Maori Culture 001. Steve Evans


The Romans, A War Face of Stoic Calm

If a Roman Centurian said to a Legionnaire, “Let me see your war face” he would most likely have seen almost no change in his expression at all.  The Romans were Stoics in philosophy and rewarded virtue and discipline above all in their Army.  In 70AD, during the Battle for Jerusalem, the Roman general Titus decided that he wanted a defensive wall built around Jerusalem, five miles of it. Titus assigned each Legion a section of the wall to build 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 competing with each other.

It took them three days to build 5 miles of war.

Marine Raider killed in combat in Iraq

Read Next: Marine Raider killed in combat in Iraq

And the prize?

Awards for virtue and discipline from Titus.


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


Almost above all else, the Romans valued silence in the ranks at all times.  Whether standing in formation, on the march, or meeting their foes with javelin, sword, and spear.  The Roman Legionnaire was silent.  They did not yell or scream.  Believe it or not, quite a bit of our current military and its model 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 legionary needed to hear the orders of his Centurians and Tribunes.

It was also said to be unnerving to enemies that were raising a ruckus in their own to get themselves ready to fight to see a legion in formation, silently advancing towards them.

In the Heroic art of Roman civilization, comprised mostly of sculptures, the face of the Roman soldier is always taciturn even in murals and elaborate marble columns like Trajan’s in Rome.  The carved faces of the Legionnaires are not twisted into expressions of rage as they fight barbarians. They appear calm and placid, which strongly suggests a cultural preference for this demeanor in battle.


Samuraiantiqueworld, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Denver Art Museum

War face of the Japanese

Going back to 1192, Japan had finished a civil war that lasted hundreds of years seeing the Minimoto Clan emerge victorious and establishing the Shogun system that would rule Japan for some 700 years.  The mark left on the country and culture would be indelible.  During the Edo Period(1603-1867) of Japan’s history, Japan experienced nearly 250 years of relative peace and calm.  The culture of the Samurai, 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 were writings, poetry, paintings, armor, and of course what is widely considered the finest sword ever made. the Katana.

In battle, the Samurai were said to be fanatical in their aggressiveness, and even suicidal in their determination.  Victory meant glory and honors and defeat meant death nearly always.  Just the shame of defeat would result in surviving Samurai taking their own lives.

Battles between Samurai were generally single combat and consisted of a set of constantly practiced thrusts, parries, and slashing attacks combined with careful footwork intended to maintain both balance and striking power.  Unlike Medieval Period warfare in Europe which saw heavy swords hacking at each other, the Katana of the Samurai almost never touched another sword blade to blade, they were much too delicate to stand up to that kind of blunting, blade breaking punishment.

Samurai were covered in armor made of iron or steel and typically their War Face was in the form of an iron mask. The masks themselves are an art form and depict demons, deities, mythological creatures, and even elderly men with long whiskers and eyebrows.

The purpose of the mask was to dehumanize the Samurai and give away nothing to an enemy in terms of the fear, confusion, or pain he might be feeling 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.