The Joys of Misery

Chapter 17   The Joys of Misery

Among all elite U.S. forces, the Marine Corps is unique in that its standards for strength, athleticism and physical hardiness are not exceptional. What separates Marines, instead, is their capacity to endure adversity.


U.S. Marines on the island of Tarawa, November 1943

Marines take a perverse pride in having colder chow, crappier equipment and higher casualty rates than any other service. This notion goes back to Belleau Wood and earlier, but it came into its own during the exceptionally bloody and punishing battles at Tarawa and Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir and Khe Sanh. Marines take pride in enduring hell. Nothing infuriates Marines more than to learn that some particularly nasty and dangerous assignment has been given to the Army instead of to them. It offends their sense of honor.

This is another key element of the Warrior Ethos: the willing and eager embracing of adversity.

In 1912, the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was seeking volunteers for an expedition to the South Pole. He placed the following ad in the London Times:

Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful; honor and recognition in case of success.

The next morning, 5000 men lined up to volunteer.

The payoff of a life of adversity is freedom. There’s a story of the tribes in ancient Afghanistan. When Alexander was preparing to invade the Wild Lands of the Scythians in 333 B.C., a tribal delegation came to him and warned him, for his own good, to stay away. In the end—the Scyths told Alexander—you and your army will come to grief, as all other invaders have in the past (including our friend Cyrus the Great, who was killed north of Mazar-i-Sharif and whose body was never recovered).

“You may defeat us,” said the tribal elders, “but you will never defeat our poverty.”

What the Scythians meant was that they could endure greater adversity even than Alexander and his Macedonians.

When the Spartans and their allies overcame the Persians at Plataea in 479 B.C., the spoils included the great pavilion tents of King Xerxes, along with the king’s cooks, wine stewards, and kitchen servants. For a joke, the Spartan king Pausanias ordered the Persian chefs to prepare a typical dinner, the kind they would make for the Persian king. Meanwhile, he had his own cooks whip up a standard Spartan meal.

The Persian chefs produced a lavish banquet composed of multiple courses, served on golden plates, and topped off by the most sumptuous cakes and delicacies. The Spartans’ grub was barley bread and pig’s-blood stew. When the Spartans saw the two meals side by side, they burst out laughing. “How far the Persians have traveled,” declared Pausanias, “to rob us of our poverty!”

Chapter 18   Duty, Honor, Country

If shame is the negative, honor is the positive. Nang in Pashto is honor; nangwali is the code of honor by which the Pashtun tribal warrior lives. Bushido is the samurai code. Every tattoo parlor adjacent to a U.S. Marine base has this in innumerable design variations:

Death Before Dishonor

In warrior cultures—from the Sioux and the Comanche to the Zulu and the mountain Pashtun—honor is a man’s most prized possession. Without it, life is not worth living.

In 413 B.C., the Spartans sent a general named Gylippus to help their Sicilian allies in the city of Syracuse, which was under siege by the Athenians. Gylippus’s first job was to pick from the civilian population those men who would make the best military officers. Gylippus instructed his lieutenants to seek neither men who craved wealth nor those who sought power, but to select only those who desired honor.

Honor, under tribal codes, is a collective imperative. If a man receives an insult to his honor, the offense is felt by all the males in his family. All are mutually bound to avenge the affront.

The American brand of honor is inculcated on the football field, in the locker room and in the street. Back down to no one, avenge every insult, never show fear, never display weakness. Play hurt, never quit.

At Thermopylae in 480 B.C., the Persian king Xerxes, at the head of an army of two million men, demanded of the Spartan king Leonidas that he and his 4000 defenders lay down their arms. Leonidas responded in two words: “Molon labe.”

“Come and take them.”

If you travel to Thermopylae today, you’ll see the Leonidas monument. It has only two words on it.

The American brigadier general Anthony McAuliffe went Leonidas one better. Surrounded by the Germans at Bastogne in World War II, the commander of the 101st Airborne replied to the enemy’s demand to surrender with one word:


Warrior cultures employ honor, along with shame, to produce courage and resolve in the hearts of their young men.

Honor is the psychological salary of any elite unit. Pride is the possession of honor.

Honor is connected to many things, but one thing it’s not connected to is happiness. In honor cultures, happiness as we think of it—“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—is not a recognized good. Happiness in honor cultures is the possession of unsullied honor. Everything else is secondary.

In the West, pride and honor are anachronistic these days. The practitioners of honor are often ridiculed in popular culture, like Jack Nicholson’s Marine colonel in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” Or Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

[Continued next Monday. To read from Chapter One in sequence, click here.]


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  1. Gully Burns on March 21, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Honor is a much abused concept. I can’t help but think of honor killings of helpless women by their fathers too cowardly to face their own shame. I can’t help but think of gang members killing rivals because of an inappropriate look or gesture. I can’t help but think of mafiosi demanding respect simply because they have loaded gun pointing at your head.

    I equate honor with integrity, honesty and authenticity. Avenging
    perceived insults through violence is not honorable, but foolish. Having the sense to focus on what matters and to find humanity in those places smacks to me more greatly of honor than waving a flag and fighting mindlessly to protect it’s ideals. I’ve never had to endure combat and I respect the courage it must take to do that and still retain a measure of humanity. What about the people who stand up for what is right in more subtle ways, making their own hard choices to live true to principles of compassion, or nonviolence? Ghandi’s Satyagraha springs to mind. Such people don’t talk about shame, or avenging insults. They’ve got more important things to worry about.

    • Kevin on March 23, 2011 at 11:54 am

      I love your response and agree , I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Honor and believe you nailed it!!

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  2. Jeremy S on March 21, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    During the big Iraqi sandstorm in late March of 2003, one of the Free Iraqi Fighters told my friend “I have you Marines figured out…It’s not that you are brave, it’s that you live such miserable existences that you look forward to death”! He was partly kidding, but 8 years later the comment still hits home, I still think often of that night.

    Gully, there is a huge difference between leading Marines into battle, knowing that some will not make it out alive, and living a life committed to nonviolence. Did Ghandi’s struggles require courage? Sure. But it is very different. I admire people that stand up for whats right in subtle ways, but that’s not my nature nor the nature of the vast majority of Marines. At some point, defending what’s right is going to require violence. Humans are not as evolved as most people would like to think. When it’s time for violence, most Marines are comfortable using it, as we are violent people. Most of us know when and where the violence is appropriate, but still, we embrace the violence. I know very few good Cops, Marines or Soldiers that don’t enjoy a good fight now and again, thats what makes us good at what we do. Most people cringe when I speak about this, but they are being disingenuous. Violence is not bad, violence without principle or virtue is bad. Honor and shame are excellent tools in my opinion, to ensure that Warriors do not divorce violence from virtue. Honor and shame are also necessary to ensure that we don’t grow to fond of violence, nor too cavalier in it’s application. Honor and shame within any given group are generally much more effective at encouraging members within that group to “do the right thing” than laws or regulations.

    • Gully Burns on March 22, 2011 at 1:01 am

      I read Steven’s blog about situations where honor is abused with great interest and I think it comes down to a simple set of core values for which the violence and use of force is secondary. The word itself is interesting since to honor something is to hold it in reverence. The question could be then, what is it that your honor?

      I think Ghandi knew very well what it was like to face armed men threatening to kill him, he just used different means to face them. Satyagraha means literally ‘holding steadfastly to the truth’ which is simply honoring a higher purpose: that of truth, no matter what people might throw at you. The thing to me that is most admirable about the true warrior ethos is that idea that your opponents may threaten you with death and violence but you will still stand for something higher than yourself. The fighting itself is secondary, its the courage to stand up and say ‘no’ that is important.

      What is that we honor? Who are we really? Those are the things that matter. I guess you find out very quickly the those questions in extreme circumstances but that’s not the only place. Thanks very much for your response, I really do appreciate it.

      • Josh on March 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm

        With respect, i think you are missing one of the repositories of honor in the Ghandi tale. What would be the legacy of Ghandi had the colonial power been Stalinist Russia, or Hiltlers’ Germany? I think it is fair to say that Ghandi would not be known by the wider world.
        I’m not attempting to denigrate Ghandis’ legacy, I am suggesting the British would not avail themselves of a wall and a bullet. Why not?

        • Mike K on March 26, 2011 at 6:51 pm

          Gandhi has benefited from a very sympathetic press. When his wife was ill, he admonished her to avoid western medicine but to stay with traditional Ayurvedic medicine. She died. When he, himself, developed appendicitis, he had his appendix removed by English surgeons.

  3. JT on March 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Jeremy S,
    Well said. Semper Fi.

  4. Bryan on March 22, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    I’ve never herd about the commander Anthony McAuliffe but he’s my new hero. I love all the historical examples. They’re just awesome.

  5. Vick on March 23, 2011 at 12:08 am

    Talking about Honor in this way just makes me think of all the honor killings we have in the UK.

    The men who commit these crimes arn’t honorable.

    They’re just weak cowardly scum.

    They do nothing, they are nothing, all they have is their so-called honor and when I hear people talking about their honor I view them as a total joke.

    • Steven S. on March 23, 2011 at 8:05 pm


      Giving something the label ‘honor killing’ does not make it so. Do not confuse madness or cowardliness with an act of, or encouraged by, honor; even when so claimed. Any ideal, no matter how good or true, can be corrupted, distorted, and bastardized (religion, politics, even diet and exercise). As you said, those as cited in your example are “…jus weak cowardly scum” and bare nothing in common with someone willing to risk their OWN life for something greater than themselves.

  6. Jeremy S on March 25, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Many great points are being made, and I appreciate the forum and the environment of mutual respect that they are made in. I stand by my earlier statements though and I agree with Steven S. Honor without virtue is not honor at all, regardless of ideology. The Nazis that carried out the final solution knew it was wrong, yet they continued to espouse “honor”. The Japanese soldiers that cut fetuses out of pregnant chinese women knew it was wrong and they too, claimed to have “honor”. More recently, the soldiers that abused the prisoners at Abu Ghraib knew it was wrong, and even they clung to a perverted concept of “honor”. These are instances of abuses of power and corruption of ideals, a bastardization of honor from which no government is completely innocent, although some to a far greater extent than others. But what about the men in the field? What of the men on both sides of the conflicts that stood ready by there buddies even though they were so scared they pissed their pants? What of the “enemy” soldiers that jumped on hand grenades to protect their friends? This is the honor that I speak of. The honor on the field, the cops and firemen that ran into the burning towers on 9/11 to do their job, that Honor. There is true honor to be found on both sides of a conflict, even if the ideals that drive the conflict have been corrupted by one side or the other. To disparage the concept of honor, or even to disparage the word “honor” because of the fact that it has, at times, been corrupted, is foolish. This is of course, just my opinion. I appreciate the discussion.

  7. Ravi on April 19, 2011 at 12:34 am

    The difference in perception is honor as in public esteem and honor as in self esteem. The former is likely to lead to compromise in virtue and hence abuse whereas the latter, well one cannot truly lie to oneself.

    The honor killings are to do with public esteem. It is based on ‘I should look good within my tribe/cult/society’. This is obviously selfish and as the action is carried out usually against someone controlled and helpless (women/daughters/sons), cowardly with no element of justification with virtues like courage. It is a way to escape like a cowardly from the potential wrath of your tribe/cult/society.

  8. Website on July 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm


    The Warrior Ethos: The Joys of Misery…

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