The Warrior Sense of Humor
Chapter 20 Die Laughing
The warrior sense of humor is terse, dry—and dark. Its purpose is to deflect fear and to reinforce unity and cohesion.
The Warrior Ethos dictates that the soldier make a joke of pain and laugh at adversity. Here is Leonidas on the final morning at Thermopylae:
“Now eat a good breakfast, men. For we’ll all be sharing dinner in hell.”
Spartans liked to keep things short. Once one of their generals captured a city. His dispatch home said, “City taken.” The magistrates fined him for being verbose. “Taken,” they said, would have sufficed.
The river of Athens is the Kephisos; the river in Sparta is the Eurotas. One time, an Athenian and a Spartan were trading insults.
“We have buried many Spartans,” said the Athenian, “beside the Kephisos.” “Yes,” replied the Spartan, “but we have buried no Athenians beside the Eurotas.”
Another time, a band of Spartans arrived at a crossroads to find a party of frightened travelers. “You are lucky,” the travelers told them. “A gang of bandits was here just a few minutes ago.” “We were not lucky,” said the Spartan leader. “They were.”
In Sparta, the law was to keep everything simple. One ordinance decreed that you could not finish a roof beam with any tool finer than a hatchet. So all the roof beams in Sparta were basically logs.
Once a Spartan was visiting Athens and his host was showing off his own mansion, complete with finely detailed, square roof beams. The Spartan asked the Athenian if trees grew square in Athens. “No, of course not,” said the Athenian, “but round, as trees grow everywhere.” “And if they grew square,” asked the Spartan, “would you make them round?”
Probably the most famous warrior quip of all is that of the Spartan Dienekes at Thermopylae. When the Spartans first occupied the pass, they had yet to see the army of the Persian invaders. They had heard that it was big, but they had no idea how big.
As the Spartans were preparing their defensive positions, a native of Trachis, the site of the pass, came racing into camp, out of breath and wide-eyed with terror. He had seen the Persian horde approaching. As the tiny contingent of defenders gathered around, the man declared that the Persian multitude was so numerous that, when their archers fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun.
“Good,” declared Dienekes. “Then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”
Several aspects of this quip—and Leonidas’s remark about “sharing dinner in hell”—are worth noting.
First, they’re not jokes. They’re dead-on, but they’re not delivered for laughs.
Second, they don’t solve the problem. Neither remark offers hope or promises a happy ending. They’re not inspirational. The deliverers of these quips don’t point to glory or triumph—or seek to allay their comrades’ anxiety by holding out the prospect of some rosy outcome. The remarks confront reality. They say, “Some heavy shit is coming down, brothers, and we’re going to go through it.”
Lastly, these remarks are inclusive. They’re about “us.” Whatever ordeal is coming, the company will undergo it together. Leonidas’s and Dienekes’s quips draw the individual out of his private terror and yoke him to the group.
Even the epitaph of the Three Hundred (by the poet Simonides) is lean and terse. It leaves out almost every fact about the battle—the antagonists, the stakes, the event, the date, the war, the reason for it all. It assumes that the reader knows it all already and brings to it his own emotion.
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
The ancients had no monopoly on economy of speech or deadpan humor. A couple of years ago near the Habbaniyah Canal in Ramadi, Iraq, a visitor from the States came upon a squad of Marines digging a trench in 125-degree heat. Raw sewage was sloshing into the ditch; the heat seemed to concentrate and intensify the stench. To make the chore even more miserable, regulations required that the Marines wear their helmets and heavy body armor. One private seemed to be struggling more severely than his buddies. “How you doing, Marine?” asked the visitor. The private looked up with a grin and kept on shoveling.
“Living the dream, sir,” he said.
[Continued next Monday. To read from Chapter One in sequence, click here.]