We were talking last time about an ideal of honor that comes down to us directly from the ancient Greeks and from phalanx warfare—the idea that the unit is more important than the individual.
Here’s a second ideal we can thank the Greeks for—the concept of the citizen-soldier.
By no means was this idea universal in the ancient world. It was an outlier. An almost crazy concept.
Under Persia and other empires of the East, you had a king surrounded by princes and nobles of his own house and of his allies. These fought as “champions.” supported by a compact corps of princelings and professionals. But the ranks, the masses of Eastern armies were servants and chattel of one lord or another, drafted against their will, often without armor, untrained or barely trained. They possessed no rights. They could be bought and sold, their property confiscated, their wives and daughters appropriated. They were utterly expendable.
The Greek concept was different. The armed force of a city-state like Argos or Athens was constituted of free men, independent landowners usually—farmers who possessed enough wealth to acquire a suit of armor. When a city was threatened, it called up these individuals, as today we might mobilize our Reserve or National Guard.
Outside of Sparta, the Greek cities possessed no professional warriors. Each man was a citizen-soldier. A contemporary parallel would be our own “greatest generation” of World War II, or the Minutemen of the Revolution, not to mention the soldiers on both sides in the Civil War and every other American war. These were men who came from the farms and the cities, fought when their country called them, then returned home to their civilian roles when the fight was over.
The citizen-soldier. The idea comes to us straight from the Greeks.
The free citizen.
The autonomous individual, serving his community willingly and receiving from his community certain rights and privileges.
From this also comes nothing less than the idea of self-government. The idea of DEMOCRACY, at least in its early male-only, property-owner-only form.
“If I must risk my life on the battlefield, then goddammit I’m sure as hell gonna have a say in how I and my country are governed.”
Another aspect of phalanx warfare was SHAME. Specifically, shame as an enforcing element, applied by the community to the individual.
Consider the individual farmer-citizen-warrior, advancing in the mass of the formation eight-deep. He was far from anonymous. He was stationed in the ranks amid men he had known his entire life. His brother might be one rank behind him, his cousins ahead upfront, his father bringing up the rear.
More important, these were the same men he would go home beside when the fight was over. They would to his family and to everyone he knew on how he had performed. In other words, the actions he performed would be reported back home. There was no place to hide.
All of these factors were in play at Thermopylae. Heavy armor, the densely-packed phalanx, the ideal of the free man (the citizen-soldier), and the fact that within the ranks each man’s comrades were often his own kin, and certainly individuals he had known his whole life.
The final factor, and most important of all if we imagine ourselves back into the Greek phalanx, was FEAR. The anticipation of death or mutilation. The individual within the ranks had hours to peer across the battlefield at the enemy formation, to hear the foe’s cries and his banging of shields and spears. Stepping off from the line of departure, the individual faced more terrifying moments as his formation advanced toward the enemy. We read in the ancient descriptions that within the ranks, men spoke to each other, words of encouragement. “Who will be a brave man? Who will be first to strike the foe?”
Remember too that the way we would die, within the phalanx, was not in one sudden mortal wound of a bullet or a bomb, but run through with a spear, hacked up with a sword, perhaps driven to the earth, beneath the feet of friend and foe, helpless in heavy armor, to be speared through by the enemy’s downward-punching blow.
The Greek word for fear is phobos.
Everything in a young man’s training was to stand up to this.
Well said, Steve, but as I watch the news, it gives me a heavy heart.
The Spartans had King Leonidas who fought beside them, Capt Miller and the 12 million of volunteered after Peal Harbor had FDR; while my son and those who volunteered in 2001 were inspired by 9/11. “It’s my Pearl Harbor,” my son told me after enlisting in the Marines,, “and I’m just doing what Grandpa and Gran did.” But today? It’s a challenge to remember that a strong democracy comes from shared sacrifice when our leader boasts of avoiding service and says those who die in defense of their country are ‘suckers and losers.” Sometimes they’re the good old days for a reason.
I’m often said that leadership is the problem and the solution. There has been a dearth of true leadership at POTUS for a long time.
That said, no one fights for POTUS. We fight for an ideal. What I find scarier is the willingness of our educators to foist victimhood and blame onto our youth instead of the ideals of a Citizen Soldier. When the editor for NY Times resigns because she allowed a sitting Senator to write an op-ed—I see that as a greater threat to our liberty than whoever is in the White House.
All of this pablum that begins with ‘critical theory’ makes me think of TR’s great speech given in Paris. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles…”
I enjoy reading your comments on this blog, thoughtful and full of insight.
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It’s a challenge to remember that a strong democracy comes from shared sacrifice when our leader boasts of avoiding service and says those who die in defense of their country are ‘suckers and losers.!!
I think the citizens of the country fought for their own freedom and dignity, that has always been the case.
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The history of battle is always a pride and a painful but heroic and glorious memory.
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