Reflections, Stoic advise

War and Courage


War is sweet to those who have not experienced it

Desiderius Erasmus

Why would war be sweet to those who have not experienced it?
I believe war possess many attractive qualities for men.

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Courage is essential in battle to give an example, also camaraderie and endurance. A man must show the very best of himself during war, maybe that is why it is so attractive, we all want to be our very best.
Importantly, the phrase says: “sweet,to those who have not experienced it“.
War is terrible, unimaginably terrible. Call of duty or the movie 300 portray an image of war in which, first, you never die (call of duty). Second, you don’t smell the piss and shit and the rotten flesh, neither you see women getting raped in front of their families, children dying from hunger or bombings or so many hideous and despicable things.
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I believe it’s profoundly important to know or have an idea of what war really is. It’s important to read, real experience is found nowhere in hollywood or videogames, by reading we glimpse the thought of other people and so we can begin to conceive more accurately what something really is.
Steven Pressfield wrote a truly marvelous book Gates of Fire is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Reading list. I couldn’t recommend it more: Gates of fire in which he narrates the story of Xeones, one of the only 3 survivors of the timless battle of Thermopylae.
I honestly do not believe that the movie 300 can even begin to show just how much courage and skill the spartan warriors had in reality, in real life.
Xeones, terribly wounded is healed by Xerxes best surgeons just enough for him to narrate the story of these unbelievable fearless spartan soldiers and how was that they managed to kill so many persian men.
What made them so terribly great at the affairs of war?
Practice, spartans lived for war.
Since they were just boys they were intoduced to a war based society. At 10 years old they came of age and had to prepare for a life of service to their people, the greated honor, to die for their people.
Xeones (not a spartan himself, but a free man in Sparta) narrates his story from the very beginning, since he was 10 years old. He knew war his whole life. The epoch was flooded with conflict and conquest.
His polis (city) was invaded by the Argives. One day while he was going to the market with his beautiful cousin Diomache, they realized a farm had caught fire and went investigating. When they approached the farm they realized it was set on flames on purpose, an invasion had just began.
They ran back to there farm just to found their families had been murdered. They fled with one of their slaves and took refuge in the woods. What they lived next left me wordless. The description of the book is too great for me to try to describe it:

There is always fire. An acrid haze hangs in the air night and day, and sulphurous smoke chokes the nostrils. The sun is the color of ash, and black stones litter the road, smoking. Everywhere one looks, some object is afire. Timber, flesh, the earth itself. Even water burns. The pitilessness of flame reinforces the sensation of the gods’ anger, of fate, retribution, deeds done and hell to pay. All is the obverse of what it had been. Things are fallen which had stood upright. Things are free which

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should be bound, and bound which should be free. Things which had been hoarded in secret now blow and tumble in the open, and those who had hoarded them watch with dull eyes and let them go. Boys have become men and men boys. Slaves now stand free and freemen slaves. Childhood has fled.Bodies lay in the road. Mostly men, but women and children too, with the same dark blot of fluid sinking into the pitiless dirt. The living trod past them, grief-riven. Everyone was filthy. Many had no shoes. All were fleeing the slave columns and the roundup which would be starting soon. Women carried infants, some of them already dead, while other dazed figures glided past like shades, bearing away some pitifully useless possession, a lamp or a volume of verse.

Steven Pressfield. Gates of Fire (Kindle Locations 364-367). Random House, Inc..

War is sweet to those who have never experienced it.

War is terrible, sure. But, what begins to be interesting at this point is that the spartans literally lived for it, they lived to fight and endure all this terribleness. It was their society export.

Xeones heard a man during the invasion of his polis saying:

“See how numb we are?” the man continued. “We glide about in a daze, disconnected from our reason. You’ll never see Spartans in such a state. This”—he gestured to the blackened landscape—“is their element. They move through these horrors with clear eyes and unshaken limbs.

Eventually, Xeones escapes his polis and arrives to a Spartan town where he becomes the squire of a young spartan boy, Alexandros. When first arriving to Sparta he experiences something that changed him forever. He came by a whipping of a spartan kid.
Teriander, was taking a whipping because he got caught stealing.
Stealing, the spartans declared, was not a crime. It taught spartan children resourcefulness during war times. Getting caught stealing however, was the crime.
Teriander was receiving unimaginably strong blows to the back with wooden hardened sticks by two spartan instructors. It must be said that this beatings were ritualistic (normal), to show young spartan boys law and discipline. The beatings were not meant to kill the boys, but Xeones narrates that during his lifetime he saw about a dozen boys succumb to death, unwilling to show any weakness.
Teriander, fiercely, took each blow waiting for the next one. He took so many blows that the vertebrates started to glimpse white in his back. The instructors, afraid of killing him gained breath and hit him as hard as they could so Teriander would just faint and finish the trial.
So they did, and he fainted but when he got up, blood coming out of his eyes and ears, he walked two steps and fell, never to stand again. The instructors continued with the next beating, heartless, leaving the body there until they’d finished with the next ones.
For Xeones it was a horrendous seen, but a very instructive one as well.
A very instructive one because Teriander showed what the Thermopylae 300 used later to defeat uncountable multitudes of persian warriors.

Xeones, being the squire of Alexandros a dear friend of Teriander, heard later a conversation between Dionekes (later one of the 300 and instructors of Alexandros) and his young pupil Alexandros the conversation went like this:

“Answer this, Alexandros. When our countrymen triumph in battle, what is it that defeats the foe?” The boy responded in the terse Spartan style, “Our steel and our skill.” “These, yes,” Dienekes corrected him gently, “but something more. It is that.” His gesture led up the slope to the image of Phobos (a statue of phobos the god of fear). Fear. Their own fear defeats our enemies. “Now answer. What is the source of fear?” When Alexandros’ reply faltered, Dienekes reached with his hand and touched his own chest and shoulder. “Fear arises from this: the flesh. This,” he declared, “is the factory of fear.”

“Would you characterize their demeanor as barbarous? Did they take pleasure in dealing agony to Tripod?” No. “Was their intention to crush his will or break his spirit?” No. “What was their intention?” “To harden his mind against pain.”

“Personally I think your friend Tripod was foolish. What he displayed today contained more of recklessness than true courage, andreia. He cost the city his life, which could have been spent more fruitfully in battle.” Nonetheless it was clear Dienekes respected him.

“Remember this, my young friend. There is a force beyond fear. More powerful than self-preservation. You glimpsed it today, in a crude and unself-aware form, yes. But it was there and it was genuine. Let us remember your friend Tripod and honor him for this.”

Steven Pressfield. Gates of Fire (Kindle Locations 592-594). Random House, Inc..

Sysyphus

We might not, as the spartans did, face such terrible circumstances, but nevertheless, we all face ordeals in our everyday life. It’s inspiring to know that there has been such people in the planet. People that have given everything for their people, for their honor and that have fought stoically, neglecting everything other than their virtue.

It’s easy to think about the virtuous life, living it however, only the great can manage.

Thanks for reading.

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