Saturday, May 24, 2008

Memorial Day Reflections - A Review of "Gates of Fire" by Steven Pressfield

Through the generous encouragement of my many warrior friends, and their recommendation of books I should read, I am slowly giving myself an education in the history of warfare. Eric Kapitulik strongly urged me to read “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield. It is an epic novel of the storied Battle of Thermopylae. Although written as a fictional account as told with great artistry through the voice of a narrator who survived the battle, the book is meticulously researched and stunning in its scope and depth of insight.

Pressfield is a painter with words in the way in which he sets up the telling of the story. The Spartan squire, Xeones, was found barely clinging to life after the legendary 300 finally perished after dispatching tens of thousands of Persians in the narrow pass known as “The Gates of Fire” at Thermopylae. Brought from the battlefield barely breathing, he was nursed back to health and taken before the Persian King, Xerxes. The king wanted to hear in detail how the Spartans had trained and fought against overwhelming odds and in the face of vastly superior numbers.

Xeones’ telling of the story is the heart and soul of Pressfield’s epic novel. His comments about the arduous training of the Spartans reminds me of tales I have heard and read of Navy SEAL training or the rigors of Army Ranger screening.

“The purpose of an eight-nighter [training exercise] is to drive the individuals of the division, and the unit itself, beyond the point of humor. It is when the jokes stop, they say, that the real lessons are learned and each man, and the mora as a whole, makes those incremental advances which pay off in the ultimate crucible. The hardship of the exercises is intended less to strengthen the back than to toughen the mind. The Spartans say that any army may win while it still has its legs under it; the real test comes when all strength is fled and the men must produce victory on will alone.” (Page 69)

The author, through the voice of Xeones, philosophizes about the traits that make an effective officer in battle:

“This, I realized now watching Dienekes rally and tend to his men, was the role of the officer: to prevent those under his command , at all stages of battle – before, during and after – from becoming ‘possessed.’ To fire their valor when it flagged and rein in their fury when it threatened to take them out of hand. That was Dienekes’ job. That was why he wore the transverse-crested helmet of an officer.” (Page 112)

As the Spartans prepare for battle, King Leonidas speaks eloquently of the divided loyalties and sensibilities of the warrior:

“When a man seats before his eyes the bronze face of his helmet and steps off from the line of departure, he divides himself, as he divides his ‘ticket’ [the Spartan version of dog tags] in two parts. One part he leaves behind. That part which takes delight in his children, which lifts his voice in the chorus, which clasps his wife to him in the sweet darkness of their bed.

That half of him, the best part, a man sets aside and leaves behind. He banishes from his heart all feelings of tenderness and mercy, all compassion and kindness, all thought or concept of the enemy as a man, a human being like himself. He marches into battle bearing only the second portion of himself, the baser measure, that half which knows slaughter and butchery and turns the blind eye to quarter. He could not fight at all if he did not do this.’

. . . Then this man returns, alive, out of the slaughter. He hears his name called and comes forward to take his ticket. He reclaims that part of himself which he had earlier set aside.

This is a holy moment. A sacramental moment. A moment in which a man feels the gods as close as his own breath.

What unknowable mercy has spared us this day? What clemency of the divine has turned the enemy’s spear one handbreadth from our throat and driven it fatally in to the breast of the beloved comrade at our side? Why are we still here above the earth, we who are no better, no braver, who reverenced heaven no more than these our brothers whom the gods have dispatched to hell?

When a man joins the two pieces of his ticket and sees the weld in union together, he feels that part of him, the part that knows love and mercy and compassion, come flooding back over him. This is what unstrings his knees.

What else can a man feel at that moment than the most grave and profound thanksgiving to the gods who, for reasons unknowable, have spared his life this day? Tomorrow their whim may alter. Next week, next year. But this day the sun still shines upon him, he feels its warmth upon his shoulders, he beholds about him the faces of his comrades whom he loves and he rejoices in their deliverance and his own.” (Pages 115-6)

I would offer the observation that perhaps the essence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the failure of these two bisected halves of the warrior’s ticket – his sense of “self” - to reunite seamlessly after returning from the battlefield.

Pressfield’s vivid and fetid word pictures of the horrors of close combat parallel the cinematic imagery of such masterpieces as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers”:

“Only the dirt itself possessed clemency. Alone the stinking soup beneath the warrior’s tread proffered surcease and succor. The men’s feet churned it into broth ankle-deep; their driving legs furrowed it to the depth of the calf, then they themselves fell upon it on their knees and fought from there. Fingers clawed at the blood-blackened muck, toes strained against it for purchase, the teeth of dying men bit into it as if to excavate their own graves with the clamp of their jaws. Farmers whose hands were taken up with the pleasure of the dark clods of their native fields, crumbling between their fingers the rich earth which brings forth the harvest, now crawled on their bellies in this sterner soil, clawed at it with the nubs of their busted fingers and writhed without shame, seeking to immure themselves within the earth’s mantle and preserve their backs from the pitiless steel. (Page 306)

With elegant strokes of his pen Pressfield offers a sense of historical perspective on the heroism that characterized the band of 300 who stood and fell before the onslaught of the Persian forces at Thermopylae:

“Instead he [King Leonidas] spoke, in words few and plain, of the valley of the Eurotas, of Parnon and Taygetos and the cluster of five unwalled villages which alone comprise that polis and commonwealth which the world calls Sparta. A thousand years from now, Leonidas declared, two thousand, three thousand years hence, men a hundred generations yet unborn may for their private purposes make journey to our country.

‘They will come, scholars perhaps, or travelers from beyond the sea, prompted by curiosity regarding the past or appetite for knowledge of the ancients. They will peer out across our plain and probe among the stone and rubble of our nation. What will they learn of us? Their shovels will unearth neither brilliant palaces nor temples; their picks will prise forth no everlasting architecture or art. What will remain of the Spartans? Not monuments of marble or bronze, but this, what we do here today.’” (Page 356)

So, on this Memorial Day weekend, as we consider the courage displayed at “The Gates of Hell” so long ago, let us also remember with gratitude and affection our own warriors – grandfathers, fathers, brothers, sons and daughters – who fought valiantly on our behalf in recent wars.


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