300: The Heroic West versus the Decadent East.
In the film 300, we see an absolute division between two contending armies. The Greeks (and especially the vanguard forces of the Spartans) embody everything good about humanity: they are handsome, cherish freedom, treat their women well, and have healthy loving heterosexual families (that last bit is especially risible for anyone who knows the actual history of Sparta and the surrounding Greek city-states). Opposed to the Greeks are the Persians, who are not just evil but also repositories of all sorts of unsavoury traits: many of them are deformed, all are lorded over by a tyrant, socially they are contemptuous of women and they indulge in all sorts of sexual perversions.
300, like its source material (Frank Miller’s comic book of the same name) is a work of popular entertainment and all too easy to take apart for its historical errors (University of Toronto classicist Ephraim Lytle did just that in a very funny article here). And only the ideologically blind (notably neo-con pseudo-scholar Victor Davis Hanson) have championed the comic and film as accurate guides to the past.
Still, aside from the obvious historical problems, there is a more fundamental difficulty with 300 (film and comic book alike). They are based on the premise that there is a deep, unbridgeable divide between the Greeks and Persians, the children of light versus the spawns of darkness. But that’s radically at odds with how the ancient Greeks themselves saw warfare.
I first became aware of this problem a month ago when I went to a very interesting lecture by the political theorist Shadia Drury on “Demonizing the Enemy.” (Drury is a very controversial figure in academic circles because of her outspokenness, particularly in criticizing Leo Strauss and his followers; but I admire her for this very quality). As it happened, Drury took as the subject of her talk ancient Greek texts dealing with the Persians (mainly Aeschylus’s play The Persians but also the histories of Herodotus) as well as other Greek texts dealing with war (Homer’s Iliad)
As Drury demonstrated, the Greeks did not see the see the Persians (or any other enemies) as subhuman. Rather the Greeks celebrated the greatness and glory of their foes. The tendency to demonize the enemy, Drury argued, is a product of monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Islamic radicals regard the United States as the “great Satan” and many in the West are equally contemptuous of their Islamic foe.
There are several factors at work to explain the difference between the ancient Greek attitude towards the enemy and that of the monotheistic religions. The Greeks didn’t see wars as rooted in theological or ideological differences, but rather as arbitrary events created by capricious fate (or malicious gods). Having a warrior ethic, they admired heroism wherever they saw it. And celebrating your foe is a form of self-praise: you don’t get credit for defeating a subhuman foe.
Drury’s talk was very provocative and I think essentially true, with some provisos. I think she drew too sharp a contrast between ancient pagans and modern monotheists. The fact is, the warrior ethics has persisted as a sub-strand within Western and Islamic civilizations. During the crusades, many Christians greatly respected the great Kurdish warrior Salah al-Dīn Yusuf ibn Ayyub (popularly known as Saladin). In the American Civil War, many northerners similarly had a high regard for Robert E. Lee. And even in the Second World War, the smarter American military leaders, notably General Patton, knew that Erwin Rommel was a worthy foe.
The warrior ethic has many appeals: it actually limits the damage of war since the goal is victory in combat, rather than the total destruction of an alien society. It should also be noted that there is a great practical utility to the warrior ethic: it’s simply good soldiering to take the enemy seriously, to think that the enemy is as intelligent as you are, resourceful and adaptive.
It’s noticeable that during both the Viet Nam war and the current Iraq adventure, Americans are very contemptuous of their enemies (“gooks” and “terrorists”). This sort of racial and ideological disdain hampers your own ability to fight. To be a good soldier you have to see the world through the eyes of the enemy. Demonizing your enemy is not just bad ethics, it’s also bad strategy.
Postscript. Re-reading this piece I realized that my description of Victor Davis Hanson as a “pseudo-scholar” might come across as too flippant and needs to be explained. There’s no doubt that in his earlier books on Greek warfare, Hanson established himself as a formidable scholar. But it’s also the case that in recent years in his more journalistic work Hanson has written essays that are so shallow, polemical, intellectually dishonest and slanted as to discredit his standing as a thinker. I think his celebration of the 300, both the film and the graphic novel, is evidence of this. A more nuanced description would be that in his earlier work Hanson was a scholar; now he’s made himself into a pseudo-scholar.