The Warrior Ethic: Respecting Your Enemy

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.

6 thoughts on “The Warrior Ethic: Respecting Your Enemy

  1. Interesting commentary – increasingly I feel somewhat ambivalent about Frank Miller’s work. However, one thing I liked about 300 (the comic book) was the fact that Miller went to a different source – Herodotus – instead of trying to revamp a second rate superhero. When I read it, I wondered why we don’t see more comic books like Sin City or 300 that draw on sources of inspiration other than men in tights.

  2. Just came across this while surfing, and as a great believer in the warrior ethic, chivalry etc, I was very interested in your writing. As you say, the warrior ethic is very appealing, as pointed out in the film, The Last Samurai.

    The wider adoption of this attitude might even have benefits for today’s society, especially the traits of etiquette, discipline and respect reflected in said film(The Last Samurai).

    I think my favourite chivalrous moment from any film was in one of my all time faves, El Cid, where the Cid is dying but still refuses to have the king of Spain defer to him, saying, “My King bows to no man!”. Goosepimples a-go-go.

    Keep up the good thoughts!

  3. While the movie 300 could be praised for its technological eye-candy, it fails miserably on historical accuracy and truth. Indeed, Frank Miller admits that the story itself does not rest on accuracy but on mythic interpretation similar to how the ancient Greeks portrayed their warriors (naked in combat). However, I have recently studied Persian history and I must say that Persians were far more advanced and noble than what portrayed in the movie. Based on this premise, I must criticise the film for being biased towards the Persians.

    Who were the nobler in history on account of warfare (during the Persian-Greek War)? The Persians. True, Xerxes in his wrath ordered the burning of Athens but he later relented and offered the Greeks a considerable amount of money to rebuild it. In his temper, he ordered Leonidas’ head to be impaled on a stake and his headless body crucified. History testifies that Xerxes was a bad-tempered man. As usual, he relented and ordered the proper internment of the Greek remains. He allowed the Greeks to inter their dead properly after the war.

    The Persians had an excellent record in warfare: they allowed the conquered nations to thrive after their conquest but the rulers would rule as Persian vassals. Yet, nations conquered by the Persians prospered under their rule. Cyrus The Great tabled the first charter for human rights and the Cyrus Cylinder can still be seen in the UN Headquarters in New York today. This is evident even in the Bible (even when some dismiss the Bible as a crap and myth) where Cyrus was held in high esteem. Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home to Jerusalem after 70 years in captivity.

    In the field of warfare, the Persians pioneered the infantry-cavalry combination. By pinning the enemy with light infantry, the cavalry could manoevre from the flanks and deliver the killing blow. The reason they failed in Marathon and Thermopylae as well as in Plataea was the Greeks chose the best grounds to avoid cavalry advantage in the flanks. In Marathon, both Greek flanks were covered with mountainous terrain. In Thermopylae, the combined Greek army led by the Spartans were covered by a mountain on the left and the sea on the right. In Plataea, 10 000 Greeks faced the larger Persians but this time the Greeks employed cavalry and again employed the high ground tactics. There is a slight evidence that Athenians used cavalry as early as the Marathon War but I’m no so sure. The fact, however, remains that before Philip or Alexander used the phalanx and anvil and cavalry as the hammer tactics, the Persians had already tried it in battle. Only Philip and Alexander took it up a notch and created a war machine that not even the Persians could beat.

    Finally, let us not forget that Alexander himself was an admirer of Persian culture. As soon as he put Persia under his feet, he began donning Persian costume and ordered his officers to take up Persian wives. He even admitted Persian nobles among the elite Hetairoi (Companion) cavalry ranks. His habit of respecting his enemies might have been influenced both by Greco-Persian ideas but I believe it came from Cyrus himself.

    Who created the first fully-armoured knights on the battlefield? The Persians of course. The fully-armoured cataphract (armoured rider and horse) is an invention of the Persians. The cataphract prefigured the armoured knights of Europe and the knightly class of the Persians, known as Pahlavans (from whence the Malay word ‘pahlawan’ or warrior came) were taught noble values and chivalry. The Romans under Crassus were massacred by these fearsome horsemen in Carrhae. It was not until hundreds of years later that the Romans adopted the Persian armour unto their cavalry and created their own cataphracts that could challenge their Persian counterparts.

    Persians are actually a branch of Indo-European people. That means the Greeks were not fighting some Asiatic barbarians but a civilised kin of theirs. Indo-Europeans do not necesarilly mean white-pale people. The brownish and black haired Greeks are considered Europeans. But the Persians were also known for their blonde-blue eyes traits and the among the Parthians (a branch of Iranian people who descended from the Scythians) these traits were dominant. Thus the portrayal of Persians in the movie is very inaccurate. The nearest portrayal of Persians I can give compliment for is in the movie Alexander by Oliver Stone though it’s still quite weak.

    Code of chivalry? Knights? I think the ancient Persians deserve their place in history as innovators of warfare.

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