The Spartans Were Morons

popular
National Endowment for the Humanities

Editor’s Note: This article by Gabriel Russell originally appeared on Law Enforcement Today, a source of news and views on the profession run by and for law enforcement.


Let’s face it, the Spartans were morons.

If I never have look at another military or police morale patch, challenge coin, T-shirt, or logo with a Spartan helmet on it that would be just fine, thanks.

Propped up by bombastically entertaining fodder such as the movie 300 and the presence of Gates of Fire on professional reading lists, the exploits of the ancient Spartans loom large in the modern warrior's imagination.

The next time you see a middle-aged, bearded, chubby cop or military dude dressed up like Donny Delta Force in morale patches, Velcro and “operator gear” festooned with Spartan helmet insignia, ask yourself: What are they really laying claim to?

The heroic tale of elite warriors fighting to their deaths at Thermopylae to protect an early democracy and stop a massive slave army has four major flaws. People who imagine themselves inheritors of their traditions usually overlook these.

  1. They lost. It’s an incredibly romantic “going out in a blaze of glory” loss, I’ll admit, but they still lost, in part because their obsession with turning out perfect Soldiers impeded their ability to turn out sufficient numbers of fighters who were “good enough.”
  2. Alliances enabled their successes. Do you remember the romantic and heroic tale of the last stand of the 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans? Probably not. They get overlooked in distorted Hollywood version of the story but the battle would have been far different were it not for the contributions of other Greek City States who fought alongside them.
  3. Terrain overcame flaws in their training and tactics. The narrow pass at Thermopylae allowed the Spartans to fight in a Phalanx, standing in rows faced directly against their enemies. Spartans believed this to be, not only tactically, but morally superior. Their blind obedience to this doctrine was their undoing when the circumstances didn’t favor it.
  4. They had no culture other than war. Let’s face it, killing babies who don’t appear to have great potential as warriors is a dramatic statement of cultural values but it doesn’t lead to advances in science, agriculture, or the arts. All of which are also necessary for a culture to reach peak military potential. It also led to Sparta degenerating into tyranny at times.

The word spartan, taken separately from a military context has come to mean utilitarian, basic. In ancient times the word was more pejorative, carrying a connotation of stupidity and coarseness. The word Thespian, has come to mean artistic and sensitive. At Thermopylae the 700 Thespians fought as bravely as any other force. There was a city-state that balanced the need of self-defense and to develop culture.

"Off to war again, babe. Beat the children well for me"Wikimedia Commons

In the years that followed the Battle of Thermopylae, their former allies the Thebans ended Spartan supremacy at the Battle of Leuctra by using superior planning and tactics and exploiting their insistence on standing stupidly in Phalanxes. The Roman Legions, based on combined arms, flexibility and innovation, would also decimate the Spartan formations. Sparta declined to join the army of Alexander the Great because they would not have had a lead role, and did not participate in his historic victory against the Persians. They may have had some great battles but they never came close to mastering the range of skills necessary to establish an empire.

So the next time you see a middle-aged, bearded, chubby, cop or military dude dressed up like Donny Delta Force in morale patches, Velcro and “operator gear” festooned with Spartan helmet insignia, ask yourself this: What are they really laying claim to?

The Greek City States were the world’s earliest democracies. They flourished when they worked together to confront common enemies and fell when they turned against each other. They gave birth to spectacular advances in the sciences, arts, and culture.

Fighters that are tough but stupid have a place. They excel when asked to fight to the death in a situation where there is no possibility of maneuver, only simple weapons are in use, and no long-term strategy is needed.

But we live in an era of evolving, complex, and persistent threat, and we benefit from the design of advanced technology, innovative tactics and forming strategic partnerships.

It’s too bad nobody has come up with a tactical Thespian morale patch.

Gabriel Russell is a Regional Director with the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service. He retired as a Command Sergeant Major from the Army National Guard, and is Founder and Managing Partner Emeritius at Takouba Security, and a volunteer at Code 4 Northwest. He has a Master of Science Degree from Central Washington University and a Bachelor of Arts from the Evergreen State College. The views here are entirely his own and do not represent the position of the Department of Homeland Security, the Army National Guard, or Takouba Security.

More from Law Enforcement Today:

WATCH NEXT:

Want to read more from Task & Purpose? Sign up for our daily newsletter »

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

Read More

Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Read More
U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division, board a C-130J Super Hercules, assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on January 5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

The Defense Department has remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the brazen Jan. 5 raid on a military base at Manda Bay, Kenya, but a new report from the New York Times provides a riveting account filled with new details about how the hours-long gunfight played out.

Read More

Roughly a dozen U.S. troops showing concussion-related symptoms are being medically evacuated from Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a defense official told Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

Read More