Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Welcome to Spartanburg!: The dangers of this growing American military obsession

By Jim Gourley Best Defense culture correspondent There are 25 Spartan-branded obstacle course races in the United States. Microsoft’s Halo game series, whose protagonist is the last member of an elite group of futuristic super-soldiers known as Spartans, is a multi-billion dollar franchise. Recently named one of the “hot 100” companies by Internet Retailer and ...


By Jim Gourley
Best Defense culture correspondent

There are 25 Spartan-branded obstacle course races in the United States. Microsoft’s Halo game series, whose protagonist is the last member of an elite group of futuristic super-soldiers known as Spartans, is a multi-billion dollar franchise. Recently named one of the “hot 100” companies by Internet Retailer and profiled in the Army Times, Ranger Up apparel company made approximately $4 million last year on sales of over 300,000 t-shirts. Sixteen of their 150 designs feature images of Spartan warriors. They’re so popular they’ve been grouped into their own sub-category on the company’s website, which leads off with the sales pitch: “Let’s face it. When it comes to the definition of the warrior ethos, it is hard to top the Spartans.”

The commandant of the Marine Corps seems to share that view. On his recommended reading list are two works by author Stephen Pressfield: Gates of Fire, a work of historical fiction on the Battle of Thermopylae, and The Warrior Ethos, the cover of which features an image of a Spartan hoplite shield and first chapter opens with three anecdotes of warrior life in Sparta. Also on the commandant’s list is a book about Marines in Vietnam titled American Spartans, not to be confused with the newly released memoir of Special Forces soldier Jim Gant, who was once prominently featured on Pressfield’s website, titled American Spartan. And the film 300‘s highly stylized account of Thermopylae used its Lakonian bona fides to rake in more than 3.5 times the box office haul as Lone Survivor‘s modern true-to-life story (it also broke the war-film convention by making more money outside the United States). The presence of Sparta in modern military pop-culture is everywhere. But our contemporary understanding of what Sparta was and what it represents is confused at best, and within the military it bears hazardous potential.

The militaries of western civilization have carried elements of Spartan values as part of their inheritance from the Greek victory in the Persian wars. But since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan there has been a renewed infatuation with all things Spartan, or rather, all things we conceive to be Spartan. Thucydides and Herodotus were often confused or ignorant about aspects of Spartan life, but they only drew conjectures when necessary and based them on what they knew. By contrast, modern military culture has crafted a whole mythology of Spartan life to validate highly romanticized beliefs about who the Spartans were. The danger is that American military culture unquestioningly accepts that mythology as fact, and in pursuing the idea of “the American Spartan” it gets closer to becoming something that is neither Spartan nor American.

The common perception elevated by contemporary media is that the Spartans were a brotherhood of warriors, totally dedicated to defending the homeland and willing to lay down their lives for their brothers-in-arms and the greater cause of freedom. This put them in stark contrast to the other states of Greece, where people took freedom for granted and self-important individualism always triumphed over ideals of self-sacrifice. The Spartans were a minority not only because of the demands of their physically brutal training, but also because of their uncompromising moral code. In this, modern military members can find much in common with and much to aspire to in the legacy of the Spartans. Their one percent of the American population equals about 3 million, and Iraq and Afghanistan constitute the new Hot Gates, where they make their stand against the horde.

It’s remarkable then that military culture has used the Spartan identity to distinguish itself not from its enemies, but rather from the very society it protects. The idealized self-image of Sparta only works if the would-be Spartan is the dominant ethical, as well as physical, presence on the battlefield. This necessarily demands a degree of self-righteousness and a negative view of the rest of America. The sentiment is captured perfectly in 300 when Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas refers to the Athenians as “philosophers and boy lovers.” In other words, they’re good at bickering and gossip but not in the way of substantive action. This is problematic on historical grounds alone. The Spartans suffered many defeats at the hands of other Greek city-states before the Persian invasion. But more relevant is the danger to a relationship between military and civilian society that has already been altered by more than a decade of war. Servicemembers have brazenly asserted the moral high ground to their most senior civilian leaders. In a 2003 Military Times poll, approximately 60 percent of respondents from the armed forces said they felt the military had better moral standards than civilian society, and classified the moral fabric of American society as “fair” or “poor.” Making fun of the problems of civilian society has even become something of a pastime for servicemembers. This creates what U.S. Naval Academy Professor Bruce Fleming calls a “toxic situation” in which military members gradually begin to believe society doesn’t deserve the protection they provide. Maybe it’s the civilians who should serve the military. This is, of course, exactly what the Spartans did when they enslaved the helots.

The original concept of the American military was a group of civilians who assume the role of soldier for a brief period of time. Though time and advancements in the conduct of warfare gave rise to a professional standing military, it remains a force of volunteer citizen-soldiers. The Spartan civic model was the total opposite. Only men who’d graduated the agoge and reached the age of 30 in the army were recognized as full members of society — they were soldier-citizens. There are those who believe America would benefit if more citizens took part in national service programs after models like those proposed by Heinlein in Starship Troopers. But that argument is undermined whenever “the success of Sparta” is invoked as proof of its benefits. Sparta was utterly bereft in terms of architecture, literature, art, and science. Though much of our military inheritance comes from them, our politics and culture are all derived from Athens. Indeed, our best information about the Spartans comes from Athenian writers, for little from Sparta survived.

The Spartan mindset in American military culture is hurtful on the individual servicemember, as well. Adding to the extant gap in civil-military relations a mental paradigm that military members are an entirely different nation only makes their reintegration after leaving the service more difficult. How much harder is it for a wounded or student veteran to reenter society when he’s been conditioned to believe he was destined to enter the military because he was always different from and superior to it? Such feelings of inadequacy can make one wonder why they left the service in the first place, leading to feelings of shame. And this is the most poisonous
aspect of the Spartan message.

The Spartan viewpoint reinforces the concept of brotherhood. Its inherent misogyny aside, the messaging of this concept embraces the phrase “death before dishonor.” There is no nobler act than to die for one’s comrades, and so this is held up as the epitome of Sparta in the tradition of Thermopylae. The antithesis of this ideal is desertion, and those who commit it are irredeemable in Spartan philosophy. This was demonstrated in the fates of two Spartan survivors of Thermopylae. One later committed suicide out of grief and shame; the other died leading a charge at the battle of Plataea. It is significant that they didn’t share the fate of their comrades because they were ordered off the field by Leonidas himself. No matter. That they did not shoulder their portion of the burden doomed them to the scorn of the Spartiate. Embracing this mantra today leads those who separate from the service under honorable conditions to still feel a sense of disgrace for leaving their comrades to carry on in battle. This can have extraordinary consequences for one already coping with physical or mental wounds.

This is not to say that a t-shirt or a poster is ruining civil-military relations. A little chest-thumping is even helpful at times, and the gleaming lambda shield and red-crested helmet do lend themselves to iconography. Yet it should be recognized that the American military is at a precarious crossroads. It has never been more popular with the American public, and it has never had greater need for public (read: taxpayer) support. But in the last five years, the military as a culture has become more resentful of civilian society than ever, while as an institution it has taken an unprecedented number of black eyes. Popularity should not be mistaken for good relations. The armed forces risk squandering public support with a self-righteousness that doesn’t match an emerging pattern of ethical failures. Military leaders have lamented for years now that civilian society’s failure to understand the military creates problems. The military is creating its own problems with its cultural messaging. It is perhaps time that the military embrace Fleming’s call for “military metaphysics,” before civilian backlash kicks the opportunity for discussion down the well.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1