I just watched the movie 300, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. If you haven’t seen it, you may want to go for it. It is bloody; savage even; but it tells a story of solidarity that is compelling in any time and place, but particularly so now that America is facing down a mortal enemy: the virus, COVID-19. This blog is a paean to first responders, doctors, and parents who have to now teach their kids; it is in praise of those who lost a job due to no fault of their own; it is a criticism of the federal government; it is a recounting of some of the tough spots Americans have been in since the tumultuous colonial era which led to war with England. Heroism and self-sacrifice are called for during these dark days.
300 is a loose adaptation of historical events is the story of King Leonidas, of Sparta, the Greek city-state that valued military prowess, courage in battle, honor, physical strength, and societal simplicity above all else. 300is a harrowing tale, reminiscent of an amazing stand between perhaps the world’s greatest soldiers and the world’s largest empire (in 480 B.C.E.). The action-packed movie depicts a mighty and inexorable Persian Empire, under its megalomaniacal emperor, Xerxes, who believes himself to be a “god-king”.
Who would stand up to the military juggernaut that was sweeping west and south, devouring all lands before it? Leonidas and the brave 300 men of Sparta met the Persians at a location near Sparta called Thermopylae, which translates to “the hot gates.” This place was a topographical marvel: a narrow space amidst the towering, rocky hills of ancient Greece and the ocean, into which the Persians were lured. There, in a space perhaps only 200-300 feet wide, the innumerable slaves and warriors of the Persian horde were funneled, their massive numbers counting for little. For though the Persian army had a good 100,000 – 200,000 fighters (the rumor was that Xerxes commanded a monstrous one million men, but the official estimate ranges from 100,000 to 2,000,000, depending on the source) and the Greeks a mere three hundred, the Spartans were notorious for the use of the phalanx, an amazing military formation studied to this day in military colleges.
Wave after wave of a motley assortment of warriors from halfway across the world crashed upon the Spartans, armed with sword, spear, helmet, and shield. For perhaps 36 hours, the Persians could not make the Spartans bow or surrender. So brave and skilled and battle-hardened were these elite soldiers, who were vigorously and mercilessly trained since the age of 8, that under the inspiring leadership of King Leonidas, the Persian morale suffered as the losses (and the bodies) piled up. Eventually, it is said, Persian arrows and a betrayal by a Greek named Ephialtes caused the stubborn Greeks to succumb to exhaustion and death. There were also Thespians and slaves likely present as well, but Leonidas certainly read the writing on the wall and dismissed the majority of the fighting force, leaving only a committed and battle-hardened group of heroes to die protecting the people, lands, and customs of Greece. The movie 300 depicted the reason for the last stand somewhat theatrically (and movingly), but it seems it was all about protecting the retreat of the overmatched assembled Greek warriors.
Wikipedia sums up this very interesting and pivotal moment in the history of Western Civilization thusly: “Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending its native soil. The performance of the defenders is also used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.” (LINK)
The battle of Thermopylae (part of “the Persian Wars”, as the Greeks called that tumultuous and formative time in its early history) is truly a remarkable story of fighting for one’s beliefs, culture, and fellow-Spartans. For Leonidas knew full well that in protecting the flank of the 5,000 or so retreating Greeks (an assembly of fighters from many Greek city-states, though obviously greatly overmatched by a veritable city of Persian-conscripted fighters from half a world away), he would be leading his brave cadre to a death sentence. It seemed worth it to him, and his men obviously agreed, that to retreat was absolutely forbidden by Spartan custom. After all, even in the face of a towering enemy, the reputation – the honor– of Sparta needed to hold. Heroism and self-sacrifice were what was called for during those dark days. Leonidas and 300 of his finest soldiers both bought the retreating group of Greeks much-needed time, and also inspired what Greeks would eventually discover under the future king, Alexander the Great: unity. It was a heroic and timely gambit to play for precious time and rally a fractious Greece.
Epilogue: Though all the Spartans perished that fateful day in 480 B.C.E., many of the notoriously disunified Greek city-states came together on the battlefield of Plataea, shortly thereafter, led by the full force of the Spartan legions, and dealt a decisive blow to Xerxes (who incidentally was allied with the Macedonians, and others), the power-mad god-king. Persia saw the sun begin to set on its then-unequalled empire, and the time of Alexander the Great of Macedon, was not yet to be. This moment could be construed as the apex of the Athenian and Spartan city-states.
This watershed event led to the victories at Plataea and Salamis (the Athenian navy responsible for the latter), which ushered in a golden age of Greece, marked by relative peace, statesmanship, democracy, philosophy, freedom, and in general, “western civilization” values. True to form, though, the fractious and ambitious-to-a-fault Greeks couldn’t keep the peace for long. It is, as the Greek tragedians pointed out, a tragic story.
Be that as it may, a sign at Thermopylae today reads: Tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie. Heroism and self-sacrifice are the lessons of Thermopylae, as it is with The Alamo for many Americans.
From the author of a history of the Peloponnesian War, Steven Pressfield:
“At Thermopylae in 480 B.C., the Persian king Xerxes, at the head of an army of two million men, demanded of the Spartan king Leonidas that he and his 4,000 defenders lay down their arms. Leonidas responded with two words: Molon labe (“Come and take them!”). If you travel to Thermopylae today, you’ll see the Leonidas monument. It has only two words on it.”
In addition to a recounting of a heroic stand against towering odds in the ancient era, may we remember the virtuosity (and virtue), bravery, wisdom, steadfastness, leadership, inspiration, and self-sacrifice of Leonidas and his valiant warriors as we fight the coronavirus. It is an enemy as vicious and indefatigable as the Persians seemed to the Greeks in the 5thcentury B.C.E. We do not have a leader who is even one-hundredth the man Leonidas is reputed to have been, but we do have dedicated, indefatigable doctors, nurses, EMTs, paramedics, fire fighters, police officers, health officials, researchers, businesspersons, National Guardsmen and women, civil servants, soldiers, as well as the mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters of those who fought for their lives and died in the face of a deplorable virus. Every day now, thousands of ostensibly decent and productive citizens of America disappear from the ranks of the living.
I worry deeply that America does not have the grit, the fitness, or the unity of a 5thcentury Sparta. I see some evidence of the heroism and self-sacrifice needed to persevere against a global pandemic, but I also see some evidence that we are on the ropes, as they say in boxing. Meanwhile, China is getting back to the business of eating our lunch. I learned recently of fraudsters who are preying on the weak, helpless, sick, and the desperate – in pursuit of profit – it was a gruesome feeling.
Sparta may have been violent, but they were singularly focused — so much so that the men all ate together in communal dining halls, and the agoge (the compulsory training regimen for young boys) meant that age 8 the young males left their nuclear families and began what amounted to a communal/militaristic life until they either became Spartan soldiers or died trying. At least we gave up slavery as a moral wrong and as a wedge that was cleaving America down the middle; Sparta, for all its physical prowess and homogeneity, did not value work and kept helots to do all the tasks that men would typically need to accomplish in a day.
America had a singular focus in the Great Depression and in World War II, and even after 9/11. Now, some of us have the mettle and the will to press on and do what must be done — like Rosie the Riveter or the men who fought and died at Iwo Jima — and others are using this opportunity to bilk sick and dying people of a couple hundred dollars running a fake testing outfit (and now I’m not joking about that). What do you think would happen to such people in the age of Sparta if they were actively and purposefully working against the society’s best interests in that vile of a way? We went from building a B-52 Flying Fortress every ten minutes (as we were in 1944) to complaining that we shouldn’t have to stay off the beaches because it violates our liberty. We once had Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and now we have Donald J. Trump. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever,” Thomas Jefferson lamented.
Perhaps we Americans are too cushy, lazy, entitled, and weak — by and large. Maybe the unity and the kindness and the steeliness that marked every good person on 9/12/2001 has been overwhelmed by obesity, Twitter, and The Masked Singer. Clearly, this does not apply to the doctors and nurses who work at emergency rooms in New York City, or the first responders who are being exposed to COVID-19 at alarming rates. But what of those folks who complain that they are asked to stay home from church, and that they are going to attend Easter services because they need company and they think the government is stepping over the line? I literally heard a pastor comment that “There is man’s law, and then there is God’s law.” I know for a fact that there are some vaccine objectors who will not take a vaccine even after a company such as Johnson and Johnson produces, in a not-for-profit way, a vaccine after thirteen or sixteen painstaking months. I know this because they don’t feel that a vaccine that virtually prevents measles, polio, or meningitis are worth taking, either. What of someone like Donald Trump who makes one blunder after another while he is charged with leading us through this crisis. If a man of his character is elected by an obsolete and elite system such as the Electoral College (as well as an embarrasing number of voters who turned a blind eye to his hypocrisy, avarice, and elitism) (including a huge proportion of “evangelical Christians and white supremacists), then is it not, as Malcolm X surmised, America’s chickens coming home to roost?
America has a different set of values from Sparta — some of which are clearly superior, such as charity, tolerance, and peace — but have we not strayed from the values that made America the envy of the world for dozens of decades? Would George Washington be pleased with the partisanship that has gripped this country? Would Benjamin Franklin approve of the great sway money has in our modern culture? Would Lincoln look up on our highly heterogeneous family lives and approve? Would Helen Keller or Eleanor Roosevelt be proud of the work ethic, the kindness and generosity, and the willingness to persevere against great odds that marks America in the 21st century?
I remember thinking, while watching what the Surgeon General termed “this generation’s Pearl Harbor, or 9/11”, that good cops have a metaphor they live by. They believe they are like sheepdogs, who bravely defend the frightened and defenseless sheep against the marauding wolves. Yes, wolves need to eat, too, but that is not the point. The point is that the wolves prey on the sheep, and the sheep rely on sheepdogs to keep the wolves at bay. All those who do their duty, sacrifice, and hold steady in the face of wolves, a miniscule invader of the body – whatever analogy you wish to use – are like the Spartans at Thermopylae. They face personal risk because fleeing the field of battle, if you will, for most, is unthinkable.
Queen Elizabeth of England (now 93), was so very young when another implacable foe – the Nazis – tore across Europe, pillaging and murdering and destroying as they went. Tonight, she broadcast an inspirational message to the good people of the world in their dark hour for the fifth time ever. I thought then of Winston Churchill, and also of F.D.R. and Henry A. Wallace, and Generals Patton, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley, Clark, and Marshall, and Rosy the Riveter, and all the wealthy who paid enormous taxes, all heroes.
I see Donald Trump and his band of sycophants and fools on television, trying to seem competent and wise, and it saddens me so. It scares and embarrasses me. The contrast between these pretenders and any whom I have mentioned in this story is stark and bracing; it brings to mind this quote:
“Today the word ‘hero’ has been diminished, confused with ‘celebrity.’ But in my father’s generation the word meant something. Celebrities seek fame; they take actions to get attention; most often the actions they take have no particular moral content. Heroes are heroes because they have risked something to help others; their actions involve courage.” (James Bradley and Ron Powers)
Indeed, Jennifer Hushion, a wife of a doctor on the front lines, writes: “President Trump and the Department of Defense would never think of sending a soldier into war without a helmet and a weapon, but they didn’t seem to have a problem sending our first responders into the Covid-19 pandemic without enough personal protective equipment. It’s good that the administration finally believes this pandemic is real, but its promises, prayers and ‘deep appreciation’ for our health care providers isn’t enough. Panic doesn’t help in any situation, but a little outrage never hurt.”
I was pleased to have received this in an email promoting the Democrat, Morris Davis, who is running to unseat the Republican in the 11th Congressional district of North Carolina. It read:
LEADERSHIP IS THE DIFFERENCE: “Morris has experience, a record of accomplishment and a history of standing up to do the right thing regardless of political party. In a word: Leadership. When he was chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, he refused to use evidence obtained through torture. When ordered to defy that rule, he stood up to the Bush Administration and said no. He resigned rather than follow what he believed was an illegal order. While Morris was a national security specialist for Congress, he wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journalthat was critical of the Obama Administration’s handling of Guantanamo. For standing up to the administration, he was fired. The ACLU joined him in a lawsuit, and they won a settlement that affirmed government employee free speech rights. In each case, he didn’t do what was best for the party. He did what was right.”
Trump may have ascended to fame using his father’s money, or cunning, and with the help of Russia and James Comey and others absconded off with the United States presidency, but he is not a great leader and he is not a virtuous man. He has never inspired a human being with his morality or his willingness to sacrifice. We must cope with this deadly viral foe not with his help, as America has with, say, Lincoln, or Will Rogers, but despite his leadership. Any so-called leader who leads from behind, who considers his own image and power as paramount even in the face of such a wicked adversary as COVID-19, is a shame upon the nation, not a hero. Alas, it is up to us to cope with a deadly disease and Donald Trump simultaneously.
This is what we need, not the bluster and the bluffing of a man-child who knows no values but his own self-interest. Further, is it a surprise that Canada is doing a better job overall dealing with the pandemic than America is? (LINK)
These are dark days, but may we “hold the line“, as the military lingo would term it; may we the sheep be defended well by sheepdogs; may we look to our best and brightest and most virtuous; for America has neglected its critical infrastructure, its health care, and its poor and middle class citizens for far too long. War is upon us, and victory will come at a great cost – in lives and in treasure. It is said that America has been through many perils ever since those tempestuous days of George Washington, Thomas Paine, and John Adams. We have endured the Great Depression, a horrific flu in 1918-1919, a Civil War, gross disparities in wealth, and McCarthyism. I do hope that we can rise to the occasion yet again. Ω
I will end with a couple dozen quotes about heroism and self-sacrifice that inspire me not to despair during these tumultuous and harrowing time:
Where safety is in short supply, as in ancient Sparta or twelfth-century Europe, courageous fighters and knights on horseback will be celebrated. If a community craves nutrients that are available only in the form of elusive animal flesh, as in the Amazon, it is the killers of jaguars who will earn respect and its symbol, the armadillo girdle. In areas where the livelihood of the majority depends on trade and high technology, as in modern Europe and North America, entrepreneurs and scientists will be the objects of admiration.
~ Alain de Botton
Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning.
~ Winston Churchill
The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.
~ Helen Keller
The British used to have a myth about King Arthur. He wasn’t dead, but sleeping in a cave, it was said; in the country’s hour of greatest peril, he would return. You, too, have great spirits of the past you may call upon: men and women of courage, of conscience, of prescience. Summon them now, to stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in you. You need them.
~ Margaret Atwood
The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.
To be a great leader you’ve got to be somebody that other people look up to, that they admire. They should believe in your skill set and know that you know what you’re doing, but even more so, they’ve got to trust you. They’ve got to be willing to take a risk with you.
~ Tom Morris
Great deeds are usually wrought at great risks.
Trump was warned in January about the severity of the impending coronavirus threat. Instead of ramping up testing and immediately ordering social distancing to slow the spread of the virus, Trump wasted a critical 70-day window lying to the public. The United States now leads the world with 449,000 confirmed coronavirus cases as a result. Americans are paying the price for Trump’s chaos—many with their lives.
~ The Center for American Progress
To all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright…the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
~ Barack Obama
There is in every true woman’s heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity; but which kindles up, and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.
~ Washington Irving
The 28th [battalion] threw all three of its battalions onto the line, and the hidden Japanese gunners resumed their harvest [during World War II]. Easy [Company] had to cross rough, exposed ground against a heavily fortified ridge. The Japanese ordinance showed no respect for heroes.
~ James Bradley and Ron Powers
Altruism can be taken to mean that the ultimate motivation for action is to do one’s moral duty to another (for its own sake) or to go beyond one’s moral duty to another (heroism).
~ Michael Boylan
The news is going to get worse before it gets better. The American people must be prepared for it and they must get it straight from the shoulder.
~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
I choose to be found doing my duty.
~ Abraham Davenport
We as public servants must set an example for the rest of the nation. It is hypocritical for the public official to admonish and exhort the people to uphold the common good. More is required of public officials than slogans and handshakes and press releases. More is required. We must hold ourselves strictly accountable. We must provide the people with a vision of the future.
~ Barbara Jordan
In the fell clutch of circumstance/ I have not winced nor cried aloud./ Under the bludgeonings of chance/ My head is bloody, but unbowed.
~ William Ernest Henley
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in.
~ Abraham Lincoln
We think we live in a dangerous, uncertain time, and we do. But [that of the “Founding Fathers”] was worse, and they had no sure way of knowing how things would turn out, any more than we do. Their courage and determination, their commitment to what they called the Cause of America, were almost beyond our imagining. To sign your name to the Declaration of Independence was to declare yourself a traitor to the British Crown. If caught by enemy forces, you would almost certainly be hanged.
~ David McCullough
My husband has been an emergency physician for 30 years. During that time, I have seen him frustrated because of social problems he can’t solve or depressed from the bureaucracy that medicine has become. I have watched him wander through sleep-deprived days, burnt and crispy from shift work. But I have never seen him truly worried about going to work until the first Covid-19 case was diagnosed in Rhode Island, where we live and work.
~ Jennifer Hushion
You help people because you are human and you see that there is a need. There are things in this life you have to do, and you do it.
~ Bert, a German rescuer of Jews during WWII
The work of thought leaders today, no matter what the arena, is to rouse people into consciousness, to awaken the drowsy imaginations of a sedated public, and get them to turn on the lights of their own lives.
~ Jan Phillips
Warrior cultures (and warrior leaders) enlist shame, not only as a counter to fear but as a goad to honor. The warrior advancing into battle (or simply resolving to keep up the fight) is more afraid of disgrace in the eyes of his brothers than he is of the spears and lances of the enemy.
~ Steven Pressfield
If I should die, think this only of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.
~ Rupert Brooke
Three days after Congress declared war on Japan, Japan’s allies – Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy – declared war on the United States. All across the country, anxious Americans asked themselves, ‘How did this happen?’
~ Geoffrey C. Ward
When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.
~ Joseph Campbell
He that can’t endure the bad will not live to see the good.
~ Yiddish proverb
The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy, but where are they.
I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even although We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.
~ John Adams
I would define true courage to be a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a mental willingness to endure it.
~ William T. Sherman
Pain nourishes courage. You can’t be brave if you’ve only had good things happen to you.
~ Mary Tyler Moore
What is most important in this revolution will require no guns, no commandants, no screaming ‘leaders,’ and no vicious publications accusing everyone else of being counter-revolutionary. The revolution comes when two strangers smile at each other, when a father refuses to send his child to school because schools destroy children, when a commune is started and people begin to trust each other, when a young man refuses to go to war, and when a girl pushes aside all that her mother has ‘taught’ her and accepts her boyfriend’s love. The revolution comes when young people throughout the world take control of their own lives and when people everywhere begin to look each other in the eyes and say hello, without fear. This is the revolution, this is the strength, and with this behind us no politician or general will ever stop us. We shall win!
~ Bernie Sanders
We’re not a, “You’re with us or against us” kind of people; we’re a, “Come and join us” kind of people. Americans know in our hearts you don’t make us safer by building walls, but by building bridges.
~ Wesley Clark
…One of the consequences of wars, very often one of the accompaniments of wars, is the creation of a country united against a common enemy and therefore a country which the leaders hope will put aside the internal conflicts, the class conflicts, the feeling of the poor against the rich, put that aside to face the common enemy—in the case of the American Revolution, England.
~ Howard Zinn
When you are in doubt, be still, and wait. When doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward in courage.
~ White Eagle
The pandemic has revealed to us just how fragile our economy and society are. To rebuild them to be more impervious to future trauma is the charge we must take when we emerge. Our greatest lesson is this: We must build a more sturdy America.
~ Charles M. Blow
…true moral character and virtue are forged on the anvil of human suffering: it is only by overcoming adversity, helping the oppressed, opposing the tyrant, etc., that the real worth of the saint or the hero is able to shine forth.
~ Ben Dupre
Slow and steady wins the race.
Everyone has the capability of becoming a hero in one degree or another. Sometimes you might not realize it. To someone it could be as small as holding a door open and saying ‘hello’ to them. We are all heroes to someone.
~ Carol Delpino
Great necessities call out great virtues.
~ Abigail Adams
Being a man ne’er asks the gods for life set free from grief, but asks for courage that endures long.
The darkest hour has only 60 minutes.
~ Morris Mandel
In every man’s heart there is a sleeping lion.
~ Armenian proverb
The brave person thinks of themselves last of all.
~ Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller
A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.
~ Albert Schweitzer
One of the forms of psychological heroism is the willingness to tolerate anxiety and uncertainty in the pursuit of our values — whether those values be work goals, the love of another human being, the raising of a family, or personal growth.
~ Alfie Kohn
keywords: heroism, self-sacrifice