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Thermopylae

11 March, 2007

I went to see 300 last night. It was awesome, though it played pretty loose with historical fact. Or at least, what we believe actually occurred 2500 years ago at Thermopylae. The movie made it seem like the Spartans were the main body of Greeks at Thermopylae, when in fact, they were a relatively small contingent. What is significant is that it was the Spartans who chose to stay and die in the pass once the Persians had found a way to encircle it. But even there, the Thespian contingent also elected to fight to the end alongside the Spartans. In some ways, I find their sacrifice more moving. As city militia, they would not have been career warriors like the Spartans, not raised from birth to crave a death in battle.

Still, a few quibbles aside, I loved the movie. I’ve always been gripped by the story of the battle of Thermopylae. The theme of noble sacrifice, of people knowingly facing certain death, has always fascinated me. There’s also the element of betrayal, in Ephialtes showing the Persians a path around the guarded pass. On the one hand, you have hundreds of men willing to sacrifice everything so that the rest of Greece could escape conquest by the Persians. And all of it is rendered pointless by the greed of a single traitor.

I think there’s a moral there (every Greek story has a moral, right?). It’s that the nobility and effort of many can be undone by a petty few. That may seem pessimistic, but I’m convinced it’s true, that it’s a true principle of the world. The human race prospers, generally, because of the vast majority of people who work hard, love their children, and deal fairly with their neighbours. What misery and conflict there is exists because of a minority who see profit in violence and conflict.

Look at the sectarian violence in Iraq, if you want an example. I’m convinced that most of the Sunnis and Shia in Baghdad want to live in peace and watch their children grow up. They’d rather have reliable electricity than plant a roadside bomb. I’m sure most young Iraqis would rather have a cool cellphone and prospects for a future than kill an infidel. But you have a few leaders preaching hate, and some few hundreds or thousands who are willing to buy into it. There isn’t open warfare and clear battle lines (such as we saw in the former Yugoslavia, for example) because the majority just don’t want violence. But the small minority that does want violence trumps the majority who want peace and reconstruction. One car bomb or suicide bomber can kill scores of people whose only wish was to get home from work safely and see their families again. A few motivated death squads can stir up enough fear to paralyze a nation and make the conflict spread.

Look at the building of girls’ schools in Afghanistan. Aid organizations build them, and incredibly brave Afghan women teach in them. What moves me is that so many parents, knowing the danger, send their daughters to them. Whatever the traditionalism and narrow interpretations of Islam, they want to see their daughters have a better future. Until the radicals show up and shoot the teacher, burn the school. There it is again, ordinary people wanting to move forward, while a minority filled hate and a small-minded religiosity deny them the opportunity.

Notice how the early stages of ethnic conflict often involve targeting not just the opposite ethnicity, but the moderates on the same side. It takes effort to polarize a population. And the sad truth is that it’s in the nature of a radical to expend far more effort to unleash chaos than an ordinary honest citizen will expend to hold it at bay.

I can’t propose any solutions to this. The truism persists. Men of integrity will build; men without it will tear it down. If there’s a bright side to it all, it’s that we’ve made it this far because we’ve been able to build so much more than war, conflict and criminality has destroyed. We’ll make it much farther, I’m sure, but we’ll never live in a world without conflict. John Lennon was as willing as anyone to “give peace a chance,” and those words still fall from millions of lips, but all that pacifism couldn’t do a thing to save him from one madman with a pistol.

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4 comments

  1. I saw 300 last night. Good movie for sure, well made. Incredibly cheesy at the end. Lots of blood and graphic head lopping off shots. Xerxes was pretty neat.

    Before I saw the movie, I read that Iran is pissed about that movie because they say it makes their ancestors look like savages, and that it was yet another tactic in the West’s psychological warfare against the Middle East. My first reaction was, “there they go again, it’s alway something isn’t it?” But, after having seen the movie, I tend to agree. True, the movie wasn’t about the Persians, it was about the Spartans, but it definitely had the feel of a patriotic American war movie, especially at the end.

    I really liked how they everything bigger than life. The battle scenes, Xerxes being twice as large as a regular man, the big ass mutant warriors, etc. I think the best part was when the Queen had her revenge on Theron.

    Z


  2. Yeah Zane, I think I agree with both of your reactions.

    It’s not surprising that Iranian officials would want to paint this as a form of US aggression, and you’re totally right to roll your eyes. It’s a pretty common tactic that when governments are oppressive, they try to redirect public discontent toward some other focus, like a foreign power or an internal minority. The sad thing is that the tactic often works, and it often leads to larger conflicts that benefit no one, not even the leaders who fanned the flames in the first place. I actually find it pathetically ironic that Iranian officials accuse the US trying to incite hatred against them, when they’re the same folks who rally people to shout “death to America, death to Jews.” I’ll take “Hypocrisy” for $500, Alex.

    As for whether 300 really constitutes such a plot on behalf of the US gov’t, that’s pretty laughable. Frank Miller is anything but a patsy of the White House. Just look at how he depicted the president in The Dark Knight Returns, or the biting political satire of his Martha Washington series. And I’m pretty sure that when Iranian officials try to claim there is some concerted plot, they know darn well there’s no such thing, it’s just politically useful for them to say so.

    But that said, yeah, the movie was pretty over the top. Which, again, is pretty typical of Frank Miller’s work. In some senses, I can see what he’s up to. He’s showing the Persians as they might have seemed to the Greeks at the time. An unimaginably massive, wealthy and alien empire. Their culture would have seemed both decadent and fascinating to the Greeks. Still, he goes way too far. They end up seeming cartoonish and grotesque, much like his villains in Sin City. Which is too bad, I think Miller is much better when he can reign it in a bit and take a more subtle approach.

    So on a personal level, I can see why individual Iranians would be offended by the movie. Their criticism is perfectly valid (especially if they’ve actually seen the movie), and I like what a few different bloggers have done to try to highlight the actual history, character and accomplishments of the Persian empire. It’s a far better response than what we saw around this time last year, with the reaction to the Danish cartoons. Because really, if you want to prove to the world that you’re not “savages,” then rioting, making death threats, torching buildings and killing each other isn’t really going to do the trick.


  3. I would like to see the two countries could agree to settle their differences between two fighting forces at a place and time determined in advance. His two fighting forces would be limited to numbers in size and would fight using old methods and old ways. The decision would be final the winners would take all. The losers would retreat and disband their weapons, and tactics.

    The fight would be brutal and bloody, to be chosen the volunteers from both sides. The losers would have decided treaty claiming defeat and with cease and desist any further attempts to procure their cause.

    The dead would be remembered on a memorial wall at the site and at a universal location for both sides would be remembered.

    There would be no regrets, no lawsuits, no redus, the retreats and no compromise.

    The losers cannot bellyache, and injured cannot sue for post Germanic syndrome. Any injured on the battlefield would be at the mercy of any surviving opposing force.

    The battle would go on as no referee, who breaks, no weather cancellations, gnome last-minute retrieves, and a last-minute negotiations.

    The survivors would have only a feeling of self-worth knowing that if you has sacrificed for many.

    No survivors could sponsor any movies or books, you can write about it, or profit from it.

    They would have to be comprised of nonmaterialistic warriors that does not seem to exist in today’s state of the nation.

    If you hear of such an idea that could be become a reality well then kill him to e-mail me.


  4. I like the idea – it would mean no civilian casualties. =]

    But the trick is the “agree to settle their differences” part… war results from a fundamental inability to find agreement. And abiding by the results of the battle would require that both parties have a kind of integrity that no longer exists in the world.



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