Sunday, March 11, 2007

Go tell the Spartans

Lots of controversy about the new Frank Miller flick "300". Not just the thing itself...questions regarding the timing of this picture and the war in Iraq...and Iran. Lots of people in the blogosphere drawing lines between Leonidas' crusade against the Persians and Dubya's crusade against the...ummm...Persians.

I can see the crux of the biscuit: here's a movie celebrating a band of muscular Westerners fighting and slaughtering hordes of scary, dusky Easterners. The whole Greek homoerotic thing is downplayed to make the Spartans the ultimate Culture Warriors, standing alone - since let's face it, chicks and homos and asian beardie-wierdies and crips and other non-six-pack-ab-types just can't stand the heat - against the forces of Evil and Alien Menace.

Right? But here's the point of this post. We Americans - and I suspect most postmodern people - are as ignorant of history as we are of quantum physics. We therefore tend to take up ideas and issues one at a time, puzzling or obsessing or anguishing over each one as an item, rather than trying to fit it into the overwhelming mosaic of time, places and peoples. Plus, we tend to think of war as "war", a sort of social dies non, where things happen, or people do things, unrelated and utterly divorced from regular, peaceful life. And, I think, because so few of us now have seen the face of war, we tend to find it either scarier, or more fascinating, or more important, than it should probably be...

For example, my comrade-in-arms Jason over at Armchair Generalist loved "300". From his comments:

“Favorite part of the movie - the Spartans meet up with the Athenians, and the Athenians are shocked by the small number of Spartans. The King says, "Hmmm. What's your profession, Athenian?" "Potter." "And you?" "Sculpter." "And you?" "Blacksmith."

He looks behind to his men. "Men of Sparta! What is your profession?" The 300 raise their spears as one and shout "AARROOUUUUU!!" The King says, "I think I have more warriors than you." Spartans: the finest soldiers the world has ever known. “

I'd consider that a typical response to the emotional heart of "300". It is like a stirring military march, or a hoo-ahh cadence well called. It quickens the blood, and makes you want to be a part of that sort of tough, hardcore band. It makes you forget everything but the thunder of the captains and the shouting.

Well, I like the part with the Athenians, too, but not for the same reasons.

Sure, the Spartans were the baddest mo-fo's of the Greek world. That's why, three thousand years later, we remember Leonidas and...ummm...let's see...hmmm...I know there's got to be something...

Athens? Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, Solon, Militides, Themistocles, not to mention all those characters like Hippocrates, Aristotle, Xeno who were inspired by Athenian learning. Oh, and the guys who beat Xerxes? Google the "Battle of Salamis"...

And speaking of battles let's not forget the Battle of Leuctra...

As good as they were, the Spartans wanted to be - and were recognized by their peers - as no more than the attack dogs of Greece. Even in their own time, citizens of other Greek city-states recognized that as a people they were...incomplete. Not really "civilized" in the way that Athens or Syracuse or Thebes were civilized.

They were so good at being warriors they failed to realize that there are many things needed for civilization other than potters, sculptors, and blacksmiths...

I love Frank Miller, and I enjoyed "300". It was good adventure fiction in the dark, twisted Millerian style.

But as a history lesson? Or, as many people seem to want to argue, as a parable and a parallel for our time?


No comments: