The Warrior Ethos

The Warrior Ethos

The Opposite of Shame

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 28, 2011

Chapter 9  The Opposite of Shame is Honor

Once, in India, after years on campaign, Alexander’s men threatened to mutiny. They were worn out and wanted to go home. Alexander called an assembly. When the army had gathered, the young king stepped forth and stripped naked.

Alexander

Alexander. He knew how to keep the troops motivated.

“These scars on my body,” Alexander declared, “were got for you, my brothers. Every wound, as you see, is in the front. Let that man stand forth from your ranks who has bled more than I, or endured more than I for your sake. Show him to me, and I will yield to your weariness and go home.” Not a man came forward. Instead, a great cheer arose from the army. The men begged their king to forgive them for their want of spirit and pleaded with him only to lead them forward.

By challenging them to show more scars on their bodies than he had on his own, Alexander was shaming his men. 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.

Chapter 10  Boyz 2 Men

When they were boys, Alexander and his friends were forced to bathe in frigid rivers, run barefoot till their soles grew as thick as leather, ride all day without food or water and endure whippings and ritual humiliations. On the rare occasions when they got to rest, their trainers would remind them, “While you lie here at ease, the sons of the Persians are training to defeat you in battle.”

In Sparta, boys were allowed to stay with their mothers till they were seven. At that age, they were taken from their families and enrolled in the agoge, “the Upbringing.” This training lasted till they were eighteen, when they were considered grown warriors and were enrolled in the army.

The boys in training were given one garment, a rough cloak that they wore all year long. They slept out of doors year-round. Each boy carried a sickle-like weapon called a xyele. They were allowed no beds but instead had to make nests of reeds gathered each night from the river. They were not permitted to cut the reeds with their sickles but had to tear them with their bare hands.

Food for the boys was pig’s-blood porridge. A visiting Persian envoy was once given a taste of this gruel:

Now I understand Spartan courage in battle. For surely death is preferable to dining upon such slop.

Bad as the food was, the boys got little of it. Instead, they were encouraged to steal. Stealing was no crime, but getting caught was. A boy who got caught was whipped. To cry out was considered a sign of cowardice. It was not unheard of for a Spartan boy to die of a beating without uttering a sound.

In my day [said the first-century historian Plutarch], tourists traveled hundreds of miles to witness these scourgings, and to behold the courage of the boys enduring them in silence.

There was a footrace in Sparta each year among the boys. They ran ten miles, barefoot, carrying a mouthful of water. The boys were not allowed to swallow any of the water but had to spit it all out at the end of the race.

Part Two: The External War

Chapter 11  Rugged Land

Many warrior cultures have arisen in harsh physical environments. Greeks and Macedonians, Romans and Russians, even the British and Japanese, isolated on their resource-poor islands; as well as the Masai and the Apache; the Zulu and the Bedouin; the clansmen of the Scottish Highlands; in Afghanistan, the Pashtun tribesmen of the Hindu Kush. Here in America, the mountain and hill country of Virginia and West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Missouri (not to mention the Carolinas, Georgia and Texas) has produced outstanding soldiers from the Civil War to the present.

The interesting thing about peoples and cultures from rugged environments is that they almost never choose to leave them. When the Persians under Cyrus the Great (who came from the harsh Zagros Mountains, in what is today Iran) conquered the lowland Medes 2700 years ago, the royal advisors assumed that Cyrus would abandon his barren, rocky homeland and settle in to the good life in the Medes’ fertile valleys. But Cyrus knew, as the proverb declares, that “soft lands make soft people.” His answer became famous throughout the world:

Better to live in a rugged land and rule than to cultivate rich plains and be a slave.

When Alexander invaded Afghanistan in the 330s B.C., he allied himself with numerous tribes and set about making their lives better and easier by building roads into their mountain valleys, so that they could trade and prosper. Emerging from winter quarters the following year, Alexander found all the roads destroyed. The tribes he had built them for had done it. They didn’t want trade or prosperity; they preferred isolation and freedom.

The idea of a rugged land can be applied psychologically as well.

There’s a well-known gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps who explains to his young Marines, when they complain about pay, that they get two kinds of salary—a financial salary and a psychological salary. The financial salary is indeed meager. But the psychological salary? Pride, honor, integrity, the chance to be part of a corps with a history of service, valor, glory; to have friends who would sacrifice their lives for you, as you would for them—and to know that you remain a part of this brotherhood as long as you live. How much is that worth?

[Continued next Monday. To read from Chapter One in sequence, click here.]

Posted in The Warrior Ethos

11 Responses to “The Opposite of Shame”

  1. Shashi
    February 28, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Fantastic post, Mr. Steven. Would get anyone pumped!

  2. February 28, 2011 at 9:28 am

    I’ve always loved the story by Eric Haney about the Delta guy really afraid of jumping out of airplanes (a well founded fear to this ole Naval Aviator). When Haney asked him why he stayed with a unit requiring jump quals when as an obvious good soldier he could do well in other units, the trooper replied “I just like being around the kinda guys that like to do that kind of thing.”

  3. daniel-nyc
    February 28, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Amazing.

  4. February 28, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Steven,

    You’ve done it again. You made me blink.

    Jody

  5. March 1, 2011 at 1:56 am

    I disagree…the opposite of shame is not honour, maybe it is pride…if shame is all you have to motivate your troops, then it’s probably time to pack up the bongos and go home…And there is a lot more than hard living to create good soldiers or a noble culture…I look at also those who have voluntered from all around the world to risk their lives over the last week in an itty-bitty country down the bottom of the Pacific: I don’t think they do these things avoid shame, because they hard and hard austere upbringing or to be part of the team…sometimes you do things simply because they need doing…

    • USAFSOCOM
      March 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm

      The shame is not externelly induced, but raised INTERNALLY, and drives oneself on to achieve and accomplish to advance the betterment of ALL…difficult for thaose that have not served in elite units to understand…SHAME has it’s place

  6. Thomas
    March 1, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Beg to differ. If toughness was the decisive factor, we’d all be descendants of the Neanderthals ;o) There’s a reason it was homo SAPIENS that prevailed. American military might is based on hi-tech created by computer nerds and engineer eggheads. GPS is more powerful than grit these days. But, as Lao Tzu wrote long ago, it is only when something is going missing that it becomes a very important thing about which you talk a lot.

  7. March 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    @Thomas,
    Sorry, when all else fails (including GPS), I’ll take an 82nd, Navy Seal, or Marine by my side.
    Long live grit!

    • USAFSOCOM
      March 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm

      because we are quiet we are often forgotten, but CCT’s and PJ’s as well

  8. March 6, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    There is a story about George Washington, addressing the troops after the war. They had not been paid for their service, for years afterwards and were on the verge of toppling the government.
    Washington stepped to the podium, took out his notes and apologized as he searched for his glasses.
    “I have lost my sight in your service,” he said. Didn’t matter what he said after that, he owned them. They went home chastened.

  9. Sam Wilson
    March 31, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    2014