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.
“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.]