Spartans, Traitors, and Terrorists| Dr. Jose Yulo | August 14, 2006
"'Tell me, Lord,' he said, 'what brings you here'...'The doom of choice,' said Aragorn. 'You may say this to Theoden son of Thengel: open war lies before him, with Sauron or against him. None may live now as they have lived, and few shall keep what they call their own.'" -- J. R. R. Tolkien
A Roman senator would never dream of defecting to an enemy in the hope of rising to power in a future, defeated Rome." -- Adrian Goldsworthy
The recently foiled plot to explode passenger airliners over the Atlantic, effectively murdering hundreds -- if not thousands -- of civilians, served to soberly remind the civilized world of the nature of its adversary. The British government, only one month from the tragic anniversary of having its subways struck by terror, sprang to its nation's defense by arresting a score of homegrown Al Qaeda aspirants. The British people themselves, descendants of sturdy folk who took all Hitler could throw at them and more, went on with their day's travels inconvenienced, but unbowed.
In the United States, restrictions were likewise placed on air travel, while a more general, severe terrorism warning went into effect. Interestingly, just one full day after an ecstatic "netroots" blog community celebrated the upending of hawkish Senator Joseph Lieberman in favor of a more anti-war candidate and approach, these voices chirped little in response to the scheme's curtailment. Instead, must that was said went along the lines of the United States eliciting such attacks because of its policies in the Middle East. Thus, such logic runs, if only the stubborn West acquiesced to the Islamists' pathos, all would be right again in the world. The similarities of this mindset to what buoyed Chamberlain to Munich have been well addressed by this point. Nonetheless, it never ceases to amaze how factions within civilizations can possess either the self-loathing or incoherence to the degree that allows them to, as Robert Frost opined, side against themselves in a quarrel.
What of this quarrel? Taken at its face value, it is one of a militant Islamic sect against the United States and the United Kingdom. The airliners were en route from London to the east and west coasts of the United States. It was primarily a coalition of these two nations that defeated both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Yet, upon further review from a distance (which encourages less opaque hindsight), various Islamist factions have struck at targets beyond Manhattan and London. The Bali bombings, along with attacks on African nations, point to a larger paradigm that renders the conventional wisdom of this topic as simply a "police matter" moot. Yes, this conflict is one that involves Islamic militancy and western democracies. This notwithstanding is sadly only the latest of such clashes between East and West. These battles are not merely regional or hemispheric struggles, but ones involving philosophies divorced from each other and having their origins in mankind's early past.
The earliest of these conflagrations began officially on the Greek plains of Marathon during the Greco-Persian Wars, where an Athenian hoplite army routed Darius of Persia's forces in 490 B.C. In fact, over the course of a decade, this struggle would not only define Greece's national ethos but enabled this same land to birth the ideal of an infant West. Perhaps no other more memorable moment existed in the tome of the Greco-Persian Wars than that of the hallowed Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. In this classic encounter, several thousand Greeks, with a vanguard of three hundred Spartans under King Leonidas, faced the impossible task of holding off the Persian King Xerxes and his assembled host of over two hundred thousand men. The delineations of East and West were unmistakable under the hot August sun.
Militarily, the Greeks fought in close, phalanx formation, while the Persians attempted attacks en masse with their vastly more numerous, but less unified force. Distinct in this was that Leonidas, though one of Sparta's two sitting kings, fought at the very front of his men's formation.
Xerxes, in contrast, sat in an elevated position far removed from the crush of bronze and blood. In total, the battle would last three days until the time when a fellow Greek chose Persian gold over loyalty to his people. Leading Xerxes' forces around a secret path behind the Spartans, Ephialtes the traitor allows Leonidas and his men to be slaughtered by bow and arrow. It is not coincidental today that Ephialtes in modern Greek means "nightmare." A year after the battle Greece, inspired by Leonidas' stand, won dual encounters at Salamis and Plataea, effectively ending further Persian invasions.
However, it was the reasons for fighting at Thermopylae which truly defined a demarcation of cultures and philosophies. Persia at this period in history was the great world power. Its land holdings were so great as to have members of its army swarm from a host of separate provinces under Xerxes' throne. Though it was possible to rise to a position of wealth and influence in this culture, in the end, one was merely a vassal of the king. A story was told by Herodotus of one of Xerxes' generals who asked the king to spare his son from joining the campaign against Greece. Xerxes agreed he would share the general's son with him. He then had the son split asunder in keeping with his ruling.
Sparta was a unique case amongst the Greeks. It was arguably the least free of the Greek city states. Spartan society was an oligarchy where ten thousand "equals" ruled over a vast underclass of serfs, or "helots." Leonidas was aware in the lead up to Thermopylae that a prophecy ordained that only a Spartan king's death would stem the coming Persian tide. Willingly, and along with his three hundred personal bodyguards, he went to fight and die at Thermopylae.
Freedom and slavery are at the core of this timeless clash. Although Sparta knew full well it would never be like liberated Athens (nor did it desire to be), it knew that what Xerxes and Persia brought in their wake of Greek conquest was a far worse alternative.
The Islamists who would perpetrate attacks of mayhem and carnage today have much in common with this dread option. Their utopian caliphate vision conscripts young men who relish the idea of dying, not as the Greeks for an elevated ideal, but for the incongruity of carnal knowledge in an ethereal afterlife. Thus, whereas Xerxes enslaved his minions by fear, the terror overlords feed the lusts of men as a path to their perversion of martyrdom. In this latter case, terrorists are slaves to their own desires, consequently to themselves. The Greeks would regard this as one of the most pathetic of captivities.
There is more complexity with the position the West is in today, pit reluctantly against a savage, though familiar, adversary. Greece was a small confederacy of city states, loosely held together by simmering, yet potent, ideas. These, though appearing inconsequential next to Xerxes' army, inevitably vanquished a physically superior foe. The modern West manifests a mixed response to this threat, from withdrawal and appeasement by socialist Spain, to tenacious confrontation by the United States and United Kingdom. Indeed it does seem that the latter two nations stand without too many allies in these dark times -- a fitting homage to Leonidas and his three hundred.
Albeit enjoying a current and overt physical advantage over Islamic terrorism, the West may still find itself undermined as Thermopylae was by Ephialtes. The traitor, accounts state, was previously scorned by Spartans, which fueled his act of self-perceived vengeance. In truth, many homegrown dissident groups in the West appear unknowingly neutral and even sympathetic to an age-old foe simply because of grievances with the prevailing powers of their own culture. As if these actions would make them seem to share solidarity with Islamic fascism, and hence more worldly and "anti-establishment," they apparently remain ignorant of the reality that terrorists detest them more than their less cosmopolitan fellow citizens.
To a human predator, a stern foe is just that, even something to be admired. But one who has no belief in himself and his people, indirectly or directly leading the path behind Thermopylae, receives damnation as well as the sword.
Today, the danger faced by the West and the rest of civilization is unique. Unlike the Greeks, there will be few if any decisive battles such as Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, where Islamic fascism meet decisive defeat. Unfortunately, this enemy prefers hurting others, instead of outright fighting. Oftentimes, terrorists strike and then scurry behind rock, building, or far worse, women and children. This alone should be self-evident proof of the absurdity of moral equivalence professed by many western elites. Dealing with such tactics and enemies will not only require perseverance, but time as well.
What is indispensable in this is that some nation or people take up Leonidas' mantle and stand its ground against this malevolence. There will always be many in the mold of Ephialtes. But it was the Spartan king's actions that granted the freedom the West possesses to this day, the luxury of freely criticizing itself. This is a luxury that, because of their nature, Islamic fascists will never know, even as they opportunistically manipulate it in others.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
Plato's Ring in the Sudan: How Freedom Begets Isolation of the Soul | Dr. Jose Yulo
The Echo of Melos: How Ancient Honor Unmasks Islamic Terror | Dr. Jose Yulo
The Temptation of the Earthly City: Tolkien's Augustinian Vision | Dr. Jose Yulo
Martyrs and Suicide Bombers | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The One War, The Real War | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Wars Without Violence? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization, United States history, and public speaking at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. Originally from Manila in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien.
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