FRESNO, CA -- Well, I did it, took one for the team, jumped on the grenade, offered my belly to the bayonets--in other words, sat through 300, the comic-book movie about Thermopylae. The only reason this thing got made is that it makes good anti-Iran propaganda, because as every war fan knows, at Thermopylae "300 brave Spartans held off the entire Persian army."
Zack Snyder's movie is the "Hoo-ah!" version of this story. Every time the Spartan king Leonidas makes a "rousing speech," his warriors yell "Hoo-ah!" like the Rangers in Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down. Actually the Spartans had a rep for silence, but we're not dealing with great historical minds here.
What had me really wanting to puke is that this movie tries to make Sparta into some kind of Land of Hallmark Card-givers. There's about an hour's worth of perfume-ad scenes where Leonidas and his lovey-dovey wife, a feisty lady in one of those bondage-lite Greek dresses, cuddle and make eyes at each other and say patriotic stuff by way of foreplay. Yeah, that's why you see those bumperstickers, "Sparta was for lovers."
Fact: Sparta was about as romantic as North Korea. Give or take a little egalitarianism, Sparta WAS North Korea. Spartan laws did everything they could to break down the family. Sparta was more anti-nuclear family than any Hollywood liberal could ever be.
Wanna know what a Spartan wedding night was really like? It's pretty hilarious, in an insane way. As soon as a Spartan girl got her first period, they grabbed her, shaved her head, dressed her as a boy, threw her down on her new husband's bed, and then, well, he had his way with her. What way was that? Since hubby had been in an all-male dorm since age seven, I'm betting that that night of lovin' was more like a skinny white boy's introduction to San Quentin after lights-out than it was like a chick flick. So when this movie shows the Spartan hero saying to his wife, "Goodbye, my love," I just had to laugh.
No Spartan ever told his wife he loved her. That would've been like treason, because the Spartan rulers wanted family ties snapped, so the only bond left was to the state. They left room for folks' natural urges by letting the women drink, which they did non-stop, and the men form what you might call close comradely bonds with their fellow soldiers.
In the ancient world, gay was a matter of who was on top. If you were a topper, that was fine; if you were the one getting in the ass, not so cool. In other words, prison rules. Sparta's leather-bar ways were a running joke to the ancient Greeks. The Spartans were stone killers - but they also preened like teenage girls before a battle. They grew their hair long, and before a fight they'd comb it, oil it, try out fetching new styles, put little baubles in their ears, anything to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.
None of that in this movie. Just the opposite. The script even has Leonidas taunt the Athenians calling them "boy-lovers." Athens, the true hero of the war against Persia, gets dissed time and again in this movie. You won't hear a word in 300 about Salamis, the real decisive battle of the war - because it was Athens, not Sparta, that destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis. The Spartans wanted to run away from the Persian fleet and wall themselves off in the Peloponnese (you wouldn't believe how many times I've messed up the spelling on that damn word). They didn't have a clue about combined-arms operations (which the Athenians handled durn well). In fact, the Spartans, who are called "the finest soldiers in history" over and over in this movie, were a mediocre, one-dimensional, inflexible military force.
Sparta understood only one kind of fighting: land battle, the hoplite shield-wall - a Big Ten offense from the old school, "three yards and a cloud of dust." In any shield-wall vs. shield wall battle, the bigger offensive line will break the opposing team's wall, leaving them open to massed spear thrusts. Once the opposition's wall was broken, the citizen-soldiers would scatter to fight another day - a totally sensible reaction, since the alternative was annihilation. In battles like that, psycho varsity offensive-line types like the ones Sparta bred did just fine. But vary the conditions of battle in any way, and they were as helpless as Woody Hayes' Ohio State teams were against a team that could stop the run.
So it was actually fairly easy to stymie the Spartans: just put them in a situation where they had to think for themselves. Imagine a Spartan army up against a Mongol scouting force. Even if the Spartans outnumbered the Mongols by, say, 4-1, I'd have no hesitation betting on the Mongols. They were truly tough, not artificially hardened by sick PE games but by life in the saddle, on the steppes. And they were smart enough to realize that smarts count on the battlefield, that negotiation and alliance-building, scouting and propaganda are all important aspects of war. Only amateurs are dumb enough to think that being dumb, mean and inflexible like the Spartans is the route to military success.
The Thebans under a really brilliant general, Epaminondas, crushed the Spartans in the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.) because Epaminondas just plain out-thought those lummoxes. He knew exactly how the Spartans would stack their forces in battle order, because they always did it the same way. So he tinkered with the conventional phalanx-stacking set-up and those Thebans, most of them ordinary Greek citizen-soldiers, mere amateurs by Spartan standards, kicked Spartan ass right down the line. The Helots, the locals the Spartans had enslaved and terrorized for generations, finally got a chance for payback and Sparta withered away to nothing. Game over.
Only amateur fascists admire Sparta guys; they're still pissed off because people like me dared to warn them the Iraq war was going to be a disaster. Now the neocons have gone so over the deep end of delusional thinking that they've resorted to fantasizing about Sparta, where nobody ever argued, where everyone yelled and stabbed and otherwise kept their mouths shut.
It's downright hilarious the way this movie punishes every smart character. Every time someone wants to argue with the war party in this movie, he's evil. Everybody who talks in a normal tone of voice is evil. Snyder shows two scenes where the Spartans murder Persian envoys arriving under a flag of truce. And both times, you're supposed to cheer.
Since when do Americans cheer when truce parties are murdered? Well, that's pretty easy to answer, actually: since Iraq. These diehard neocons have gone insane because there's no way they can argue for an invasion of Iran any more. But they still want it, bad. So they've taken a crash course in fascism, jumping all the way to cheering for Sparta and booing for Athens - because Athens stands for brains and flexibility and talking things out. They can't win the argument, so they want to kill anybody who tries to argue. That's why Leonidas kicks the Persian envoy down a well.
The film only approves of two things:
I say "bashing" because you can't call his view of military operations "strategy" or even "tactics." It's just close-ups of Leonidas's teeth while he yells about "freedom." He talks about "freedom" non-stop. I'm serious. A Spartan! Talking about freedom! Leonidas actually says, and this is a quote, "Freedom isn't free"! I thought I was back watching Team America: "Freedom isn't free/It costs a dollar ninety-three..."
And since the ham playing Leonidas has this thick Scottish accent, and teeth like an old horse, it was like some Clydesdale doing an impression of Mel Gibson in Braveheart at the same time. Left me woozy, I tell ya.
But here's what's really interesting about Leonidas's "freedom" speeches: every one happens just after he's thrown some envoy down a well or stabbed somebody who advocates talking strategy. That's the real fantasy here: wouldn't it be great if we could just yell "Hoo-ah!" non-stop and just kill the naysayers? You can almost see the pitiful dweebs behind this movie jacking off every time his musclebound Spartan hero kills another envoy or politician. That'll shut'em up!
Well, it might be fun but it's not war, fellas. If there's one thing we shoulda learned from Iraq, it's that in asymmetrical war, the following items are totally useless, in fact worse than useless, because they get in the way:
3. killing anybody who points out the flaws in your plan.
Contrary to what amateur fascists think, the really successful military elites encourage discussion, train mid-rank officers to react independently, and discourage yelling, steroid use and macho bullshit in general. Hell, even the Wehrmacht was filled with calm, polite and cultured men. We could use a few of them now.
Petraeus seems kind of like that, but by this time the situation's so awful I'm not sure how much he can do. At least maybe it'll shut up all the "Hoo-ah!" jocks, make them realize they're not fit for theater command, and get them back to their true calling: coaching high-school football. In this movie's case, Junior Varsity.