MARINE CORPS BASE, CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii --
When today’s warriors read “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield, they may have a sense of pride well up inside them. Why?
Not many would understand exactly why, except, perhaps, a Marine: the proud history and traditions that make us who we are relate so closely to the Spartans as they were depicted in the book. They were fierce warriors fighting for the brother on their left and right.
Marines have many things in common with the Spartan warriors who lived 2,500 years ago.
Pressfield’s book describes war heroes like King Leonidas, Dienekes and Polynikes who Spartans would revere and tell stories of to future soldiers. The Marines have heroes like Chesty Puller, John Basilone and recent Medal of Honor recipient Jason Dunham.
“Gates of Fire” is a novel of the Battle of Thermopylae and what led up to it – where a brave few stood against many. The story is told from the perspective of a helot, or slave, who was the sole survivor.
The battle was fought by the Spartan and Greek coalition forces against the Persians, led by King Xerxes and his multitude of soldiers.
In the book, Xerxes was so amazed by the fierceness and courage of the Spartan’s fighting that he assigned his personal surgeons to keep the helot alive to tell their story.
According to Herodotus, a Greek historian from that time period, 300 Spartans and their allies faced a Persian army of two million men marching to enslave all of Greece and continue to Europe.
The Greeks knew, being so greatly outnumbered, they were marching to their deaths. But, they also knew delaying their enemy might save a nation from tyranny.
In the book Leonidas said, “In years 600, no Spartan woman has beheld the smoke of the enemy’s fires. By … all the gods and heroes who defend Lakedaemon and by the blood of my own flesh, I swear that our wives and daughters, our sisters and mothers, will not behold those fires now.”
The Marines are no different when fighting to protect their country. Their love for country and their brothers in arms closely resembles the Spartans.
The Spartans verbally display this patriotism and brotherly love in a creed much like the Marine Corps Rifleman’s Creed.
This is my shield.
I bear it before me into battle,
But it is not mine alone.
It protects my brother on my left.
It protects my city.
I will never let my brother out of its shadow,
nor my city out of its shelter.
I will die with my shield before me
facing the enemy.
The Spartans also have their pride, and fierceness toward the enemy. Chesty Puller’s quote, “We’re surrounded. Well, that simplifies the problem,” is easily compared to Dienekes attitude when he responded to a passerby who was knowledgeable about the Persians military strength.
The man said the Persians have so many archers that with their arrows they could blot out the sun. Dienekes responded, “Good. Then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”
This book mirrors the Marine Corps’ history of fighting in wars when facing insurmountable odds, and the Spartans’ training as children could remind devil dogs of their time in boot camp.
It’s inspirational and teaches courage and leadership. It’s on the Commandant’s Reading List for a reason.