Timeless Concepts of War (and Steven Pressfield’s Brilliance)

King Leonidas struck me with one of his most philosophical, yet timelessly relateable speeches in Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire.”

“When a man seats before his eyes the bronze face of his helmet and steps off from the line of departure, he divides himself, as he divides his ‘ticket,’ in two parts. One part he leaves behind. That part which takes delight in his children, which lifts his voice in the chorus, which clasps his wife to him in the sweet darkness of their bed. That half of him, the best part, a man sets aside and leaves behind. He banishes from his heart all feelings of tenderness and mercy, all compassion and kindness, all thought or concept of the enemy as a man, a human being like himself. He marches into battle bearing only the second portion of himself, the baser measure, that half which knows slaughter and butchery and turns the blind eye to quarter. He could not fight at all if he did not do this.”

The men listened, silent and solemn. Leonidas at that time was fifty-five years old. He had fought in more than two score battles, since he was twenty; wounds as ancient as thirty years stood forth, lurid upon his shoulders and calves, on his neck and across his steel-colored beard.

“Then this man returns, alive, out of the slaughter. He hears his name called and comes forward to take his ticket. He reclaims that part of himself which he had earlier set aside. This is a holy moment. A sacramental moment. A moment in which a man feels the gods as close as his own breath. What unknowable mercy has spared us this day? What clemency of the divine has turned the enemy’s spear one handbreadth from our throat and driven it fatally into the breast of the beloved comrade at our side? Why are we still here above the earth, we who are no better, no braver, who reverenced heaven no more than these our brothers whom the gods have dispatched to hell? When a man joins the two pieces of his ticket and sees them weld in union together, he feels that part of him, the part that knows love and mercy and compassion, come flooding back over him. This is what unstrings his knees. What else can a man feel at that moment than the most grave and profound thanksgiving to the gods who, for reasons unknowable, have spared his life this day? Tomorrow their whim may alter. Next week, next year. But this day the sun still shines upon him, he feels its warmth upon his shoulders, he beholds about him the faces of his comrades whom he loves and he rejoices in their deliverance and his own.”

-Steven Pressfield, “Gates of Fire”

(Fun fact: Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire” was the inspiration for the comic “300”, which eventually turned into the movie of the same name that many of you may recognize).

What makes this passage so magical? It encompasses many themes that people in combat sports can relate to today.

No Sympathy in Battle

In combat sports and performance psychology, the principle of ebb and flow has been around for ages. The on and off switch. Calm versus Kill.

Ultimately, there is no sympathy in battle. Two people fight for their lives. It’s this paradox of something so personal, yet so detached. Of course, there aren’t many circumstances that feel more personal than fighting for your own life and the people you love. Yet, the forced detachment from knowing that your adversaries are also fighting for their own lives and also their own loved ones. The detachment in the thought, “It’s nothing personal. You’re in the way of what we’re trying to achieve as a nation, and we have no choice but to fight. We’ve decided to settle this forcefully, and the least I can do out of mutual respect is to give you time to raise your spear and get into your combat stance.”

Showing Weakness in Combat is a Fatal Mistake

Your Russian opponent won’t go easy on you just because it’s your birthday. Your Iranian opponent won’t apply any less pressure on that underhook just because you have an extensive history of shoulder injuries. Such is war. After all, they’ve poured their heart and soul into this pursuit, too. At the end of the day, only one competitor gets that Olympic gold medal or the championship belt. There is an unspoken mutual understanding that in order to achieve your own dreams, you effectively have to kill off someone else’s. Within their own minds, the stakes are high. Win, you live. Lose, you die.

Fighters in any combat sports understand this too well. Any sign of weakness or vulnerability could be the razor thin margin between a clutch victory or a heartbreaking defeat. Leave your compassion at home. When you step onto the canvas, into the octagon, or onto the elevated mats, you look for nothing less than your next win. To give anything less is to disrespect your opponent by not allowing him a chance to earn his hard-fought victory, to disrespect your coaches and training partners for not showing the results of their support, and to disrespect the people who love you by denying them a chance to see you at your very best.

In reality, of course, this is watered down to a lower stakes environment in combat sports. Both of you are leaving that arena alive. All that matters is to win at all cost within the rules (and in some cases for some people, play in that gray area between what’s legal and what isn’t).

Uncertainty of War and How to Handle It

Leonidas’ speech also captures the uncertainty of war. In a way, it’s similar to what you witness in combat sports today. It’s not over until the final bell rings or the last whistle is blown. After all, it could be over in an instant. The judoka scoring the blindingly-quick match-ending ippon to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The boxer who delivers a match-ending liver shot in the tenth round after being knocked down by a straight right to the face. The wrestler scoring a clutch takedown in the closing seconds of the match to win by a tiny margin. It happens. No one is truly safe, and no competitor truly invincible.

How do we handle this uncertainty? Through gratitude in life. Appreciating the small things. Things come and go, and the same apply for a career in combat sports. Fighters age in dog years. You are one career-ending injury away from retirement. You are one life-changing circumstance away from not performing at your best. Some days, your full effort is not enough. What’s left? The things you can feel grateful for.

Maybe it’s gratitude for the experience. Gratitude that comes with the rare opportunity to represent your country. Gratitude for the addicting, captivating, and fulfilling sensation of being in pursuit of an ultimate purpose. Gratitude that within every heated moment lies an opportunity for self discovery, self expression, and self reinvention.

You can feel gratitude for the seemingly small things, too. The camaraderie you feel from your teammates’ laughter at the dinner table. The satisfaction of knowing how far you’ve come in giving your full effort despite how the circumstances may play out. The profound love and understanding you see in your significant other’s eyes after a heartbreaking loss that silently tells you, “It’s okay. Your loss doesn’t make you a lesser man. I love you, and we’ll get through this together.”

We’re All Human

Finally, Leonidas speaks of the humanity in war. Behind every battle or war are the human beings that fight them. Every competitor is a human being. They love their friends and families. They pour their heart and soul into what they love to do. They wear clothes, they breathe, they eat, they sleep, and they laugh. Despite the brutality of it all, the mutual respect that comes from an understanding of mutual suffering runs deep. They know just how far you had to go to get to where you are now. After all, on the grand scheme of things, they had to walk a similar path. After all is said and done, you hug, shake hands, capture once-in-a-lifetime memories through photos, and return to what you affectionately call home.

The 300 Spartans at the Gates of Fire shared such a timeless and relatable moment leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae. Steven Pressfield, a true master of his craft, amazingly succeeded in capturing all of this in one speech.


Originally published at chayoot.blog on October 8, 2018.