Early in the Ukraine war, there were reports about the death of Vladimir Zhoga, a Russian commander in the Donbass. Later they reported that Ukrainian defense forces killed Russian Maj. Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky in combat. In both cases, it was widely reported that these men led units called “Spartan” divisions. Another high profile Russian commander was killed later in the week and he was also linked to the mysterious “Spartan” division.
Typical of the American media, the reports were mostly copy supplied by the State Department, filled in with fantasy from the media. Zhoga was a separatist leader, not a member of the Russian military. His unit was called the Sparta battalion. The others were Russian military, but they were not Spartans. What is interesting about this is the fact that the State Department focused on the word “Sparta” in their copy. Oddly, Sparta looms large in the imagination of the foreign policy elite.
It is a weird aspect of the present age that a society that fashions itself as the new Athens has a Sparta complex. College sports teams have long used the Spartan image and the name itself. Fantasy writers and video game creators like the image of the heroic and stoic Spartans. There have been books and movies about Thermopylae, all focused on what is considered the greatest last stand in history. There is something compelling about Sparta for modern Americans.
The fact is though, America is modeled on Athens, the great antagonist of the Spartans and the loser of the Peloponnesian War. In the mythology of America, the Spartan side is wearing the black hat. They are the great danger, the thing against which democracy organizes against. Modern politicians do not go around talking about the things we associate with Sparta, but rather the things we associate with Athens. They are fixated on our democracy and our freedom.
Despite this, Hollywood has not seen fit to product movies that celebrate Pericles or even Marathon. The reason we know about Thermopylae is it makes for a compelling story, but it was not particularly significant militarily. The truth is it was Athenian tactical brilliance and determination that beat back the Persian hordes. The Spartans never showed up for the battle of Marathon, where the heavily outnumbered Athenians defeated the Persians in 490 BC.
The closest we get in popular culture to celebrating Athens over Sparta is in the old Westerns from the golden age of Hollywood. A regular feature of these films was the conflict between civilization and the frontier culture. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we get the relationship between Wayne, the Spartan man of honor, and Stewart, the Athenian man of words. The two men are locked in a fight with a violent criminal who represents the disorder of the frontier.
Even in the Westerns, it is never clear who is the good side of the relationship and who is the bad side of it. Back then the audience was more sophisticated so they could appreciate the ambiguity. There was an understanding that it took a combination of those two sides of man in order to make society possible. You needed the stoic warrior who lived by a code. You also needed the man of rules and words to supply the structure of a society so people can live.
In those old Westerns, it is not an accident that the big star, often John Wayne, would be given the role as the stoic gunfighter. The filmmakers knew that deep in the soul of every man is the desire to be the stoic man of honor, the guy who uses force to impose order on the world. Even if the task required the sacrifice of the man himself, the clarity was superior to a life of ambiguity. At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart seems to acknowledge this truth.
This is why the Ukrainians have been cast as brave and honorable defenders of their country and culture. The fact that the people writing this narrative have spent the last generation telling us that there is no such thing as countries or cultures speaks to the power of this old Spartan image. The honor of the Russians is never mentioned, because in this story they are the Persians. They are an alien, inhuman force that exists to test the resolve of humanity and society.
Of course, in the larger narrative that animates the Global American Empire, the Russians are the Spartans, the bad guys in the drama. America is the new Athens, the city on the hill, a light to all nations. The State Department is now flooding Europe with weapons in order to defend civilization from the barbarian horde. They hope to turn the Ukraine into Afghanistan. They will make those people pay any price, bear any burden, in order to play out this fantasy.
You cannot help but wonder if what drives the neoconservatives who run the foreign policy of the Global American Empire is envy. Violence is completely alien to them, as they have spent their lives in the academy. They have never even been in a confrontation in which something they value is on the line. From a distance, they admire the people who they relentlessly attack. Perhaps under it all is the insecurity of men who have never tried to live as men.
Regardless, it is one of the least appreciated aspects of the current age. The long shadow of the Peloponnesian War is still with us. The world now stands closer to nuclear annihilation than it has since the Cuban missile crisis and it is because the people running the Global American Empire are haunted by a conflict within the soul of the West that dates to the birth of the West. The inability to square these two aspects of Western man is what could destroy him.
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