Steven Pressfield is the bestselling author of several novels on ancient Greece.
In Gates of Fire (1998) he celebrated the immortal battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held at bay a vastly superior Persian army for three days.
In Tides of War (2000) he re-fought the ancient world’s 25-year version of the Cold War between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta.
In The Virtues of War (2004) he chronicled the military career of Alexander the Great–through the eyes of the conqueror himself.
And in The Afghan Campaign (2006) he accompanied Alexander’s army as it waged a vicious, three-year counterinsurgency war against native Afghans.
Besides being an amateur historian of armed conflict, Pressfield is a former Marine. His novel, Gates of Fire, has been adopted by the Marine Corps as required reading.
So Pressfield knows something about the art–and horrors–of war. And about the decline of heroism in the modern age.
Consider the events of November 9, 2012.
On that date, General David Petraeus suddenly resigned his position as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He had held this just slightly more than a year.
The reason: The revelation of–and his admission to–an extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, the woman who had written an admiring biography of him called All In.
Ironically, this happened to be the same day that “Skyfall”–the latest James Bond film–opened nationwide.
Since Bond made his first onscreen appearance in 1962’s “Dr. No,” England’s most famous spy has bedded countless women. And has become internationally famous as the ultimate ladykiller.
It seems that real-life doesn’t quite work the same way.
What is permitted–and even celebrated–in a fictional spy is not treated the same way in the real world of espionage.
Prior to this, Petraeus had been the golde n boy of the American Army–the best-known and most revered general since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The man who
- had given 37 years of his life to protecting the nation;
- had rewritten the book on how to fight counterinsurgency wars;
- had turned around the stagnated war in Iraq;
- had presided over the winding down of the war in Afghanistan.
As President Barack Obama put it:
“General Petraeus had an extraordinary career. He served this country with great distinction in Iraq, in Afghanistan and as head of the CIA.
“I want to emphasize that from my perspective, at least, he has provided this country an extraordinary service. We are safer because of the work that Dave Petraeus has done.
“And my main hope right now is that he and his family are able to move on and that this ends up being a single side note on what has otherwise been an extraordinary career.”
It’s why Pressfield candidly admits he prefers the ancient world to the present:
“If I’m pressed to really think about the question, I would answer that what appeals to me about the ancient world as opposed to the modern is that the ancient world was pre-Christian, pre-Freudian, pre-Marxist, pre-consumerist, pre-reductivist.
“It was grander, it was nobler, it was simpler. You didn’t have the notion of turn-the-other-cheek. You had Oedipus but you didn’t have the Oedipus complex. It was political but it was not politically correct.”
To illustrate what he meant, Pressfield cited this passage from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, on how ancient-world politics took on its own tone of McCarthyism:
To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member.
To think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward. Any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character.
Ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.
As if speaking on the ongoing scandal involving David Petraeus, Pressfield states:
“Our age has been denatured. The heroic has been bled out of it.
“The callings of the past–the profession of arms, the priesthood, the medical and legal professions, politics, the arts, journalism, education, even motherhood and fatherhood–every one has been sullied and degraded by scandal after scandal.
“We’re hard up for heroes these days, and even harder up for conceiving ourselves in that light. That’s why I’m drawn to the ancient world. It’s truer, in my view, to how we really are.
“The ancient world has not been reductified and deconstructed as ours has; it has not been robbed of all dignity. They had heroes then. There was such a thing, truly, as the Heroic Age. Men like Achilles and Leonidas really did exist.
“There was such a thing, truly, as heroic leadership. Alexander the Great did not command via satellite or remote control; he rode into battle at the head of his Companion cavalry; he was the first to strike the foe.”
Today, generals stationed thousands of miles from the front command armies. Andthey face more danger from heart attacks than from dying in the heat of battle.