Raising timeless issues concerning military leadership, training, and values, Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire presents a portrayal of the heroic and desperate stand of three hundred Spartans and their allies against the Persian army at Thermopylae during 480 B. C. Pressfield described the delaying tactic employed by the Spartans that enabled them to defeat the invading Persians at the battles of Salamis and Platea. Compared to the usual accounts regarding the aforementioned battle, Pressfield’s account proves to be of great significance as he explores and elucidates on the issues surrounding the participation in war.
One of these issues involves the consideration of a warrior’s humanity in his participation within a battle. A conflict exists in terms of considering a warrior’s stance as peacemaker and aggressor within a battle. Such a paradox is evident if one considers that modern military missions blend traditional combat objectives with humanitarian goals hence a soldier/warrior is continually situated within a location wherein he enables the achievement of peace through violent means.
Besides upholding a dual role within the battle field, the soldier/warrior must further enable a transition after the battle which involves the transition from a combatant to a civilian. Both transitions require the possession of courage since as Pressfield’s Leonidas states, to live dual lives necessitates the capability to hold one’s self as one reunites “the part that knows love and mercy and compassion” to the part that holds the opposites of such traits (1998, p. 132).
Pressfield notes that it is, in fact, a warrior’s courage that enables him to survive during the battle. This is evident; if one considers that the conceptualization of courage serves as the unifying thread of the novel. At the onset, courage was perceived by the characters as “the opposite of fear” (Pressfield, 1998, 264). Fear, in this sense, is conceived as fear of an impending death within the battlefield. Such a conception of fear is highly individualistic since one merely perceives of the self’s well being within the battlefield.
Furthermore, such a conception fails to cohere with the general goal of the aforementioned battle since it disassociates the self from the end goal of the battle. In relation to this, Dienekes states that such a conception fails to consider that “to call it fearlessness, is without meaning” since “this is just a name, thesis expressed as antithesis” (Pressfield, 1998, 265). In the later part of the novel, the conception of courage was presented by Suicide. Suicide relates courage with the ability “to extinguish the selfish self within” in order to “fight for his brothers” (Pressfield, 1998, p. 78).
Courage is thereby correlated with an individual’s love for his brothers. Suicide states that nobility is achieved when a warrior fights not for glory nor for life preservation but for his comrades (Pressfield, 1998, p. 379). It is important to note that Suicide is a non-Spartan slave. His position as a slave deprived of rights towards his freedom and hence his self and identity as well as his possession of a different nationality enables him to be the mouthpiece of the novel’s conception of courage.
Such a portrayal of courage wherein courage is perceived as the ability to fight for love [of one’s country and one’s people] enables the novel to be contained within the title Gates of Fire. The gate alluded to within the title refers to the Spartans who held the narrow passage of Thermopylae. Fire, on the other hand, refers to the fiery resolve of those who courageously stood on that narrow passage in order to defend their brothers, their family, as well as their country.
The novel closes with the famous inscription that serves as the most vivid account of the Spartan heroes’ battle at Thermopylae. The inscription states, “go tell Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to the law we lie” (Pressfield, 1998, p. 440). The ethical, in this sense, as perceived through the moral refers to the Spartan’s adherence to the moral code [the code of courage] in order to achieve their goal.