The Corner

The Dangers of Education

I. Presidential aspirant Mike Gravel recently opined on the advantages of having gays in the military:  “…the Spartans trained their people to be homosexuals because they were better fighters.”

Not quite.

I think the popular myth that has fooled Gravel has arisen lately because of the movie 300 — and the  natural confusion between the Spartan 300 who died holding the pass at Thermopylai (480 BC) and the 300 of the Theban Sacred Band (378-338 BC).

The Spartans did not instruct their youth to be homosexuals (no word really exists in the Greek vocabulary for our notion of homosexual). Xenophon (Lac. Pol. 2.13), for example, insisted that the older males in the army were specifically not to engage in physical relations with their younger warrior-pages (paidika).

And if in reality some hoplite soldiers occasionally did engage in what we would call gay sex, in Sparta or elsewhere, the practice was analogous to the protocols of the modern prison in the absence of women: physical relationships were loosely defined among those interested as an active older male and a younger male that served as a surrogate female.

In general, most Greeks thought that male sexual passivity was shameful, as was exclusively male sex, as were those who appeared outwardly feminine.

The closest the classical Greek world of the polis came to Gravel’s notion of an idealized gay warrior cult was in Thebes, where the 300 aristocrats (150 pairs of “lovers”) of the Sacred Band fought often at the acme of the phalanx-a very small cadre (perhaps less than 2-3% of the Boiotian army) that was predicated on class and philosophically idealized. 

But even here we are not quite sure what actually was the relationship between eromenoi (“beloved”) and erastai (“lovers”) in this tiny clique; it might not necessarily have even been physical.

So in general, the Spartans most certainly did not train their soldiers to be homosexuals.

II. Just saw an eerie tape of a smiling Prof. John Mearsheimer (“A very small percentage of the American casualties is due to the Iranians” and “Iran is not responsible in any meaningful way for our trouble in Iraq”) expounding on Iran and the bomb at the recent Daily Kos convention.

I say eerie since he gave a brief excursus on Persian philology and why we have been hoodwinked into thinking that Ahmadinejad said something to the effect that Israel should be wiped off the map.

But aside from the ongoing dispute between Persian scholars over the proper translation, to dwell on that point is to ignore the serial assertions (and reasons for such assertions) by Ahmadinejad that there was no Holocaust, and the far scarier announcement not long ago by Rafsanjani that “the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam.”

Mearsheimer then followed almost immediately with a disclaimer that even if Ahmadinejad did actually say what he just had insisted he didn’t say, that it was a mere “idle threat.”

But “idle” for whom, a mere 60 years after the Holocaust?

Even worse was his moral equivalence of arguing that it is de facto permissible for Iran to have a bomb since Israel has one too-as if an anti-American theocracy run according to Sharia Law is no more a nuclear threat than a pro-American liberal democracy  

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