I’ve just finished Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, a novel about the Battle of Thermopylae that is far more faithful to history than the stunning film, 300. The story is told from the vantage point of a single survivor, who has been kept alive by the Persian King Xerxes to understand his Greek foes, in particular the 300 Spartans who served as the backbone of the coastal passage’s defenders. Pressfield brings several characters to life, investing the reader not only in their fates, but in their legacies, for the ideals of honor, love for family and country, and brotherly devotion infuse the book. Here is a platoon commander speaking to his men before the final assault, when they know they will be overwhelmed on all sides by the Persian hordes:
“Here is what you do, friends. Forget country. Forget king. Forget wife and children and freedom. Forget every concept, however noble, that you imagine you fight for here today. Act for this alone: for the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him.”
I wholeheartedly recommend this book, especially to those of you who enjoy historical military fiction (e.g., Michael Shaara’s outstanding Killer Angels). But you don’t have to be a battle buff to appreciate this novel, which draws you into the stories of its characters, even as you know (or think you know) to what fate each is being led. The protagonist Xeones’s lecture to the Persian King about what a real king does is itself worth the price of the book (I’ll give you a small taste here):
“A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him.”
Replace king with pastor, CEO, or — dare one say it — U.S. President, and perhaps this lesson extends beyond royalty. But if we took it to heart, how many self-styled “leaders” would warrant replacement?
And with whom would we replace them?