Societies possessing a robust and realistic attitude toward intoxication have produced mightier warriors than those which censure consumption.

This is true pretty much from the dawn of recorded history forward. In addition to alcohol’s undeniably positive effects (i.e. stimulating pleasure centers and aiding in relaxation) it has the nifty ability to boost bravado or, to borrow from Mick Foley, increase “testicular fortitude.” Having these qualities in abundance is most helpful if the occasion arises when a stranger wishes to circumvent your future by impaling your present on a spear or ventilating it with fully-automatic notices of eviction. Soldiers have traditionally used alcohol to stoke their internal furnaces before, during, and after battle. Among the oldest examples of this booze-fueling is found in the ancient Peloponnesian kingdom of Sparta.

Sparta, a male-dominated Greek city-state, organized itself around warfare. To become a full citizen, or “peer,” required men to serve a minimum of six years as a soldier. Valued servants and slaves (outlanders, not eligible for peerage) functioned as squires, attendants and rear-guard enforcers. Women — wives and daughters — tended wounds, and kept their warriors’s equipment in order, allowing men the freedom to train for up to twelve hours a day.

A Spartan warrior was conditioned from youth to withstand, and even relish, extreme levels of pain, and to transform it into single-minded aggression. Yet even with such extreme conditioning, Spartan men, like most combatants, were susceptible to fits of terror amidst the bloodletting. As an antidote for fear, the Spartans used wine.

Spartan soldiers routinely took wine (the Greek product was far stronger than what we drink today) before exchanging punctures with the enemy. The famous Spartan phalanx, a plow blade of interlocked, man-high shields, a-bristle with eight-foot spears, and emitting a dazzling light from its polished bronze helmets and armor, stiffened itself with wine, creating a fermentation-induced backbone. It sparked terror and chaos from one end of the Greek world to the other. Spartan armies, composed of dozens of phalanxes, kicked more ass than a cranky mineral prospector. Nowhere was this more demonstrable than during the most legendary and brutal Spartan military clash, the Battle of Thermopylae.

In 480 BC, the Persian emperor, Xerxes, checked his calendar and found he had nothing planned for the next few years. As such, he decided to invade Greece and help himself to its goodies. The Hellenic Greeks were wealthy, comfortable and relaxed, facts which convinced Xerxes that they were also soft, and would crumble at the first whiff of trouble.

When the Greeks got wind of Persia’s intentions they immediately convened an emergency council of the States. After a brief debate, the Greeks took swift and decisive action. They determined to go forth, heads held high, and beg Xerxes not to kill them. Only Sparta dissented.

The Spartan king, Leonidas, scorned the politicians as a bunch of whimpering pansies. He attacked their pride, their honor, and their abuse of kin and country, and eventually roused the other States to action. Leonidas told the leaders that he and a selection of his countrymen would stall the Persian advance, allowing time for the full Greek army to ready itself. Frenzied preparations commenced among the allied ground and naval forces.

Back in Sparta, Leonidas selected 300 warriors, the best of the best, to form a welcoming committee for the approaching Persians. To show their loyalty and commitment, other States (Thespiae, Arkadia, and Corinth, among them) sent men to join the Spartans. This tiny army of Spartans and her allies arrived at Thermopylae some three days ahead of the Persians.

Let’s put the opposing armies in perspective. The 300 and their allies numbered approximately 3,000, not counting squires and attendants. This might seem a negligible number until you consider that one Spartan soldier easily equaled ten non-Spartan soldiers. The army of emperor Xerxes, on the other hand, numbered over two million men, with three times that number tagging along as support personnel. The army marched in a caravan over seven miles long. When they stopped for water they literally drank rivers dry. When the archers loosed a volley the mass of arrows darkened the sun (eventually causing the Spartan commander, Dienekes, to remark, when told of the arrow-eclipse, “Good, we can have our fight in the shade,”). The Spartans knew what they were up against. None expected to live out the month.

Thermopylae (in Greek: “Hot Gates,” after the thermal hot springs there) was the primary route across the mountains from Thessaly into Greece proper. Also called The Narrows, the pass was bound on one side by the Trachinian Cliffs and on the other by the Malian Gulf. Travellers entered The Narrows through a gap scarcely one hundred yards wide. If two million men were to be stalled, this was the place to do it. Xerxes’ army had, up to that point, gone through resistance like E-coli through a small intestine, and the emperor assumed he would meet with the same easy success at Thermopylae, despite the tediousness of the terrain. Events, however, unfolded almost exactly the opposite of Xerxes’ assumptions.

In short, the 300 and their allies held the Persian army at bay for seven full days before succumbing. The Greek historian, Herodotus, says that at the end, with their weapons broken, the Spartan soldiers fought with their hands and teeth. Every member of the allied force was killed. On the other side, the Persians lost nearly 100,000 troops, including many members of Xerxes’ elite personal guard. The following Spring and Summer, the main allied Greek army, headed by 10,000 Spartan hoplites, routed the Persian army at Palatea, and its navy at Salamis. Xerxes’ conquest failed to a spectacular degree.
Spartan success at Thermopylae hinged on several important elements: Persian arrogance, Xerxes’ dependence upon conscripts, the narrow terrain of the Hot Gates, wildly superior Spartan training and tactics and wine.

The Spartans freely imbibed the stuff, bowl after bowl of it. In addition to its religious elements (specifically as an offering to Zeus), wine also served a practical purpose, instilling in the soldiers that hard-to-define edge that made them so ferocious. Emperor Xerxes was fond of wine as well, also for religious reasons, but absolutely forbade even a drop to his troops. Persian soldiers caught with drink were publically decapitated. Records indicate that the attacking Persians routinely broke ranks and fled in terror against the Spartan phalanx, while there is no indication the Spartans ever broke, even when reduced to a mere handful of wounded men.

Intoxicating liquid, ever the bogeyman of rigid thinking, was a key factor in one of the greatest moments of heroic resistance. Soldiers from a culture that honored wine faced men from a culture that feared and controlled it, and only because they were so vastly out-numbered did the wine lovers fall.

Flash forward.

On the off chance you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, the United States military recently invaded Iraq. In a matter of weeks we beat the snot out of the world’s sixth largest fighting force. Granted, that’s like saying Delaware is next in size to California, but still…

American soldiers are today’s Spartan hoplites. Our troops are better equipped, funded, and trained than those of any other nation. Victory over Iraq was something of a foregone conclusion, like the ’75 Steelers duking it out with the Northwestern Wyoming College of Applied Agriculture. But we resemble the Spartans in another way, one few historians are likely to mention. Americans, with a few whiney exceptions, love booze. Most of us understand booze and know how to make full use of it, even if it’s not always for the most glorious ends.

Conversely, Iraqis, as with citizens of many totalitarian states, are, for religious reasons, about as hostile toward ardent waters as you can get. Saddam Hussein’s anti-liquor edicts make our Volstead Act seem wimpy, and Uncle Saddam was an old softy compared to Iraq’s fundamentalist clerics. It’s now known that Hussein maintained a top-shelf selection of liquor and a six-figure wine cellar, even while denying so much as a sip to his soldiers. The hard-won lessons of Xerxes were obviously lost on him. Your chances of finding a sozzled member of the Republican Guard are slimmer than finding a drag queen on the PTL Club payroll.

No matter which side of Gulf II you come down on, it’s undeniable that part of the conflict revolved around national philosophies. America’s flexible mores battled Iraq’s far more rigid ones. It’s tempting to say that Democracy fought Oppression but, obviously, it’s more complicated than that. Even so, the fact remains that before our guys waded into battle we were told that Iraqi resistance would be fierce and ugly. This turned out to be a long way from the truth. While the Americans move implacably forward, the Iraqis collapsed under pressure, and fled in terror or surrendered.

Did alcohol really play a role in this war? Sure it did, after a fashion; one element among many making up the complex mosaic of contemporary international conflict.

Perhaps Homer Simpson summed it up best when he said, “Ah, beer…. The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

—Rich English

(Note: The Author is indebted to the works of Steven Pressfield and Herodotus.)