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Marathon Man

18 November 2004
 

Seeing how Athens is just two hours from Amman by airplane, this past Veterans holiday weekend, I took a four day pass and flew to the Grecian capital for what proved to be a wonderful little adventure.  The weather was pleasant, the people were friendly, the food was great, and the sites were what I’d hoped they would be—ancient, white, and marblely.  The Acropolis area with its famed Parthenon is full of Doric and Ionic columns (whatever those are), isosceles triangles, statues of long-dead athletes without a shred of modesty, and busts of bearded thinkers whose ideas have come down to us through translations most of which, I am sad to say, I have never read.

But I am familiar with one little piece of ancient Greek history.  Every cadet at West Point had (and presumably still has) to take the History of the Military Art.  This year-long course covers the scope of recorded conflict from the Battle of Marathon to the present day.  From reading passages from Herodotus and staring at the map in the excellent West Point Atlas of Ancient Warfare, I learned in “MilArt” class about the dramatic events that occurred on or about September 12th, 490 B.C.  On the field of battle that day, the infant that grew into the way of life we know now was saved from the hand of the tyrant by a small group of determined and courageous freedom-loving men.

It was to the Aegean coastal town of Marathon, about 25 miles northeast of Athens that the Persian army under King Darius I came via their ships of wood.  Infantry and cavalry, by most estimates some 30,000 of them in all, disembarked on the beach and marched half a mile inland where they were met by a force of Greek soldiers a third their numbers.  Most scholars believe there were 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 troops from the neighboring Greek city-state of Plataea. 

Though severely outnumbered, that little band of Hellenic brothers had a few things going for them.  First off they had body armor.  This made the Persians’ favorite weapon system—the bow and arrow—much less effective.  Second, they had a plan.  They would draw the Persians attention to the front by charging down on them from the overlooking hills with a small, seemingly vulnerable force.  The over-confident invaders would hopefully develop tunnel vision and not see the other two columns of Greek soldiers advancing around from the right and left to the rear of the Persian formation.  (This is the first example in military history of the “double envelopment.”)  Finally, they had an excellent leader in the form of Miltiades (from whom we get the word “military”) who quickly grasped his advantage in equipment and strategy and was able to execute his attack on the Persians with skill and audacity.

The Persians took the bait, committing their forces to engage the Greek center.  The invaders fought in block formation which made it difficult for them to turn and fight the Athenians and Plataeans who’d moved stealthily along the ridgeline and outmaneuvered them around their flanks.  The determined Greeks, fighting for their homeland, routed their enemy.  When the Persians retreated to the water’s edge and boarded their ships, they left 6,400 soldiers dead on the field.  Amazingly, the Athenians lost only 192 men.  (Miltiades sent a messenger named Pheidippides to Athens to warn its citizens that, although the Persians had been beaten in Marathon, they would probably sail down the coast and attack the larger city.  In fact, that is exactly what the Persians did.  But thanks to the forewarning and inspired by Miltiades’ victory, the Greeks in Athens were also able to defeat the invaders.)

I visited the Marathon battlefield this past Veterans day weekend.  The size of the site where the actual fighting took place is about the same as Coors Field.  6,400 dead bodies strewn across the home of your Colorado Rockies would be quite a gruesome site.  That is a huge number when considering the low sophistication of the weaponry.  And to lose them all in one day is extraordinary.  By contrast, a little over 1,200 Americans have been killed in the past 18 months in the whole of Iraq.

What happened to the bodies of those 6,400 unlucky Persians I do not know.  There is no memorial honoring their part in the fray.  But those 192 Greeks, whose individual names are known only to God, have been entombed ever since in a large green knoll in the center of the field.  There is no statue on top depicting a scene of martial sacrifice and glory.  Just an exaggerated pitcher’s mound, covered in grass, containing the bones of the warrior dead.

When I read about this mound as a teenaged cadet at West Point, I was fascinated that such a natural monument could withstand the test of time.  So when I saw it in person—set as it is in a pretty green field sparsely studded with ancient olive trees--it was a bit of a thrill.  As much as anything else, it reminded me of those days years ago when I would read of the adventures of others and wonder if I would ever have any myself.  I took a dozen pictures of the Marathon mound with my digital camera.  My ever-patient female traveling companion must have been wondering why I was getting so excited about an unmarked little bump of earth. 

The Battle of Marathon lasted only a single afternoon.  But the consequences of the event reverberate down to us today.  The Persians were an autocratic and Oriental society; the Greeks were democratic and European.  It must be noted that the blessings of ancient Greek democracy were not enjoyed by women or slaves—of the latter there were many—but it was still a democracy.  (And, before we get too judgmental, we should remember that the United States had slavery until the mid-1860s and women couldn’t vote until 1920.)  

Had those 11,000 Greeks not stood their ground, had not those 192 unknown soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice, the glory that was ancient Greece would have been extinguished.  You will recall that the Romans absorbed the Greek democratic tradition, in turn the British learned from the Romans, and the Americans took what was best from the UK.  It is not a stretch to say that the veterans of the Battle of Marathon preserved the central idea on which the United States of America is built today.  Had I a little Stars and Stripes with me that day, I’d have planted it in the ground as a tribute.

In 2004 the spiritual descendents of ancient Athens face a new enemy from the East.  This enemy does not fight in formation or use bows and arrows.  But their driving passion is the same as the predators of yore; that is to stamp out liberal democracy wherever they find it.  Fortunately for us today there are still defenders of freedom, animated by a sense of duty and honor and country, standing firm in the field.