82nd Airborne: Life in a New Sparta
by Nick Perna
There has been resurgence of interest in the last five years or so over the warrior culture of Sparta. The Spartans are admired by the military, law enforcement, sports fans, cross fitters and others for their “never say die” way of life and their warrior ethos.
For the historically challenged the Spartans were the residents of Sparta, a city state in ancient Greece. They were known as the fiercest warriors of all the Greeks, and their reputation was well-deserved.
Their defining moment came in 480 BC when 300 Spartan warriors lead by King Leonidas took on an estimated 100,000 Persians at the battle of Thermopylae. There is much conjecture and legend surrounding this conflict but its generally accepted that the greatly outnumbered Spartans (along with some volunteers from other Greek states) held the Persian Army off for three days. They paid the ultimate price, with almost every Greek being slaughtered.
Analogies can be drawn to American warriors throughout the ages. American Spartans held their ground at places like: The Alamo, Bastogne, Lang Vei, Khe Sahn and Tora Bora (just to name a few). Like the Greeks before them American troops stood shoulder to shoulder, fighting against overwhelming odds.
A story that typifies this frame of mind comes from the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. As the remainder of the German Army launched a last ditch offensive, allied troops were caught off guard, suffering heavy losses. Many units abandoned their positions, fleeing west. As the 101st AIrborne Division dug in at Bastogne the 82nd moved in to support their Airborne brothers.
As a tank destroyer from the 7th Armored Division moved West, the commander spotted a lone trooper from the 82nd digging a foxhole for an outpost near the road. The commander stopped the vehicle and asked him if this was the front line.
The trooper, Private First Class Vernon E. Haught, with Company F, 325th, looked up and said, “Are you looking for a safe place?”
The tank destroyer commander answered, “Yeah.”
Haught then said, “Well buddy, just pull your vehicle behind me. I’M THE 82nd AIRBORNE, AND THIS IS AS FAR AS THE BASTARDS ARE GOING.”
This type of attitude has been celebrated in books and movies. “The Magnificent Seven,” “Blackhawk Down,” and “Lone Survivor” are examples of Americans who live in the New Sparta We love a good story about a bunch of brave men making a stand against impossible odds. We also admire warriors of above average strength and skill, Rambos who vanquish their enemies with ease, making sarcastic remarks as they do so.
For a short period of my life I was a resident of Sparta. I didn’t live on the actual Greek Isle, rather I lived in the American equivalent of it. For 3 years I was a member of the aforementioned 82nd Airborne Division, assigned to a Parachute Infantry Regiment. I say I lived in Sparta because, like the Spartans, the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne were totally immersed in warrior culture. Our existence was based on the overwhelming desire to do battle, constantly training and preparing for it, and feeling less than whole when not engaged in combat. Everything we did, on an individual and collective level, was preparing for combat. In a world where most people shutter at the thought of the horrors of war, we craved it like a starving man craves food.
To avoid offending anybody or start an inter unit/inter service rivalry I’d like to point out the 82nd experience isn’t totally unique within the armed services; it’s lived by Army Rangers, Marine Infantry, Special Forces, SEALs, Delta Force and others. It is unique though in the fact that there are relatively few of us who have experienced it. In modern times very few people of military age choose to serve, and of those who do only a select few serve in those elite formations. As a sidebar, it makes no difference to me whether or not you served in one of the units I mentioned. I have great respect for anyone who signed on the dotted line and committed to a term of service. But, bear in mind, you didn’t live in Sparta…
There was a darker side to life in ancient Sparta. Being a society of warriors who valued strength and courage they conversely despised weakness. From an early age adult males were evaluated. If an infant was thought to be small or weak it was thrown into the Chasm of Mount Taygetos to die. Children were forced into military training at an early age as part of the Agoge system, an education system based building up strength, solidarity and fearlessness (Think Kurt Russell as a boy in the movie, “Soldier”.)
At age 20 they lived in groups of fifteen soldiers, constantly surrounded by their military mates. Even if they were married Spartan males couldn’t live with their families until age 30, when they were outside of their physical prime and of limited military value. When they went to war their wives would hand them their shields and utter the now famous mantra of, “Come home with your shield, or come home on it.”
Life in the modern Spartas at places like Ft Bragg, Little Creek or 29 Palms isn’t much different. Granted, you aren’t born into an elite unit and don’t begin you training as child but the concept is essentially the same: Weakness is despised and those who can’t hang are gotten rid of. They aren’t tossed into a chasm but they are dealt with quickly and efficiently.
In an elite unit everyone serves a specific purpose, like the Greek phalanx which required every soldier to hold his shield next to the soldier standing with him. If one man falters the phalanx fails. Most high speed organizations are small in numbers, bringing even more importance to individual strength as it relates to the strength of the unit as a whole. Like a machine, every part is essential to its overall operation. If one part doesn’t do its job, the machine breaks. In the words of the antihero Sgt Barnes from the movie Platoon, “When the machine breaks down, we break down.”