Sunday, March 11, 2007

Impossible Odds

Algren: There was once a battle at a place called Thermopylae, where three hundred brave Greeks held off a Persian army of a million men... a million, you understand this number?
Katsumoto: I understand this number.
- The Last Samurai

300 -- directed by Zack Snyder, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller -- should be out in the theaters right now. Despite the hokey advertising (What kind of a tagline is "PREPARE FOR GLORY!", anyway?) and the overly dramatic preview trailers, the film seems to be getting quite a few good reviews. It's already on the top of my "must-watch" list, which is kind of unexpected for a two-hour epic involving scores of sweaty, half-naked men.

I'm a sucker for underdog stories. You probably know them very well: They're the ones where a tiny group of people must stand (at heavy disadvantage) against a numerically, skillfully, and/or technologically superior opponent. They're the ones where the beleaguered forces realize that their only recourse is to fight and die, simply because they have become desperate men. And if there is any single truth that must be realized in these situations, it is that desperate men have nothing to lose.

Simply put, underdog stories represent some of the most redeeming qualities of the human spirit: The drive to defend one's home or beliefs to the very end, the ability to free oneself from fear and regret, and the resolve to never surrender even against overwhelming odds.

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie
- Simonides' epigram, Thermopylae (version by Pressfield)

The Battle of Thermopylae happens to be one of the best in this regard: A force of three hundred Spartans, given allowance to surrender to a massive Persian army, instead elects to make a suicidal "last stand" because the freedom of all Greece hangs in the balance. That Thermopylae ends up buying enough time for the rest of the Greek army to mobilize and finally defeat the Persians only makes the story much more sweeter -- it gives a lot of relevance to the struggle, and lends nobility to the Spartan cause.

I find it interesting, moreover, that the conditions have to be just right in order to produce such heroic moments. Under different circumstances, any story that involves small groups of people going up against massive numbers of enemies could be seen as idiotic and foolhardy, much less heroic and redeemable. When James Brudenell, Lord Cardigan, led over six hundred men into direct artillery fire in the Crimean War (an exploit later recorded as The Charge of the Light Brigade), the result was seen as pure tragedy brought about by battlefield miscommunication. When George Armstrong Custer decided to march two hundred men into a six-hundred-strong force of American Indians at the Battle of Little Big Horn, his move was derided as an act of pure stupidity and self-delusion, and this response stains his reputation even to this very day.

Nowadays, however, wars are fewer and far between... and when they do actually occur, they're a far more precise and organized affair than the ones we hear about in history class. Modern underdog stories are far more personal in nature: They end up focusing on the integrity of individuals rather than groups of people. Assuming that we've become more civilized over the past few centuries, these stories see a lot less in the way of actual killing. Nevertheless, the odds still end up being far from agreeable.

"He didn't do it again, did he? Yes he did."
- Tim McCarver, Fox commentator,
after David Ortiz's winning hit on Game 5
of the 2004 American League Championship

Sports suddenly come to mind. Sporting competition frequently sees areas where underdog stories can occur, and we see a few of these crop up every now and then almost as if in response. We all know that the crowd loves an underdog; How can you not like someone who decides to give everything he's got despite the overall realization that his best might not be enough? Jesse Owens did pretty good for himself in the post-World War II Olympics. For that matter, so did the Boston Red Sox in one of the most incredible comebacks of all time.

What we don't find memorable in sports, however, is the agony of defeat. This is probably where the underdog aspect finds its difference: Lose a basketball championship to a superior foe, and it doesn't matter how valiant you were or how much blood you shed -- you still lost. Lose a battle to overwhelming odds, however, and there still remains the chance to be memorialized and remembered, depending on the significance of your struggle.

On the other hand, I suppose, putting sports and war together doesn't necessarily make for a fair comparison. Even the best athletes get more than a little forgotten, after a good long wait... whereas history tends to be the best marketing firm of them all.

That's where the underdog story becomes very important, I think: It helps spread the tale to generations upon generations of new listeners. It tells people that men can come together and hold their ground against anything that could compromise their home, their beliefs, and their selves. In that sense, it helps ensure that any legacy of noble and effective struggle will always be present no matter how far we go into the future. That should be the same for war as it is for sports and other areas we haven't covered here.

In the end, that says something about humanity. It says that we're perfectly willing to watch and listen to tales of glory and honor, of strength and victory, of death and defeat. And hopefully enough, it says that we're willing to ask ourselves those very same questions when the time comes.

We each will have our own finest hours. We're all bound to assume the role of the underdog at some time. The question lies in just what we plan to do then.

Katsumoto: What happened to the warriors at Thermopylae?
Algren: Dead to the last man.
- The Last Samurai



Dominique said...

The Battle of Thermopylae differs from the others mentioned because it was a holding action. It was ultimately successful because the Spartan sacrifice permitted the Athenians to rally for a naval victory over the Persians. So it's not just an underdog story, but an exemplary case of a small force holding out against a much bigger one through the use of terrain and tactics.

Sean said...

Dominique: Good observation. I'll raise the spectre of Gregorio del Pilar and Tirad Pass, though: Is this a heroic moment? Is this a good underdog story, considering that their holding action was meant to buy time for Emilio Aguinaldo's escape? While Aguinaldo did manage to get away, he also did get captured eventually, just before the Filipino resistance crumbled before the American occupation.

banzai cat said...

Obviously, Del Pilar never got the accolades due to him because with Aguinaldo's capture, history, as they say, is written by the victors. So if one were to blame someone, we could always lay the opprobium on Aguinaldo for losing. ;-)

P.S. Isn't it weird that everyone mentions that 300 Spartans faced off with a million but nobody mentions that for the first six days, they were accompanied by 4,000 other Greeks and that the 300 were down to a hundred (plus some Thespians) on the last day after the rest left?

General knowledge is all soundbite, the details are left out of the cold. ;-)

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Isn't there some dispute over the correct number of Persian troops at Thermopylae? Some historians contend that there were only about 100,000 (500,000, max) Persian troops, and not 1,000,000 as the popular version of the story goes. Does a significant decrease in the number of their opponents diminish the glory and heroism of the Spartans' stand, or does it make no difference?

In any case, I can't wait to see the movie. A sweaty, half-naked Gerard Butler is enough to make me forgive any historical inaccuracies about the Battle of Thermopylae. Hot Gates indeed. :p

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: Good grief... this is actually the second time today that I've heard someone mention putting the blame on Aguinaldo for losing. I feel sorry for him now. :)

Banzai Cat, Ailee: The most non-lopsided estimates I can glean from Wikipedia are probably 11,200 for the Greeks (based on Pausanias's estimate) and 100,000 for the Persians. I agree with the common sentiment that water rations and supply trains of the time could not possibly have supported an army of one million; However, a 9-to-1 margin still makes for some really bad odds.

The numbers are probably important to some degree: Two men fighting three men, for example, does not necessaily constitute an underdog scenario. I think that there has to be a solid multiple involved, something that we can measure in terms of two-to-one, or three-to-one, or one-million-to-one odds. (In contrast to the two-against-three fight above, I would consider a one-man-against-two to be a possible underdog situation.) There's probably a gambler's analysis in there somewhere: In order for one side to be considered the "heroic" underdog, it's got to have the worst Vegas odds in such a confrontation.

With that said, however, I don't think that Thermopylae makes for a distinct story because of the numbers. I think that the Spartans' efforts and intentions make for a greater factor here: They knowingly went up against impossible odds for a great cause. They didn't expect to win -- they expected to die, and perhaps stall the Persians long enough for the other city-states to mobilize. That they were three hundred against one million (or eleven thousand against a hundred thousand, depending on who you believe) is probably just the polish on the edge of the shield.

Dominique said...

Aguinaldo's ignominy is not so much in his military defeat as in the chicanery he committed afterwards. He ultimately took the American offer of P800,000 and along with his cohorts exiled himself to Hong Kong.

This would be equivalent to the movie Leonidas taking up Xerxes on his offer!

Ailee, Sean, and BC: if you can find it, read "The Ancient Engineers" by L. Sprague de Camp. Lots of stories there about the scale of warfare in ancient times. I'd quote relevant passages from the book but my copy is back in Dumaguete.

Sean said...

Dominique: Supporting a "take this money and leave us alone" effort usually tends to have bad consequences, in my opinion. No wonder Aguinaldo lost a presidential election...