The Warrior’s Homecoming

Today is Remembrance Day.

On November 11th, at the eleventh hour, I’ll be at my local cenotaph, standing alongside my fellow civilians, veterans and emergency services crews to honour and remember those have served, and those who have fallen in the line of duty.

I suspect that most of us have a connection to someone who has served in one of the many conflicts across the world since WWI and WWII to the present day. Or perhaps you know someone who battles to save lives on the streets of our cities?

For myself, one of my grandfathers served in both World Wars, and my other grandfather in WWII.

This is a time of year when I think of them more than usual.

The Normandy Landing – WWII

I write a lot about warriors in the ancient world, and the struggles they face on and off the battlefield.

My protagonists have fought long, bloody campaigns, far away from the comforts of civilization.

They’ve faced enemies that will not come out into the open, and sometimes must rely on supposed allies that they cannot trust.

For the warriors in my books, life is a constant fight for survival. They fight and kill and die for Rome, all for the purposes of advancing the Empire’s plans for conquest.

Artist impression of Roman cavalry ala engaging Caledonians

Indeed, one of the themes running through all my books is that of the powerful few sending many to die on the battlefields of the Empire. The soldiers are at the whim of those roaming and ruling the corridors of power.

Sound familiar?

My, how history does repeat itself.

Always at the back of my protagonist’s mind is the family that he misses. But if he thinks on them too much, if he loses his focus at any time, his enemies will tear him apart.

The warrior’s life has never been an easy one, especially when you have something to lose.

Mother and son reunited

But what happens when it’s time for the warrior to ‘come home’?

How is it even possible after the life they’ve led? Can they really ‘come home’?

How have warriors, men and women, dealt with the aftermath of war?

In his book The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield asks a pertinent question:

All of us know brothers and sisters who have fought with incredible courage on the battlefield, only to fall apart when they came home. Why? Is it easier to be a soldier than to be a civilian?

In one way, perhaps life at war is more straightforward. Every day, every moment perhaps, your thoughts, your purpose, are focussed on the objective – take that position, hold that region, protect your brothers and sisters in arms, stay alive. In some situations, it’s kill or be killed.

We’re back to primal instincts here.

Stepping from the world of war into the civilian world is an unimaginable transition.

Today, we have any number of soldier’s aid societies and government programs and guides that are intended to help veterans of wars reintegrate into society.

These groups do good work that is much-needed, but is it enough? How can non-combatants in civilian society understand the physical and emotional trauma that is experienced by warriors after the battle?

In the ancient and medieval worlds, there were no societies or organizations whose purpose was to help returning warriors.

British Troops in WWI

Granted, in warrior societies such as Sparta, the majority of warriors probably enjoyed the fighting. All Spartan men were warriors. That was their purpose.

But in the Roman Empire, returning warriors would have had to reintegrate in a way similar to today, rather than ancient Sparta. Later Roman society valued not just fighting prowess, but also political acuity, the arts, rhetoric, skill at a trade, generally being a good citizen in society.

Many veterans are homeless when they come home…

Going back to peace time in a civilian society after the straightforward survival life of a prolonged campaign would have been tough.

We read about legionaries coming back to Rome and getting into all sorts of trouble, their days and nights taken up with gambling, brawling, and whoring.

It’s no wonder that generals and emperors created coloniae for retired soldiers on the fringes of the Empire. In these places, veterans would not be able to cause trouble in Rome, but they would also be given the opportunity to have some land and make a life for themselves.

Thamugadi – A Roman colonia in North Africa for retired veterans

In my book Warriors of Epona, my protagonist is reunited with his family. He has to face peace time.

How does he deal with this? How does his family deal with him?

War changes a person, whether it’s in the past or the present day. It’s an experience unlike any other and I salute anyone who faces the conflict that comes with stepping from the world of war into the world of peace, and vice versa.

In the Roman Empire, they were two very different battlefields, as they are, I suspect, today.

I imagine that reconciling the two worlds can push a man or woman to their very limits.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real.

I’ve often thought that governments should step up more when it comes to helping veterans. How about free college education for veterans and their families? Or exemption from taxation for them and their families for all they have risked and sacrificed? What about a good pension?

Veterans today shouldn’t have to worry about finances or a roof over their heads. They have enough to deal with when the fighting is done.

I’ve read that Alexander the Great actually did these things for his veterans, and the Roman Empire granted lands to hers.

Any government people who happen to be reading this should take notes.

We can also do our part, whether it’s wearing a red poppy, thanking a veteran for their dangerous work, or donating to an organization that directly helps veterans and their families.

The very least we can do is be quiet for a minute at 11:00 a.m. on November 11th.

As ever, at this time of year, I feel like my words fall short, that they are not nearly enough. I’d like to close this by expressing my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to the men and women in uniform who have risked, and are risking, their lives to keep us safe and free.

THANK YOU.

And thank you, dear readers, for following along.

In future, when you read a novel about warriors in the ancient world, do bear in mind that there are modern equivalents. The homecomings for many of them are far more difficult than we can imagine.

 

Today, there are numerous organizations whose sole purpose is to help veterans, young and old, to make the transition from war zone to home front.

This year, Eagles and Dragons Publishing has made donations to two organizations whom we believe are making a real difference in the lives of veterans.

Wounded Warriors Canada’s mission is “To honour and support Canada’s ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces members, Veterans, First Responders and their families.”

Eagles and Dragons Publishing has donated to the ‘Couples Overcoming PTSD’ program.

VETS Canada is committed to helping homeless and at-risk veterans reintegrate into civilian life.

Eagles and Dragons Publishing has made a general donation to this wonderful, volunteer-led organization helping veterans in need.

 

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Facing Fear with the 300 Spartans

Hear your fate, O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces;

Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons,

Or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon

Shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles,

For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him,

Strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus,

And will not be checked till one of these two he has consumed.

The Pass at Thermopylae

The Pass at Thermopylae

Thus spake the the Oracle at Delphi, long ago, as recorded by Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, in Book 7 of The Histories. This was the prophecy that was given prior to the Greek stand at Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans and 700 men of Thespiae made one of the most heroic stands in the history of the world. Roughly one thousand Greek hoplites defended the pass known as the ‘hot gates’ (photo above) for three days against an army of about 1 million under Xerxes of Persia. This is a deed of heroism by which all others have been measured in western history ever since, and it echoes across the ages, unspoilt, radiant, despite politics and the greed of much lesser men.

Why is it that this single event in western history is revisited again and again? What do we get out of it today when our lives are so very different from those of 480 B.C.? There are probably several answers to that question, but for myself, it’s summed up in one word: Inspiration.

I know, “there he goes again, on about inspiration. Totally corny.”

Not to me. Inspiration, whether conscious or unconscious, is highly individualistic. I’ve stood on the battlefield of Thermopylae, and though there is a motorway running through it, and the sea has silted up for kilometers, the place casts a spell. It’s not the impressive modern monument to Leonidas of Sparta and his men that I find moving, but rather the little hillock on the other side of the road where the Spartans made their last stand, where they died for what they believed in, for their way of life.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the Oracle

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the Oracle

It’s difficult for the modern mind to grasp this concept, no doubt, and out of misunderstanding, or perhaps fear, many might dismiss this as something that happened long ago. These men and their king volunteered for death, and they shall never be forgotten. They lived strongly, true to themselves. They’ve been celebrated through history to the modern age. Artists, filmmakers and yes, writers, have paid their tributes.

I remember seeing a picture of American troops in Afghanistan, sitting in the sand reading copies of Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (sadly, I couldn’t find the picture again to share with you). I think of what reading that book must have done for their morale; I can only guess, but I suspect that it inspired in them something of a will to fight on and face their fears. This is completely separate from the politics around our sad and current state of war and the reasons for it. There are few Leonidas’ in history.

I know I’ve written about this before, but Thermopylae has come to mind again as I’m reading a wonderful book by historian Michael Scott, entitled From Democrats to Kings: The Brutal Dawn of a New World from the Downfall of Athens to the Rise of Alexander the Great.

Scott’s book brings the world of ancient Greece after the Peloponnesian War into stark contrast with those days of honour and glory during the Persian invasion of Greece. It never ceases to blow my mind that a society (or polis, people, cultural group etc.) can achieve such magnificent glories, pleasing to the gods themselves, and then proceed with ease to piss it all away.

The make matters worse, Athens, Sparta, and Thebes each in their own turn, for years after, went to the Persians, cap in hand, to ask for aid in fighting their fellow Greeks! If there were any veterans of the Persian wars left, they must have been shaking their aging heads in shame at what was happening around them.

Maybe that is another reason the battle of Thermopylae is still celebrated. Not only was it a strategic and symbolic victory, it was also a selfless act. It was simple, and it was true. Leonidas ignored the politics that threatened to hold him back, and marched to certain death.

The Spartans at Thermopylae - Illustration by the great, Peter Connolly

The Spartans at Thermopylae – Illustration by the great, Peter Connolly

Many will say that this simply doesn’t apply to them, for they’re not soldiers fighting in a war on some foreign field. True, granted, though for many today, that is a reality. However, some past events, deeds, transcend all else, including war, and are applicable everywhere. We all face our own struggles day to day, and must meet whatever it is we must meet on our own, on our personal battlefields.

For a youth, that battle might be the fear of exams or being bullied in school. For an adult, it could be facing that daily commute to go to a job that is anything but inspiring. It might be not having a job at all, or failing to achieve one’s dreams or goals. A new mother may fear yet another day inside with the same routine, over, and over and over again. A family too may be dealing with the looming spectre of an allergy or something worse. However small and insignificant these things may seem, they are our own battles, fears, and it’s crucial that we fight on daily.

No doubt that Leonidas and his men each wrestled with some measure of fear, perhaps of loss, of not being remembered, of failing their way of life. But they overcame their fears, and though they died, they raised the bar of human achievement to heights we can only now dream of, but for which we should never cease to aim. And now, they grace our canvases, our screens, and our pages.

In closing, let the words etched upon the memorial stone at Thermopylae echo in our minds…

Memorial inscription on the hill where the Spartans made their last stand

Memorial inscription on the hill where the Spartans made their last stand

Ω ΞΕΙΝ ΑΓΓΕΛΛΕΙΝ ΛΑΚΕΔΑΙΜΟΝΙΟΙΣ ΟΤΙ ΤΗΔΕ ΚΕΙΜΕΘΑ ΤΟΙΣ ΚΕΙΝΩΝ ΡΗΜΑΣΙ ΠΕΙΘΟΜΕΝΟΙ


‘GO TELL THE SPARTANS PASSERBY,
THAT HERE OBEDIENT TO THEIR LAWS WE LIE’

Inspiring!

Thank you for reading.

 

 

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