At the end of my last post of this series that deals mainly with the psychological factors of combat, I noted that Spartans, in spite of battlefield courage that implies they are natural-born warriors, were in fact the product of superior training. Note that this kind of highly-trained fighting professional is a different sort of fighter than found in warrior cultures who emphasized battlefield rage. This type of elite training was not just a characteristic of Spartans, it was also true of a number of other renowned warriors from times past, including samurais and knights.
To take the last first, the conventional training of a knight began at age 7, when he became a page. Pages served knights in their company, but also learned to ride and fight with wooden swords and blunted lances. They practiced horseback fighting while riding piggy back and were continually exposed to weapons training. At age 14 a page became a squire, who now trained with both wooden and sharpened weapons, who continually accompanied his assigned knight in combat and might also have engaged in combat himself. Squires also studied unarmed combat, especially boxing and wrestling, and hunting was considered an essential part of their training. At age 21, after 14 years of continuous combat training, a squire was eligible to become a knight.
Samurai training varied greatly according to social class and time period, but they generally began at the age of 5. Poorer warriors were instructed in the samurai art of bushido by family members, while wealthier families enrolled their sons in special schools. All samurai training emphasized the calmness of mind required for archery but also included a great emphasis on horsemanship, swordsmanship, and heavy armor training--including, due to Japan's many rivers and coastal areas, how to swim in armor. They also emphasized unarmed fighting that has developed into Japan's many forms of martial arts. As well they engaged in acts of physical endurance and resistance to pain, such as standing naked in a snowbank.
Like the knight, Spartan training began at age 7. But it exceeded knighthood in its difficulty, its requirements of group training, and total commitment. Like knights and samurai, Spartans trained in unarmed combat to include boxing and wrestling, but considered gymnastics and the ability to dance important warrior skills as well. A Spartan warrior would train continuously until age 18, when he would be considered an adult and be expected to marry. At age 20 he would allowed to attempt to join the army--he would only be accepted after being examined and considered fully qualified. Spartans in the army lived together in barracks and continually trained for warfare (an actual war was considered something of a vacation), only visiting their homes on occasion (which were run by the women of the family), serving from ages 20 to 60. Warriors older than 60 returned home, but still maintained the equivalent of "reserve status," where they could be called upon in the event of a national emergency.
All of these warriors not only trained the body, they also trained the mind, which is of more interest to this post than the specific weapons skills they acquired. Their training shared a number of factors in common to a greater or lesser extent, factors that allowed them to overcome the psychological stresses of combat. Beyond what I've already stated, below are some other training features they shared in common:
1. They exposed warriors to the reality of death to such a degree, they would get used to it. Spartans training was so tough that those undergoing it faced the real risk of death. At a phase of their training they famously had to steal food to survive--or starve. Knights and samurai in training accompanied warriors onto the battlefield, exposing young men to combat violence early on. Hunting was also part of training, because the calmness required in stalking an animal and the ability to kill it relates to the use of weapons against other human beings. Knights reveled in hunting, as did Samurai to a lesser degree. There was a phase of Samurai history where their archery training included shooting dogs on the run, not just because its difficult, but to harden them to the act of killing (a shogun eventually forbade this training for being too cruel).
2. They mentally prepared for death. Christian knighthood placed heavy emphasis on life after death, that a man righteous before Christ could expect to live on into eternity. Samurai philosophy was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and they believed in life after death, though they did not emphasize it quite so much as knights. However, they strove to maintain a state of mind where they continually recognized that death could come in the next minute. Spartans did believe in an afterlife, but it seems they placed a greater emphasis on duty to the city and their unit as the reason to be prepared to die, if necessary. While prepared for death, knights and Spartans especially regarding dying unnecessarily to be a great tragedy.
3. They employed as realistic and as difficult training as they could. From actually being out on the battlefield to the best mock-ups they could make of training dummies, all of these warrior societies trained hard not only in their weapons techniques, but they routinely would go without food, without comfort, deliberately expose themselves to pain, and would face physical and mental exhaustion, pushing themselves as close to the breaking point as they could go. They would also build up their physical strength in systematic exercises to improve not only their physical, but their mental performance. Facing and overcoming tough circumstances in training made the rigors of the battlefield less challenging. Training until actions are second nature or "muscle memory" also ensures they can be performed when the mind is pushed beyond its normal capabilities.
4. They emphasized the value of the group over the individual and benefited from "collective courage." This was especially true of the Spartans. One of the psychological realities that makes it easier for a human being to perform any difficult act is when other people are doing it at the same time. Spartans trained continually to act as a unit, to think as a unit, to sleep together in barracks to do everything together, for the purpose of them acting as a unified group in a time of crisis. Even though this was less true for knights and samurai--far less true, because both groups believed in individual honor--warriors of feudal Japan and Europe did feel a sense of obligation to their fellow warriors and believed it was a dishonor to let them down. They also swore oaths of loyalty to superiors and while there are plenty of examples in history of warriors breaking their oaths, it was considered shameful to do so and was not what warriors normally did.
5. They were systematically taught to stay calm and maintain a level head. This is again, more true for the Spartans than the other warriors mentioned here. Totally unlike the movie "The 300," Spartans admired saying little and keeping their emotions solidly in control. They had a special word for other warriors who would charge into battle shouting and yelling--they called it "pseudoandrea," false manhood. Samurai employed meditation and their focus as Zen Buddhists to maintain calm and control their emotions, though they'd release battle shouts in a controlled way, as happens in modern martial arts. Of these three sets of warriors, knights probably placed the least emphasis on emotional self-control (berzerker rage was not unknown among them), but prayers for calmness and maintaining a cool head (the French term is "sangfroid"-- cold blood) was actually the normal way for most knights to fight.
6. They maintained a personal code that justified them in taking lives under specific circumstances. Killing another human being normally causes psychological trauma to the humans doing the killing--that's the way human empathy works for 96 to 98% of all human beings, as noted in my last post. But when someone strongly believes that an opponent represents an inherent threat, that the other person deserves to die, the natural trauma involved in killing is easier to overcome. And an assurance that a warrior has that he is living up to a high code of conduct also assuages his conscience. This sort of assurance in the personal righteousness of the warrior was especially key in the training of knights and samurai. Spartan training also had an ethical component, but its ethics emphasized supporting the city and other warriors over a code that each fighter could apply to himself individually.
7. They systematically studied the nature of warfare and carefully employed their thinking minds to the art of winning battles. Actually the Roman legionaries were the greatest ancient masters of this last point, even though I did not pick them as one of the examples above. But this was also true of Spartans, knights, and samurai to a degree. In general, moreso than the rest, warriors of Feudal Japan were expected to be literate and to know and understand pertinent written works of strategy. But Spartans were also trained to read and write, even if they did not love literacy and innovation the way their Athenian rivals did. And even knights, who were often illiterate, were not immune to designing and employing new strategies and tactics.
It's important to note that warriors who maintained calmness in the heat of battle (who had faced enough death and suffering during hard training to do that), who fought together as unit, who believed themselves morally superior to their opponents, and who employed their clear, level heads to the use of the best strategy and tactics available, routinely defeated warrior societies who emphasized battle cries and berzerker frenzy. Calm, scientific warriors win, almost every time.
Notice the Klingons of Star Trek share a few of these features I've mentioned above--they are portrayed as training hard, having a strong belief in the afterlife, and as facing death with equanimity. But they are not shown to stay cool and level-headed, to use sharp unemotional minds to employ clever strategies while fighting. Though in defense of the idea of Klingons, perhaps it is not necessary for them as an alien species to maintain tight emotional control in order to be able to keep thinking clearly. Though in fact, the best explanation for them is that Klingons were not written with a realistic understanding of war in mind. And it happens to be true that they have been written with features that in reality are competition with one another to a large degree. (Or maybe...that's why the Federation keeps beating them...)
Note though that even these warriors who were trained to an unbelievably high degree sometimes broke under the stresses of combat--even Spartans on occasion surrendered. But those warrior societies that go the furthest to train into men the ability to successfully stand at places like Thermopylae, who can face death without surrendering or breaking ranks even in the midst of enormous psychological pressure, these societies have certain features in common--if the characters involved are human or nearly so. Portray them in stories accordingly.
Next time we will look at the other kind of warrior society--the ones that emphasize fury, rage, and emotion...