By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 14, 2009
In the ancient Spartan tradition, there were only two cases when burial markers were permitted: for warriors killed in battle and for women who died in childbirth. The memorials were simple stones, often without inscriptions.
When inscriptions were allowed, they were terse and succinct. The most famous Spartan epitaph—for the Three Hundred who fell defending the pass at Thermopylae—was composed by Simonides the poet, a non-Spartan. It is known today in every corner of the globe:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.
What I love about this is it doesn’t even mention the battle. No mention of Persians, of Leonidas, of the date, the circumstances, the peril to Greece or to freedom. What is unspoken is more powerful than what is spoken. The other aspect that I believe makes these two verses so potent is the phrase “obedient to their laws.” Eulogies don’t get more understated that that, yet every Greek knew exactly how much valor, honor and sacrifice was contained in that lean, Spartan-like phrase.
Today, August 14, the remains of Navy Pilot Michael “Scott” Speicher will be buried.
Valor, honor and sacrifice are words that the family of Capt. Speicher knows well. We know that he was shot down on the first night of the Gulf War, 18 years ago. But little else is known. According to the Associated Press:
Defense officials originally declared Speicher killed in action hours after his plane was shot down over west-central Iraq. Then-Defense secretary Dick Cheney announced on television that Speicher was the first casualty of the Gulf War.
Ten years after the crash, the Navy changed Speicher’s status to missing in action, citing an absence of evidence that Speicher had died. In October 2002, the Navy switched his status to “missing/captured,” although it has never said what evidence it had that he may have been in captivity.
Over the years, critics contended the Navy had not done enough, particularly right after the crash, to search for the 33-year-old pilot.
The military recovered bones and multiple skeletal fragments, and Speicher was identified by matching a jawbone and dental records and later by DNA reference samples from family members.
We don’t know the unspoken story, but we know it is a powerful one. Though many of us are strangers passing by, we pay tribute to the valor, honor, and sacrifice of the Soldiers, Marines, and to the families of all those who have fallen “obedient to our laws.”
Capt. Speicher was the only American missing in action from the first Gulf War. There are still thousands of Americans missing in action, dating back to WWII. You can learn more about those missing by visiting these links: