The long history of asceticism of armies





You have to marvel at how Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a former Special Operations commander and the newly appointed leader of American forces in Afghanistan, does it. Mastermind the hunt for Al Qaeda in Iraq and plot stealth raids on Taliban strongholds in the Hindu Kush while getting just a few hours of sleep a night, exercising enough to exhaust a gym rat and eating one meal a day to avoid sluggishness. One meal. Who was it who said an army runs on its stomach?

It was, lore has it, Napoleon. But for all his keen appreciation of logistics, Napoleon, as a young privilege-rejecting Jacobin, also exemplified something more McChrystalesque: the notion that soldiers should live austere, even ascetic lives. It is an idea with a long and storied history.

The word asceticism comes from the Greek word for exercise. And while Buddhists and early Christians made world-denying behavior a foundation of their spirituality, the Greeks as often as not viewed asceticism as a source of physical, emotional, even political power.

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