During intensive training in first aid for the victims of traumatic injuries, I was struck by what may be a forgotten feature of the Sparta’s culture of silence – its utility on the battlefield. The Spartans allegedly disdained blood-curdling calls, shouted insults and the beating of spears on shields. Reportedly, Spartan troops remained silent during advance and during an engagement. There are a number of good reasons for this, not least of which is the ability to hear the orders of officers. Nevertheless, as a footnote, I would like to suggest that it may also have had practical medical benefits as well.
The training I took focused on providing first aid to trauma victims in an environment without medicine, medical technology or specialized first-aid kits. It was heavily informed by recent military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the causes of battlefield injuries have changed dramatically since the age of Sparta, the result – severed limbs, massive hemorrhaging, life-threatening puncture wounds and crippling fractures – would have been familiar to any Spartan ranker. Astonishingly, despite all the advances in modern medicine, the appropriate first response probably has not changed much in two and a half millennia.
This is where Sparta's culture of silence might have proved particularly useful – if it was one reason for evolving it in the first place. In warfare, serious casualties are inherently traumatic, which means the victims inevitably suffer from shock and hypothermia. Both conditions worsen, if a patient is agitated and unable to keep still. If, on the other hand, a victim has been trained to remain still and silent, then they have a better chance of also remaining calm and preserving rather than squandering their strength, blood and breath.
Furthermore, it appears (but I would welcome a medical opinion on this!) that the human body produces natural pain-killers in situations of extreme trauma, but these are more effective if adrenalin levels remain low. Thus, developing behavior that reduces or shortens the period in which adrenalin is pumped into the body, may increase the speed with which natural painkillers are released into the bloodstream. A culture of calm and silence might literally have helped Spartans to experience less acute pain when dealing with battle wounds.
If the level of pain experienced by the victim is reduced, it becomes easier for comrades to treat and transport them, which in turn dramatically improves the victim’s prospects for survival. In addition, the collateral trauma to the men around the injuried would have been reduced with corresponding benefits for battlefield cohesion and effectiveness.
In short, Sparta’s culture of silence very likely had concrete military – and medical – benefits, which reinforced the need for teaching and fostering it.