First let’s consider circumstance. The Persians were invading Greece. They asked for surrender, wishing the Greek city-states to become Persian tributaries. Where surrender was refused, they attacked. Leonidas didn’t start the war; the arrival of the Persian envoy was a declaration of war with an invitation to surrender.
Similarly, the United States massed an army near Iraq and made outrageous demands of Saddam Hussein, then invaded. (Could Hussein have avoided war by abdicating, though? I expect abdication would have been followed by occupation and things would be similar now. Similarly, Persian authorities would have been present in Vichy Sparta.) Furthermore, this was done as part of a general effort toward regional domination and concern for resources and revenue. In the case of Persia, there were the issues of tax collection and army provisioning; for America, “stability in the Middle East” means a military presence to watch over the flow of oil and other goods.
Iraq did not invade or even raid America. Iraq didn’t move up to America after a string of conquests in Central America and the West Indies. There was no demand for surrender or declaration of war, no Iraqi army and navy massed on the border and ready to strike if capitulation was not forthcoming.
We move on to organization. As everyone who has heard even a word about Ancient Greece knows, it wasn’t unified. It was, like the Islamic Arab world, a loose knot of states with some culture in common and traditionally associated geographical locations. Persia, on the other hand, was an empire, with all that that implies. It was massive, bureaucratic, a little bit federal… and it vested the authority to make war in a single person.
Iraq’s half-assed history of conquest maps pretty well to Greek squabbles – it could pass for Corinth or Thebes, making war with its neighbors to dubious effect. The oracles have particularly close parallels in the Islamic world because they are a supposed religious authority which not everyone heeds. Islam is decentralized; there are no universally accepted Muslim holy men among the living, no matter your sect. Would Hussein – relatively secular as leaders go – have considered himself bound by rulings from, say, that Mahdi Army guy? Like hell he would have.
Now let’s consider ethos. 300 depicts the Persians as degenerate and wealthy. These concepts do attach to a particular Western stereotype of a particular class of Arab: the wealthy noble. Those guys do still exist, but they aren’t invested with the same The Enemy significance as humorless religious scholars, ascetic fanatics, and of course veiled women too modest for their own good. However, the image of Americans as fat, rude, ugly, perverted, licentious, and obscenely wealthy is part of popular imagination around the world, including America itself. America is the Land of Porn, a country where divorce is normal and every public place has pictures of tits with slogans encouraging you to spend your money on some expensive bullshit you don’t need.
It’s true that there’s a lot of hysteria in war support, but nobody has ever accused the Democrats of raping Laura Bush, and she’s played a relatively minor role in promoting the war. There has never been a surrender movement for her to thwart, partly because there is nobody to surrender to and nobody demanding surrender.
Let us turn penultimately to outcome. 300 explicitly celebrates the achievement of the Spartans at Thermopylae as a lesson to the Persians to fear Greek courage and determination. This is why the battle is considered glorious for the Spartans even though they lost – they’re martyrs, and their defense of their country is significant in part because it’s a promise of what their countrymen will also do in turn.
This is consistent with the reality of the Iraqi resistance, which doesn’t win every battle or succeed with every plan but DOES speak to the impossibility of a peaceful occupation. It’s completely at odds with American attitudes, which paint the deaths of soldiers as tragedies, not triumphs. America is decidedly post-“ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods.”
(The film leaves out the other Greeks who outnumbered the Spartans among those who stayed behind. I think this is more for concision than ideology – in two hours, there’s room for complex city-state politics OR a ton of k-rad bitchin’ slow-motion fight scenes full of jump cuts and short closeups, but not both. Either way, if this had been stressed, it would have been yet another strong similarity to the situation in Iraq, where the resistance has incorporated non-Iraqis who see the American invasion as a threat not just to Iraq but to all Greece.)
And now for the killing stroke: recall which side has beards.