American Warrior

Worf
Lieutenant Commander Worf

I read a great book this week, ‘In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius’, by the linguist Arika Okrent, and while I really enjoyed it, it did have one unfortunate consequence: it interested me, against my will, in Klingon culture.

I don’t know whether you happen to be familiar with the Klingon founding myth, but I’m going to quote it to you in its entirety:

With fire and steel did the gods forge the Klingon heart. So fiercely did it beat, so loud was the sound, that the gods cried out, ‘On this day we have brought forth the strongest heart in all the heavens. None can stand before it without trembling at its strength.’

But then the Klingon heart weakened; its steady rhythm faltered and the gods said, ‘Why do you weaken so? We have made you the strongest in all of creation.’

And the heart said, ‘I am alone.’

And the gods knew that they had erred. So they went back to their forge and brought forth another heart.

But the second heart beat stronger than the first, and the first was jealous of its power. Fortunately, the second heart was tempered by wisdom: ‘If we join together, no force can stop us.’

And when the two hearts began to beat together, they filled the heavens with a terrible sound. For the first time, the gods knew fear. They tried to flee, but it was too late. The Klingon hearts destroyed the gods who created them and turned the heavens to ashes. To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts.” (Star Trek Deep Space 9, Season 6, Episode 7)

When the first Klingon heart met the second Klingon heart, they had no further need of other beings, and so they destroyed their creators and the place where their creators dwelt.

This myth is read at Klingon weddings; this is Klingon romance.  And that makes sense, because the Klingon are a warrior people.  They define themselves by their destructiveness towards non-Klingon.

I don’t want to do a deep dive into Klingon, but that founding myth snagged in my mind.  Founding myths are how a culture tells itself who it is, and while the Klingon aren’t real, Americans are.

And we also have a founding myth about destroying our creators.  Sure, sure, we didn’t obliterate the English and turn London “to ashes”.  And, yes, we tend to couch our myth in the language of freedom and democracy.

Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_by_Emanuel_Leutze,_MMA-NYC,_1851
‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ by Emanuel Leutze, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But our myth is a war myth nonetheless.  In fact, many of the pillars supporting our national identity are martial myths: the drive to self-determination of the Revolutionary War, the victory of pure, disinterested abolitionism during the Civil War, the manner in which we selflessly saved the world from the Nazi menace during World War II.

 

Iwo Jima
U.S. Marines raise the American flag on Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima, 1945

These are all myths – specifically, they are all warrior myths.  They tell the story of an invincible people who solve their problem with righteous arms and always fight for good.

I think that this is why the Klingon myth has been banging around my mind since I read it: it reminded me of my own country.  Compare these two sentiments:

“’If we join together, no force can stop us.’…To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts.”

“Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country that we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.” – Patrick Henry, Speech at the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond, March 23rd, 1775

But, of course, we are neither invincible nor righteous.  On our best day, we are a nation with feet of clay (so to speak) like any other.  We have our good moments and our bad moments.

But warrior nations must take care, because their bad moments are so often brutal.  And their myths give them permission to be brutal – they excuse brutality by hiding it behind God-given indestructibility.

But, as we bomb yet another Middle Eastern country and posture aggressively on the Korean Peninsula, it’s worth asking: must we fight always?  Are we so sure that we’re righteous?  Why do we greet every conflict with one hand already inching towards our holster?

We might remember instead the Klingon proverb: there are no old warriors.

Peaceful, Evil Man

To Tony Judt, With Humility and Apologies

     There are minds so strong and lovely that one quails at the idea of disagreeing with them.  The error must be yours, you think, because their thinking is so sure and clean and reliable.

     When I find a discrepancy between my thinking and that of a greater mind, I usually retire, but every once and awhile, an admired intellect will assert something that I feel strongly is incorrect, and I find myself unable to give way.

     That happened to me this week.  I have been reading, with enormous pleasure, ‘When the Facts Change‘ by Tony Judt, the lucid, moderate, incisive historian of post-World War Europe. Judt is the sort of author is who is so reasonable and articulate that he is dangerously persuasive, and I find myself, usually, in total agreement with him.

     So I was caught up short when I read something in this book with which I disagree pretty categorically:

“It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity.  War – total war – has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era.  The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.  Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either Communism or Fascism would have seized hold of modern states.  Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust.  Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot.” (p. 274)

     These data are cherry-picked.  

     First of all, it is certainly coherent to lay the victory (though not the rise) of Communism in Russia at the feet of World War I, but to suggest that, for example, the millions of deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) were a result most proximately of World War I is ridiculous – the People’s Republic wasn’t even established until 1949!

1966 Struggle Session
A ‘struggle session’ in Harbin in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, featuring public humiliation.  From scmp.com

     Or: perhaps the first British concentration camps in Africa were built because of the Boer War, but what about the detention camps they used for massive deportations of Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950’s?  Describing the “Mau Mau Uprising” as ‘total war’ seems like an enormous stretch, even when one considers how reluctant the British have been to be honest about it.

Mau Mau
British soldiers looking for Mau Mau fighters in Kenya in 1954.  From guardian.com

     Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?  

Rape of Nanking
A Japanese soldier poses with decapitated heads in Nanking in 1937.  From ‘The Rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang

     Or: if we must restrict ourselves to the treatment of African-Americans in modernity, what about the Jim Crow era in the United States, which was nothing if not atrocious?

Lynching
From atlantablackstar.com

     There are more.  The truth is, there is no limiting circumstance on human evil.  To suggest that there is, is to indulge in optimism completely without cause.

     Judt’s assertion offends me because it implies that, in the absence of war, people can be trusted not to lash out at each other genocidally, and this is clearly not the case.  The arc of human history does not bear this out; the history of the twentieth century does not bear this out; neither the history of my nation or his bears this out.

     Humans require no special context to commit evil.  They do not require war to commit genocide.  They do not need to be in extremis to commit atrocities.  They do it in all places at all times whether or not they have war as an excuse.

     This capacity to annihilate one another is not a limited or circumscribed capacity – it is a human capacity.  If we keep looking for reasons why we could never have done the same terrible things as other people, if we keep looking for special circumstances which explain why cruelty and murder and evil are not universal, then we aren’t going to see the next evil coming.

     We have to take responsibility, not for the evil we have or have not done, but the evil we are capable of doing.  To say that only people in certain circumstances might commit atrocities is logic preliminary to explaining why we cannot commit them.

     But every nation, people, or creed will have the opportunity to strike cruelly at another people, and, if they are convinced beforehand that they are not capable of it, then they will think less critically about what they do.  It is only by acknowledging that we may all do terrible things unless we are careful that we will see the need to take care.

     And we must take care.

 

Featured Image from law.georgetown.edu/library

“Welcome Tae Yer Gory Bed, or Tae Victorie”

     I wish that I could have seen the battle at Bannockburn.

     It wasn’t, by modern standards, a very big battle, but it was a long one, lasting two full days.  It was a failed attempt by the English army, under Edward II, to relieve Stirling Castle from siege by Scottish independence forces led by Robert the Bruce during the First War of Scottish Independence.

     By the year of Bannockburn, 1314, Edward II was losing the hold his father, Edward I, had consolidated on Scotland.  Robert the Bruce had claimed the Scottish throne in 1306, and was retaking Scottish strongholds one by one.

     Robert the Bruce is one of history’s warrior-giants.  He was physically enormous, a multi-lingual and well-educated nobleman, and he absolutely scared the pants off the English.  He would have scared the pants off you, too: he embodied that unusual and frightening combination of physical size, martial competence, and charismatic leadership.  He is described, at one point in the Battle of Bannockburn, as splitting Henry de Bohun’s helmeted head at full charge with one blow of his axe.

     Estimates put the English force at Bannockburn at approximately 15,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry; the Scots fielded somewhere less than 10,000, a small percentage of which would have been mounted.

     These nearly-30,000 men hurled themselves at each other for two days, charging and recharging, until approximately two-thirds of the English infantry were dead.  Even if Scottish casualties were light, something like 15,000 men probably died at Bannockburn.

     And I wish that I had seen it.  I do not believe that it was cinematic or noble or good, and I certainly do not wish to have participated in it – I am no reenactor, and I do not hanker after olden and blood-soaked days.  One of the great privileges of living in our age is that one has a much lower chance of dying in battle.

     But battles, armed clashes between large groups of people, are part of the human experience.  They must have been terrible and awesome to see: thousands and tens of thousands of men bent on nothing but their own survival and the destruction of the other.

     There really isn’t anything else like battle in the human experience, and it has happened in every culture in every time in recorded human history.  War is one of man’s unique characteristics – our ability to abstract and organize violence is one of the things which sets us apart from other animals (with the possible exception of chimps).

     War isn’t a universal masculine experience, but it is a defining one.  Men everywhere and through all times have done battle with other men, and have measured their strength by their ability to do so.  They marched and ran and rode in lines – they hacked each other to pieces with swords, rained arrows on each other, ran each other down with horses, and blew each other apart with guns.

     William James wrote, in ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘, “We inherit the warlike type; and for most of the capabilities of heroism that the human race is full of we have to thank this cruel history.”  I think that may be an over-simplification, and I know James would agree with me (for it is one of the main thrusts of the essay) that war is a blight, the reduction of which is an unalloyed good for mankind.  

     Nevertheless, the ability to steel one’s nerve, to run or ride headlong into an advancing or overwhelming enemy, to die not for necessity but for a rule or for a principle, is an astonishing and human ability.  It’s part of who we are, a capability which informs the collective human psyche, which defines at one stroke the best and worst limits of ourselves, and it is strange to think that I will never see something which has been so fundamental to the self-conception of so many.

     And I wish I could have.

Title is from the song ‘Scots Wha Hae’, the lyrics written by Robert Burns as a speech given by Robert the Bruce before Bannockburn.

Image is of the statue of Robert the Bruce at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, taken from the BBC.