"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Power And Glory Of Battle–From Genghis Khan To Vietnam And Beyond

Imagine Genghis Khan with an army of ten thousand men riding out of the Steppes, slaying all in their path, laying waste to village after village, and nothing but carnage and death in their wake from the Far East to Europe.  It must have been a grand and heroic spectacle.

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Genghis Khan was charismatic and fearsome; but he was also a brilliant strategist and tactician who often overcame larger and better armed opponents.  He and his armies were known for their cruelty and barbarity, and the sight of them advancing across the battlefield in a storm of dust, the feel of the earth shaking with the thunder of 50,000 hooves were enough to send enemies into retreat; but the thought alone of this terrible, bloodthirsty, and mighty warrior would have done the trick.

Genghis Khan was a man of absolute will and power, a frightening figure of power and vengeance.  He was a horseman of the Apocalypse.

The battles were exalting in their ferocity –  banners flying, swords flashing, and thickets of arrows flying them through the dust of battle.  Armed horsemen – mammoth, incredible figures to most enemies who had never seen horses – charged through the enemy lines, slashing all from their mounts until the battlefield was littered with dead.

There have been many successful armies in the world.  Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus, Pompey the Great, and Marcus Agrippa were as brilliant generals as Genghis Khan, and brought Roman organization, discipline, and management to the battle.  They won because of superior ability, armaments, and military thinking while Genghis Khan added an almost untamed savagery to his victories.

The battles of the Aztecs were more like those of Genghis Khan, for in addition to classic military strategy, organization, and a half-civilized barbarism, they added a powerful spiritual element.  Soldiers dressed in the skins of animals whose spirits they possessed.  When they attacked the enemy, they killed like a panther would; or ripped and tore flesh like an eagle.

     Aztec Jaguar Warrior                                                        Aztec Eagle Warrior

he army of Montezuma which pursued the enemy across the Mexican highlands was not just comprised of men, it was made up of powerful animal spirits. It was the panther which killed, the eagle which ripped enemy flesh, and the jaguar which tore at enemy throats. There could be no greater spectacle of battle than that of the great Aztec armies and the wild soldiers dressed in animal skins, talons, and feathers charging across the plains.

The armies of the European Crusades fought for their Christian God, and felt his spirit within as they attacked the Infidel.  Theirs was a military engagement with strategy, operations, and tactics; but it was also a holy war, inspired by a holy cause, and guided by God himself.

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Early modern warfare was tame by comparison.  World War I was a war of mud, trenches, barbed wire perimeters, mortar fire and infantry charges.  It was a war without spectacle, fought without clear cause or purpose, and was responsible for the deaths of millions.

World War II was the first fully modern war, for it combined classic military tactics with a full complement of armaments – planes, tanks, artillery, riflery, rockets, mortars, and bombs. Soldiers had a cause – Hitler had invaded their countries and they were determined to drive him out – but they were part of a military machine, cogs in its wheels.  Battles were hard-fought, territory often gained by feet, not miles, and battle lines shifting by the week.  It was an ordinary war.

It was not until Vietnam when the spectacle of war again appeared.  F-16 jet fighters were once again Apocalyptic as they rained terror down from the skies.  The destruction was Biblical and epic.

Modern warfare is being increasingly fought by drones.  There are fewer battles and more limited, highly-targeted strikes.  They are fought from Washington where IT technicians guide sophisticated robot aircraft to their target.  No one on the ground sees the strikes coming.  The aircraft are stealthy, and sophisticated electronic intelligence identifies the asset even though the community thinks they have hidden and sheltered him well. As far as the tech warriors in the basement of the Pentagon are concerned, nothing really ever happened.  It was a video game.

The Terminator movies spawned an entire generation of machine vs.man epic battles.  Somehow artificial intelligence went viral, and machines thought like human beings but were so much more powerful.  In the not-too-distant future battles will be held between machine armies.  In one way, this might be considered an advance of civilization.  War in fact becomes fantasy.  No one is killed, and the victor is the one who has more machines standing.

Given human nature, however, national leaders with a gripe are unlikely to stop with mechanical warfare and will continue until real people are destroyed.  The machines will be used as destroyers just like the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
There will always be war, and for some time to come it will be Hell.  As long as real soldiers fight and die on the battlefield, wars will be regrettable; but there will always be individual acts of valor, heroism, and courage.  Yet at the same time there will be fewer and fewer expressions of pure destructive ferocity.

Kali is The Destroyer is the embodiment of man’s need for destruction. 

Hindu philosophy teaches cycles of destruction and regeneration as the natural order, but the destruction is much more human than the regeneration.  Nietzsche believed that an expression of pure Will – one beyond morality, beyond good and evil – is the only thing that validates our humanity.  The F-16 fighter pilot raining terror from the skies, the panther man ripping the throat out of his enemy, or Genghis Khan, Nietzsche’s perfect Superman rampaging his way through the civilized world, are all very much like us all.

Although we may live in a quiet, orderly, predictable world, there is something violently primitive still in us all; and as much as we talk about peace, community, and diversity, we cannot ignore it.
Our religions have become tame and tepid compared to the animistic and supremely powerful religions of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, where the Zapotecs worshiped thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and violent storms and sacrificed their own to appease their gods.

The world will still have wars.  They will be violent and damaging but they will be tame wars. Acts of human will and expressions of pure power are – for the time being – things of the past.  T.S. Eliot was never more right when he wrote:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

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