Prostitution has been called the world’s oldest profession. But for every Stone Age courtesan, there was a nomadic warrior to ply her with obsidian trinkets and mastodon steaks, ostensibly looted from a neighbouring tribe. This tradition is carried on today by marines on port call the world over. Yes, for almost as long as we’ve fornicated, we’ve cracked skulls, skewered intestines, raped and pillaged as well. We’d barely left the bonobo and chimpanzee in our evolutionary dust when we started sharpening spears and fashioning crude implements of war.
Several thousand years later, flint arrowheads have become intercontinental ballistic missiles, but we’re still no closer to understanding why. Our greatest thinkers and artists, from Socrates to Sun Tzu and from Clausewitz to Coppola, have yet to convince us one-way or the other.
So, naturally, we at The
Concordian thought we’d settle the matter once and for all.
Before we wade into those heady intellectual waters, it might be fun to acquaint ourselves with some of War’s more trivial points.
Like Union Army General John Sedgwick’s unfortunate last words, bragging, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”, as his brains were splattered by a Confederate sharp shooter.
Or, that Genghis Khan, while conquering most of Asia, schtupped so many women that he is now believed to have over a hundred million living descendants. These tidbits, while not crucial to our understanding of war, will nonetheless make great conversation over a pint or two.
With that said – let’s start at the beginning. . .
1 – The World’s First War
Setting an ironic precedent for the region, the first war in recorded history took place in what is now Basra, Iraq, sometime around 2700 BC.
Wars were going on earlier and elsewhere, but, caught up in the heat and hijinks of them all, no one had the time to invent writing.
2 – Wars of Antiquity
It is no coincidence that the founding epic of almost every ancient civilization was a tale of conquest or martial heroism. Whether we’re talking about Homer’s Iliad, Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings, or the Hindu Mahabahrata, they are all essentially war stories. For the people of antiquity, war was a treasured national pastime, like the Super Bowl circa 500 BC.
Take the Ancient Greeks; they loved a good scrap and when they couldn’t find a suitable foreign adversary, they were perfectly happy to kill each other. Fortunately, the Eastern Mediterranean was a pretty crowded place back then, and picking a fight was relatively easy.
One such altercation, the Greco-Persian War, you may remember from ‘300’, the visually stunning, but historically inaccurate depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae. In the movie, the Persians are depicted as vicious, sexually depraved, mutant ninjas, bent on spreading tyranny across the globe. This is ironic given that the real Persian Empire was famous for its religious tolerance, particularly of the Jews, and its widespread political freedoms. Thomas Jefferson even noted the influence of Cyrus the Great, father of Persia, in his work on human rights.
And the battle itself? Three hundred Spartans, with a few thousand other Greeks, really did face down an overwhelming invading Persian Army and evidently fought them to a stand still. The rest was Hollywood embellishment. Since fireworks hadn’t been invented yet, in order to celebrate, Athens and Sparta fought a 56-year, on-and-off war, largely for the bragging rights.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, China was going through what historians might call ‘growing pains’. The roughly 300 year ‘warring states’ period is notable for its millions of war dead, its inspiration of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and because most North Americans have never heard of it.
3 – The Age of Chivalry
We now move to the 14th century, and the Age of Chivalry, when war was an aristocratic sport, or the ultimate test of an aspiring squire’s mettle. For the nobility, riding high atop their warhorses and encased in a half-inch suit of steel, death was an unlikely consequence of battle. You were far more likely to be taken prisoner, given the full hospitality of your captors, and ransomed to your King or family. Of course, if you were a peasant or, God forbid, an infidel, you could expect little armour, no quarter, and no sympathy.
Needless to say, the Royal Families of Europe tended to be a little cavalier in their approach to war. For example, having grown sick of the damp English winter, King Edward III laid claim to the French Throne, and kicked off the ‘Hundred Year War’ between England and France. This was not a completely illegitimate claim, given that the British nobility descended from French conquerors, and that the official language of England was French until the mid 14th century. Historians disagree over whether the hundred and sixteen years of bloodshed were worth the right to summer on the Cote’ D’azure. Shakespeare evidently thought so when he wrote Henry V, his version of the Battle of Agincourt, but dramatists can’t be trusted on matters historical.
In any case, the French were saved by the greatest military tactician in their country’s history; a schizophrenic peasant girl named Joan of Arc. This inadvertently creates the first general rule of French Warfare; “France’s Armies are only victorious when not led by a French Man.”
While Europe was bickering over vacation destinations and the Protestant / Catholic divide, an ambitious Mongolian tribal chieftain, Genghis Khan, laid the foundations for the largest empire the world had ever known. By the time that Marco Polo visited the Mongol Empire in the 13th century it had come to dominate most of the Eurasian continent.
4 – The ‘New’ World
It has been pointed out that, when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the ‘New’ World, it was already home to millions of people, not to mention the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan empires. The denizens of the Americas, like those of Europe, had been fighting each other for thousands of years and picked up their own peculiar combat quirks.
The Aztecs, for example, regularly raided smaller neighbouring tribes for prisoners to sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli, the God of war. All of their weapons and tactics were geared towards capturing, rather than killing, their opponents so they would have more people to sacrifice.
This turned out to be a really bad habit when Cortez invaded central Mexico with his ballsy band of conquistadors. The Spaniards, armed with guns, horses, and small pox, had the added benefit of being trained to kill. History spoke and the Aztecs went the way of the Dodo.
5 – Napoleon Syndrome
Upon learning that the people of had no bread to eat, Marie Antoinette is reported to have said ‘let them eat cake’; this did not go over well. She was executed by guillotine on October 16, 1793, almost eight months after husband King Louis XVI. Ten long, bloody, years later, Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from the chaos of the Revolution as the Emperor of France.
Following the first general rule of French Warfare, Napoleon, who was actually Corsican, promptly conquered continental
Europe. Psychologists would eventually speculate that his diminutive stature (he was only 5’6″) drove him to conquest.
6 – The First World War
When most people remember World War I, they think of the trenches, the muddy battlefields crisscrossing the French countryside, and the bloody birth of Modern warfare. The House of Windsor, however, remembers it as an awkward and embarrassing family spat which nearly caused the abolition of the British Monarchy.
You see, the House of Windsor isn’t British at all, it’s German, and it’s really called the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. King George V and Emperor Wilhelm II, the sovereigns of England and Germany, were both members and cousins.
Apparently, the outbreak of war sparked a British backlash against German cultural goods. It got so bad in England that the very institution of the Monarchy became a target of popular frustration. King George, threatened with removal from the throne, changed his name to ‘Windsor’ and his German cousins never got over it.
7 – The Real Rambo & WWII
Tom Hanks has produced so many History Channel specials on World War II that there’s almost no event in the entire conflict that hasn’t been turned into a movie. The one surprising exception to this rule is the tale of ‘Mad’ Jack Churchill or, as I call him, the real Rambo. This guy was either a stone cold bad ass or a walking anachronism. Refusing to carry a gun, Jack would charge into battle brandishing an English long bow, a kilt, and a claymore.
In one engagement, he took 44 heavily armed German soldiers prisoner at sword point. He even had them carry their guns and mortars, free of ammo of course, back to the British forward operating base.
He maintained that “as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry “jawohl” and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the situation. That’s why they make such marvellous soldiers”.
Churchill’s combat career came to an end with an ill-fated attempt to capture hill 622 in 1944. His unit succeeded in their mission but were surrounded and came under heavy German fire. With all of his comrades laying dead from mortar fire, and his ammo spent, Jack picked up his bag pipes and started playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again”, until he was finally knocked out by a grenade.
The Germans, thinking he was related to Winston Churchill, took him to Berlin as a P.O.W, where he managed to set his Luftwaffe transport plane on fire. He escaped from several prison camps unsuccessfully, until, in 1945, he finally made it back to Allied lines. That was the end of the war for Mad Jack. He died of old age in 1996.
8 – Famous Last Words
This brings us to the end of our brief and trivial stumble through History. I know I have given you very little of substance but I hope that you enjoyed it nonetheless. I don’t claim to know why we fight wars. All I know is that we always have and, barring some unforeseen development, it looks like we always will. I’m quite comfortable trusting the more serious questions to our special sections’ more serious contributors.
With that said, I’d like to leave you with the immortal last words of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, which he muttered through delirium as he lay dying and victorious at the Battle of Trafalgar.
“Drink, drink, fan, fan, rub, rub.”