I'm not really all that mysterious

the battle of thermopylae

Stacy Taylor, the host of the KLSD morning radio show, broke down the movie ”300” for me. I was all psyched to watch it, having thoroughly enjoyed ”Sin City” but (1) my dad and my brother watched it without me and (2) Taylor’s deconstruction of it kind of took the wind out of my sails.

Some right wing bloggers talk about how it’s about the defense of one’s home (which is true) and also the defense of one’s liberty (which is probably not so true.) After all, Sparta was a militaristic dictatorship. It was Athens that was a rowdy, querolous democracy, and in reality, they were the guys who eventually ended up decisively repulsing the invading Persian Empire in the Battle of Salamis1.

Not to say that fighting to your death in defense of the things you love is not a worthy cause. As long as you know what you’re really doing—that you really are fighting for life, liberty, and justice for all—then I’m all for it, but if you’ve been tricked by a lying piece of shit leader to fight a futile war for oil and profit and you still think this is all in the name of “democracy” or “national security”, then I have to say, not so much.

The ironic thing is that most of the people I’ve talked to in the military—the guys who are in the trenches and actually getting shot at—are disgusted by the War in Iraq. They know what their number is, and no one I know actually signed up to shoot and kill people for kicks and giggles. Most people did it, frankly, for financial reasons. Either they got kicked out of their parents’ house, or one or both their parents were criminals—druggies, pedophiles, rapists, you name it, or they realized that working at the local Wal-mart was an obvious dead-end. I’m all for bettering your station in life, and if your only option is to join the military in time of peace, then go to it and get your GI bill. The world can only be better for having more people who understand the nature of service to something greater, and more importantly, more people who are educated. (And, believe me, there are a lot of ways to do this beside military service, although probably not any that have benefits that are as good.)

Now that we’re embroiled in a imperialistic war for oil and profit, the military is not so attractive, and most people who are sane will admit as much. No one wants to get shot for some old white dude living it up like a Saudi, and no one wants to get blown up by an IED and end up a quadraplegic, sequestered in some hell-pit full of rats and other vermin.

But, unlike Bush, who had a rich daddy, or Cheney, who had “other priorities”, most folks who are already embroiled in this thing can’t really easily get out of it, especially not with the demented Colonel Cathcart-style, Catch-22-like upping the number of tours you have to do before you’re done, and frankly, I feel sorry for them. Get home safe, guys.

But I can’t help but wax poetic about defeat. The place names that hang most vividly in my mind are the places where civilizations and cultures ended. Futile battles. For some reason, the Battles of Maldon (ending the dominion of the Anglo-Saxons) and of Hastings (ushering in the era of the Norman French and incidentally the beginning point of Modern English) always come to mind, but I also think of the Battles of Bataan and Corregidor, which mark the end of the American Imperial Era in the Philippines, and heralds the eventually near-complete destruction of Manila. In 1941, Manila was the most modern, Westernized city in Asia. In 1945, Manila was the second most devastated Allied city, superseded only by Warsaw.

I think I have subconsciously taken up Tolkien’s concept of “The Long Defeat.”

Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic; so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’

Certainly, there is an imperialistic, racist, and innately conservative aspect to this idea (which I don’t know one way or the other that Professor Tolkien ever espoused)—the old days were better, and so-called progress is inherently for the worse. “The Long Defeat” is certainly the conception that, for example, inveterate Confederates, and, in general, antagonists of the American Culture War hold on to. It was supposedly better before the Civil War, before the Civil Rights Movement, before people-of-color were considered human beings, before gays and lesbians were allowed to partake of society and not be considered criminals.

But the part of the Long Defeat that I find strikes true is that Evil seems to always have the upper hand. Good only occurs when small, unlooked-for triumphs manage to spark a revolution. The Civil Rights Movement and the 1960s in general were the work of the common folk, the very people that Tolkien champions:

Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.

— Gandalf the Grey

But, of course, the Empire Strikes Back, and we end up fighting against the on-rushing tide of reactionary forces once again. I think of Hunter S Thompson’s wistful look back to the 1960s in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…. History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…. There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda…. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…. And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

I also think of Christ’s Passion. I actually find it more meaningful if you ignore the triumph of Resurrection—what is important is not that Christ rose from the dead, but that despite the torture, humiliation, and slaughter of Christ, and despite the suppression of the belief of the One God by the Romans, his followers continue to believe, and by the 4th century CE, Christianity is flourishing.

HST’s exposition is really what I mean by the Long Defeat (and is it any surprise that The Lord of the Rings gained such mainstream cultural significance in the 1960s?) But the key to preventing despair in the face of defeat is explicated succinctly by Gandhi: “Whatever you do is insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

  1. I find the Athenian-Spartan alliance against Persia loosely analogous to the US-USSR alliance against the Axis. For example, while the USSR was a totalitarian dictatorship under Stalin, you still had to feel sorry for those guys who had to share rifles and who had to fight tanks hand-to-hand in their attempt to repulse the Germans, and you’d definitely rather have the Soviets win rather than the Nazis. But, while the Soviet resistance against the Axis was certainly necessary in order to defeat the Axis, it was the democratic republic of the United States and the industrial might of our capitalist economy that led to the final downfall of the Axis2.

  2. (addendum 2015 Dec 16) well, at least that’s the standard narrative for how WWII was won and why the USSR ended up collapsing

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