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All hell breaks loose

By Jack J. Woehr
web posted September 24, 2001

What the heck can I write about if I don't write about the war?

Rudyard Kipling figure that out about 120 years ago and became the martial muse of British India. As soon as I realized that the quote appended to the end of every corporate email I send

I never worry about all hell breaking loose. I worry about half hell breaking loose, it's much harder to detect.
- George Carlin
was out-of-date since all hell had indeed broken loose Sept. 11th, I turned to Kipling for insight into the mysterious North-West.
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
from Kipling's The Young British Soldier now adorns my correspondence.

Kipling was being, in a sense, arch about the plight of the under-appreciated troops of the Raj, a theme he returned to in Tommy:

For it's Tommy this an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!
where Tommy (Victorian slang for the enlisted man, usually a career soldier) was found at the bottom of the rigid Imperial social heap until there was a war on. Both poems were reminders by Kipling that while the comfortable middle class called for war from home there were real lads a-dyin'. I suppose we've improved on the British Empire by sending the lasses to the front as well.

Because that's what the war is about. A French acquaintance with whom I spoke by telephone this week wanted to know what was jumping off with us Americans. I tried to explain the passions aroused and the transformation of American life wrought by cruel deeds. Finally, exasperated at having to listen yet again to a typically French critique of American policy, this time from a man my daughter's age, I told him the truth.

"America is the richest and mightiest empire in the world," I patiently explained.

"Oh yes? What does that mean?" he countered querelously.

"It means we have the most powerful military, and anyone who pulls that tiger's tail does not have to answer to me, or to any other individual American, but to the folly of their own acts."

"They dare not offend your country?" he inquired cynically.

"Let no-one dare attack the mightiest empire in the world in any age of mankind that I've heard of," I replied. "What happens next is just as deterministic as the laws of physics obeyed by the World Trade Center when it collapsed."

There is nothing new under the sun. The Romans gave up their democracy to end terrorism about 2060 years ago when they handed Pompey the Great an overarching dictatorship to clear the Mediterranean of the stateless pirates who had cut off all commerce and were now raiding the coasts of Italy herself. Pompey cleared the seas within months, administering infinite justice tempered with an astonishing mercy by the standards of the times, or by the standards of our times, to judge from recent pronouncements. Plutarch writes in his Life of Pompey:

As regards the prisoners, Pompey never even entertained the idea of putting them to death; on the other hand there were great numbers of them, they were poort and used to war; so that he did not think it would be wise to let them go and allow them to disperse or else to reogranize themselves again in bands ... So he decied to transfer the men  from the sea to the land ... Some of them were received by small and half-populated cities ... which on admitting them gave them land.
Quoted from the Rex Warner translation, 1958, as presented in Penguin Classics Fall of the Roman Republic , ISBN 0-14-044084-4.
The government of Rome after that time devolved into the competition between Caesar and Pompey with well-known results. Pompey, being the most merciful, kept missing chances to behead Caesar and was himself eventually beheaded in Egypt. The Roman Empire ensued. Our leaders are more moderate, perhaps, and our constitution more finely crafted than that of the Romans, but analogous dangers lurk in the present situation.

Well, here we go where Rome and other empires trod before us. Alea jacta est. There's a lot to learn from history read by the light of  national tragedy.

Jack J. Woehr of Fairmount, Colorado is absorbed in the classics but remains soluble in tequila.

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