Odysseus’ Bow

Edward Luttwak

  • Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity by J.E. Lendon
    Yale, 468 pp, £18.95, June 2005, ISBN 0 300 10663 7

The extraordinarily long, extraordinarily bloody world wars of the 20th century were fought very largely by unwilling conscripts, and that too was extraordinary, as was the consequence that many came home as worn-out veterans less attractive to women than slick, stay-at-home spivs. The two wars that still loom so large in Euro-American collective memory therefore obscure the twin verities that, in the words of the military historian Martin van Creveld, ‘men love war and women love warriors.’ That he is right cannot be doubted because, with few exceptions, wars throughout history have been fought by volunteers, who had to love war to tolerate its inevitable hardships; and men would certainly have found other diversions if warriors had not been especially attractive to women. There is also a corollary: when women love warriors, they procreate sufficiently to replace the losses of war – and that too cannot be doubted, for otherwise we would not be here.

What happens if men cease to love war and women no longer have warriors to love? We needn’t guess because both discontinuities are already present among some human populations – the ones whose numbers are declining. Only a fool would blame falling birth-rates on a single cause and in this case, moreover, cause and effect obviously work in both directions. But it is undeniable that Europe’s indigenous populations, which kept increasing from bloody war to bloody war, are now ageing and declining under an endless peace. Fascist implications, vitalism and all, logically follow but to no effect, because the only wars that can still be fought in the nuclear age are small and engage very few; even the supposedly warlike United States has far fewer than a million men and women in the combat echelons of all four services, out of a population approaching 300 million.

So it is only to understand its history and not for any suspect purpose that one must recognise the truth that war can be very enjoyable, notwithstanding all the teachings, preachings and writings to the contrary, or the denials of the practitioners themselves. Famous generals learned long ago to deny shamelessly all the fun of it, and these days even ordinary American soldiers have absorbed enough political correctness to be evasive or downright deceptive when asked why they are re-enlisting after a tour in Iraq, given the near-certainty that they will have to undertake another. They prefer to imply what very few of them will confirm when questioned directly – that the war is a worthwhile endeavour – rather than admit the truth that they enjoy it, in spite of the remarkable ugliness of most of the country, its sullen or demonstratively hostile inhabitants, the total absence of off-base booze and sex, and the 99.9 per cent boredom and 0.1 per cent terror of the insurgency. But even in Iraq the essential attraction of war is present in full measure: its substitution of the repetitive idiocy of everyday life with the supreme excitement of combat readiness, that intensely pleasurable feeling of self-possession that comes from the knowledge that a fight to the death might start at any time, and that one is prepared for it, by mental disposition and acquired skills.

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