Apocalypse how?

The guy down the street is talking about militias.  He sees the signs of the coming anarchy everywhere.  Especially, I’m thinking, on Fox News.  But even without Fox’s fear mongering, it would be easy to become discouraged about the future of the world.  Every day, the inescapable images of Jihad bombard us, new school shootings, carried out or just threatened, besiege us, and random acts of carnage seem to surround us.  The moral fabric of humanity appears threadbare, on the verge of ripping apart.

It has happened before.  I’ve just been reading Barbara Tuchman’s remarkable study of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror.  A combination of the Black Death, which wiped out as much as 40% of the population of Europe, and endemic corruption in the Church and aristocracy, made people despair of anything good coming of the human race.  They were convinced that, somehow, they had so revolted God that he resorted to torturing them willy-nilly, without regard for who was righteous and who was not. It was not God, of course, but themselves to blame, but in a way, that just makes it worse.  In comparison with those troubled times, ISIS seems just a dim reflection.

But we were beyond all that barbarism, weren’t we?  Or, at least, we thought we were.  Taking a realistic look back at the 20th century, the standard by which we seem to be measuring the 21st, maybe not.  The two world wars alone accounted for nearly 70 million official deaths, and who knows how many more were missed by the official tallies.  Stalin was reportedly responsible for 50 million deaths all by himself.  Add all the sideshows, and you might add half again as many.  We forget the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, I suspect, mostly because they didn’t behead Europeans and Americans on TV.

All of that notwithstanding, as Stephen Pinker demonstrates in his book The Better Angels of our Nature, the world is less violent now than at any point in our history.  Yet you wouldn’t know it from the daily news, and therein lies the answer.  A combination of our all-news-all-the-time media and direct threats made from distant places by religious fanatics creates the impression of impending doom; reality is undoubtedly not as horrendous as it seems.

But don’t take that deep breath just yet.  The other day, I noticed my internet connection having trouble, and a couple of IOT things had to be reprogrammed.  It happened that this coincided with a rather lusty blast of solar radiation.  A few years ago, a stronger one messed with GPS and caused all kinds of problems, but the worst instance was in 1859, something called the Carrington event.  Telegraph wires were so electrified that the service was completely shut down; one operator was reportedly killed by a surge coming down the line.  People could read, it was said, by the light of unusually bright Northern Lights.

More troubling from our standpoint was solar storm that occurred in March of 1989.  That one fried the electrical grid of Quebec and caused a massive blackout, and it was a fraction of the estimated strength of the Carrington event.  It is a certainty that something of the intensity of 1859 will happen again, sooner or later.  It’s probable that even stronger solar storms have occurred before the world was wired, and they could very well return with a vengeance now that we’re virtually (pun intended) dependent on little electrons behaving the way we want them to.  In short, it is possible that not only could our electrical grid get fried, but all of the data we have stored magnetically could be erased permanently.  Computers, which now inhabit everything from nuclear weapons to cars to toasters would be, well, toast.  I leave the full consequences to your imagination.

On the bright side, however, we will probably be done in by climate change long before any of that happens.  Cheer up!

Dead Achilles

Like Achilles, we are good at the war cry. Our righteous anger smolders and bursts into flame with each new affront from the enemy. Our Trojans, the Islamic State, have gone even further than the originals, to the point of abdicating any claim to humanity. They are animals, we say, meaning the ultimate insult, meaning they are ours to kill or torture at will. Meaning we share this one thing with them.

I make no apologies for ISIS; they live in a delusional medieval world and have raised the worst aspects of earlier times to holy rite. Until recent times, warfare was total. If an enemy dared to defy your superiority, they deserved not only to die, but to have their kind obliterated. Thus the killing of all occupants of a delinquent city, and the razing of its houses, even, in the case of Rome at Carthage, the salting of its fields to prevent the growing of crops. Something similar has continued all through history: the destruction of Calais, the burning of Atlanta, the firebombing of Dresden. Nowadays we have rules of engagement, and we try to limit atrocity, although perhaps we have succeeded most in separating ourselves from direct participation.

Because, unlike Achilles, we prefer to pay someone else to salvage our honor. Then we heap accolades on them, thank them profusely and endlessly for their service. Meaning how nice it is of them to spare us the discomfort of direct vengeance. When the rules of warfare are overstepped, the accolades turn to scorn with the ease of changing hats. We have no understanding of any depth of what is going on, of who it is we alternately love and hate, depending on circumstances.

All the same, we continue to raise high the standard of heroism, of gallantry in warfare, of the sheer nobility of it all.

Which brings me back to Achilles. It has always mystified me why Achilles is a hero. Here is someone who, by all accounts, is the most perfect warrior on the Greek side, a son of Thetis and Peleus with unmatched courage. Yet he sits and pouts, refusing to fight, his pride wounded because Agamemnon, who was after all the leader of the expedition, has taken a slave girl from him, a girl who Achilles abducted while savagely pillaging a city on the way to Troy. So much for valor. So much for chivalry.

He only rejoins the battle after his friend and protégé, Patroclus, is killed while wearing his armor in an attempt to inspire the Greeks. You might think this was because Achilles was overcome by grief and guilt, since it was his petulance that led Patroclus to take his fateful action, but it wasn’t. It was simply because his friend had been killed, and, since it was Hector, son of the Trojan king Priam, who had done it, it was Hector who would bear his wrath, never mind that the killing occurred in the blur of battle. Self-preservation, let alone the defense of one’s own city under siege, was apparently no excuse. As petty as it sounds, this epitomizes a timeless truth about battle: soldiers fight only for each other, no matter how noble the original cause. For those who voluntarily return to the battle again and again, it’s often for the sheer love of it, no matter how draped in the banner of patriotism, or at least moral necessity.

But there is another timeless truth epitomized by Achilles, this time after he is dead. When Odysseus sees him in the underworld, he seems despondent. Odysseus tries to rally him.

But, you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you –
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.

But to no avail. Achilles’ answer is clear and succinct.

By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

And there lies all the glory of war.