Men of the West, On the Cusp

So here we be, again. On the cusp, I would say. Four thousand years of Western Civilization at risk. On the verge. The eve of destruction, as the song says. The best that mankind has to offer is in the balance. I say “the best” because the West has set more men free than any other iteration of civilization, and freedom is the only standard by which we have to judge ourselves for what we are, or what we are capable of becoming. Being able to comply with the dictates of others is only the standard of a slave. 

This culture is our best, not for its faults, but for its virtues. It may ultimately be judged by its failures but, like ancient Greece, it is best appreciated by understanding its accomplishments. Other cultures have their merits. Some more than others. But none have reached for the lofty goals of our founding, nor grasped so much of the human ideal.

There is no alternative. We must persist. Now! The enemy of the future is here. We are again on the plain at Marathon; we stand again at Tours; the Gates of Vienna yet remain. Fall back, they say! Give up! Accept your faults as all that you can be, and follow orders. Follow the rules of others who (magically) know better.  

In 490 B.C. the Greek peninsula was a place divided. The Achaemenid Empire of Persia was the great power of the time and advancing west. Fierce Sparta, thought to be the military powerhouse, remained neutral, bargaining their souls for the role of policemen for the mighty Persian ruler, Darius. Most of the city-states, by not resisting, assumed or hoped that some sort of tribute might be enough. Persia had already made vassals of many more, including Macedonia. But it was for that very reason—that the army threatening Athens was more slave than not and mainly made up of those who had been conquered before—that the Persians faltered. Slaves do not fight as fiercely as free men. 

In Athens, the democracy first kindled just a few years before by the practical Cleisthenes awakening the demos was already flourishing. The irony of that greatest of all Greek contributions to civilization, the ideal of democracy, being set in motion, not by a philosopher, but by a tyrant merely looking for an advantage over other tyrants, would not be a jest of history after all. Socrates the soldier-philosopher was already born and in the midst. Plato and Aristotle would soon be asking the questions that made the modern world possible. Alexander would then be spreading that spirit of Hellenism throughout the known world.

In that year of 490 B.C., on the plains of Marathon, 10,000 Athenians faced 25,000 Persians, routed them, and slaughtered them, before sending a messenger back to the city to tell of the great victory and warn its citizens of a possible counterattack by the enemy navy in revenge. But the warning of that forerunner, Philippides, has been given to us as well. The herald died in his effort to warn them that the battle of Marathon was won—and to warn us because such a victory is never complete. 

But with that victory, the golden age of Greece had begun. Western history had begun. 

More than 1,000 years later, we stood again in 732 A.D., somewhere between the Frankish towns of Poitiers and Tours, during the Muslim invasion of what had once been the Roman province of Gaul. Two-and-a-half centuries before, Rome itself had disintegrated from the internal rot of dictatorship as much as external invasion. Now, all that remained of that great empire was a weakened Byzantine domain in the east. The smaller realms of Aquitaine and Burgundy, Neustria and Austrasia were in the process of being re-consolidated under a future Carolingian dynasty first led by Charles Martel, “The Hammer.” His 15,000 to 20,000 battle-ready foot soldiers had been recently, and for the West, propitiously, gathered to enforce his rule of Aquitaine.

Facing the Franks was the cavalry of the Umayyad Caliphate, perhaps 20,000 strong, under the command of Abdul Rahman Al-Ghafiqui. This juggernaut of warriors were the direct successors to Muhammad, now based in Damascus, and already ruled the largest empire since Rome, stretching from Andalusia to the Indus. That year they were fresh from their recent conquests of Northern Africa and most of Hispania, the likely strategic reason for this thrust into Christian Europe lay in the possibility of a two pronged attack on the Byzantine roadblock at the Bosphorus by coming at the fortress of Constantinople from the West. As it was, Martel, a leader who had been at war his entire life, was perhaps the only ruler in Europe capable of matching the military prowess of the caliphate.

The details are unclear, but Al-Ghafiqi was killed in combat. The Muslim advance was turned back, and with it the aggressive strategies of the Umayyad stalled while the weakened caliphate fell into dissolution following a Berber revolt against their autocratic rule. That Frankish victory, so crucial to the survival of Western values, was to be the foundation of a Carolingian Empire and the future dominance of Europe under King Charlemagne, for with him came the added salvation of Papal power, and the beginning of feudal Europe. 

The Holy Roman Empire that grew out of the rule of Charlemagne had not seen the last of Muslim attempts to cancel Christianity. In July 1683, 230 years after the final fall of Constantinople, and just about the time that some Christians were burning others as witches in Massachusetts and only 50 years after Galileo was placed on trial by the Inquisition, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa led 100,000 Ottoman Turks in a final siege of Vienna, following years of failed attempts. Fifteen thousand Viennese troops refused to give the city up, holding out for promised relief from northern allies. 

It was a time when kings might still lead nations into battle. Within a month, King Sobieski of Lithuania and Poland was marching from Krakow with 23,000 men and joined by 60,000 more from various of the German states; this, while Ottoman soldiers attempted to tunnel beneath the walls of the city intending to plant explosives. 

As Hollywood might have wished it, had such a Western confection already existed, on September 11, 1683, just as the walls were breached, Sobieski’s forces arrived, and the battle was joined. With the Ottoman troops finally devastated (but not in Hollywood fashion), Mustafa ordered the execution of 30,000 Christian hostages, and fled. But the Gates of Vienna remained.

Though there were previous attacks, the beginning of the current assault on the West can be clearly dated to September 11, 2001. The siege continues from within and without. As it has always been, there are those who would rather pay tribute or hope for kindness from their attacker than to fight. Others seem to think that their special talents might make them more useful to their assailant—to hell with everyone else—a bad bargain in an age of artificial intelligence.

China clearly sees the nearly 1,500-year-old dispute between Islam and the West as an opportunity. But China, too, is caught in the maelstrom. The subjugation of peoples has always proved temporary and the successes ephemeral. Top-down supervision of international trade has become their own nightmare as the short attention spans of poorer countries are magnified by a diminishing Chinese workforce of individuals taking advantage of their own opportunities.

In America, two generations of second-rate education will simply not suffice to run the most sophisticated economy in the world, and artificial intelligence is not yet poised to take up the slack. Infrastructure deteriorates as workers guaranteed an income slack off under the demands. 

A recounting of the current ills of our own society is not helpful. This is the West. If we become the victims, there is nowhere else to turn. While we are still free enough to act on our own behalf, we must act. The dictates of others must be ignored or rebuffed. 

After serving in the trenches during World War I, and having followed the rise of Adolf Hitler while the voices of the modern Philippides cautioned and political decadence ruled, J. R. R. Tolkien, a historian at heart, could not have ignored such precedence when writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He spoke of using the Icelandic Edda, Voluspa, retold by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, and often referenced it for names and mythic themes. 

Yet it is in the movie made of the third volume of the epic, The Return of the King, that writers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh offer the best account of the theme, when Aragorn gives a speech to the armies of Rohan and Gondor just before they commence an attack on the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron at the Black Gate in Mordor. 

Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the Age of Men comes crashing down. But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: Anthony Correia/Getty Images

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