West versus East, or Primitive versus Modern?

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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern
Like me, this European wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis) lives here because its ancestors were brought here and have been living here ever since! According to Thompson Rivers University these are an invasive species on the Saanich Peninsula. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2021

The wars I mean are those fought between two widely separated races accustomed to a different physical environment. Then it may naturally happen that each race or nation has developed an armament and a style of fighting suitable to the nature of the country in which it dwells, and is practically unable to alter its national arms and tactics. …

The best examples which history offers of this are the great struggles in ancient or mediaeval times between East and West. Here as a rule the opposing armies differ entirely in character. The Western nation is apt to rely on solid masses of heavy-armed warriors, the Eastern on cavalry and archers skirmishing in open order. This contrast is nowhere better seen than in the Persian War, but something like the same difference meets us again in later history, in the wars of Rome with Parthia, or in the Crusades, though in them, while the Orientals still trust to light horse and archers, the men of the West rely no longer solely or mainly on infantry, but on heavy-armed horsemen, supported by infantry armed with missiles.

W.W. How, “Arms, Tactics and Strategy in the Persian War” (1923) pp. 117, 118 https://doi.org/10.2307/625800

News of the first strikes against Afghanistan indicate that a tested Western response to Islamic aggression is now well under way. It is not a crusade. The crusades were an episode localised in time and place, in the religious contest between Christianity and Islam. This war belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals. –

Sir John Keegan, “In this war of civilisations, the West will prevail” (2001) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/4266179/In-this-war-of-civilisations-the-West-will-prevail.html

In the latest issue of Desperta Ferro Antigua y Medieval (link if you read Spanish) I wrote about how many people telling the story of Xerxes’ Ionian War want one side to be a lavishly equipped professional army and the other to be a gang of ragged freedom-fighters, but they can’t decide which side should be the Greeks and which side should be the Persians. If the Persians are the mighty imperial army with the latest equipment and training, they are not the peoples overcome by European firepower and drill in recent times. If the ancient Greeks are the quarreling aristocrats and aggressive amateurs which they tell us they were, they are not Mr. Kipling’s army in skirts. People want to identify with the underdog, but they also want to believe that superhuman forces make their side’s victory inevitable. Its hard to reconcile those two wishes.

There is also a simile where Greeks battling Persians are like crusaders battling the Turks. The people who make this analogy know as little of one as the other, but it sounds impressive. And this kind of rhetoric also has some contradictions which you can see if you read the words of an obscure lieutenant of cavalry.

Lt. Winston S. Churchill first came to public attention when he almost got himself killed at the Battle of Omdurman in Sudan. What would have been an excellent army in the 1590s fought a European army in the 1890s and was shot to pieces, but afterwards Churchill’s unit got too excited and galloped into a wadi full of spearmen and musketeers who had not yet come under fire. Churchill wrote some indiscreet letters to his MP about wounded Sudanese being left on the battlefield to die in blatant violation of the Geneva Convention of 1864, and these letters were quoted in Hansard. In his two accounts of the battle in The River War (1899) and My Early Life: A Roving Commission (1930) he uses a group of metaphors.

  • The River War vol. 2 p. 112 (Google books) “This mass of men was the most striking of all. They could not have mustered less than 6,000. Their array was perfect. They displayed a great number of flags – perhaps 500 – which looked at the distance white, though they were really covered with texts from the Koran, and which by their admirable alignment made this division of the Khalifa’s army look like the old representation of the Crusaders in the Bayeux tapestry.”
  • My Early Life p. 191 “I now saw Baggara horsemen in twos and threes riding across the plain on our left towards the ridge. One of these patrols of three men came within pistol range. They were dark, cowled figures, like monks on horseback – ugly, sinister brutes with long spears. I fired a few shots at them from the saddle and they sheered off.”
  • My Early Life p. 192 “The whole of the Khalifa’s army, nearly 60,000 strong, advanced in battle order from their encampments of the night before, topped the swell of ground which hid the two armies from one another, and then rolled down the gently-sloping amphitheatre in the arena of which, backed upon the Nile, Kitchener’s 20,000 troops were drawn up shoulder to shoulder to receive them. Ancient and modern confronted one another. The weapons, the methods and the fanaticism of the Middle Ages were brought by an extraordinary anachronism into dire collision with the organization and inventions of the nineteenth century. The result was not surprising. As the successors of the Saracens descended the long smooth slopes which lead to the river and their enemy, they encountered the rifle fire of two and a half divisions of trained infantry, drawn up two deep and in close order and supported by at least 70 guns on the river bank and in the gunboats, all firing with undisturbed efficiency. Under this the whole attack withered and came to a standstill with a loss of perhaps six or seven thousand men, at least 700 yards away from the British-Egyptian line.”
  • The River War vol. 2 p. 164 “Thus ended the battle of Omdurman- the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarism. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors.”

If you have read Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee you have heard this story before. It contrasts the primitive, fanatical, irrational past with the mechanical, rational, democratic present. In this story, anything medieval is Them and the difference between Saracens and Crusaders is a detail. But in W.W. How’s story, crusaders are Westerners and Us while Turks or Saracens are Easterners and therefore Them. Europeans and settlers with a poetic frame of mind have trouble choosing between these stories and deciding whether crusaders are Us or Them.

Blut-und-Boden nationalists have no problem choosing a contrast between west and east (unless they think the other will be more convincing to their audience). But other kinds of conservatives feel torn, because they like the idea of having a single line of ancestors stretching back thousands of years, but they do not like all the things that come up when they hear “the middle ages.” American conservatives have never managed to reconcile their myth of the Revolution with the reality of their empire, and people who want a ‘line of ancestors’ have never managed to answer that this is not how family trees work.

(scheduled 4 September 2021)

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