Of Reptiles

Revolutionary wisdom from the Greatest Generation:

In 1774 the conservative New Yorker Gouverneur Morris had warned that “the mob begin to think and reason. Poor reptiles! It is with them a vernal morning; they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite, depend on it.”

Quoted in Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty.

Bravery and Honor, a Cultural Comparison

With yet another Middle Eastern war in the offing, this passage contrasting Arab and British styles of combat is worth savoring:

Discipline was rarely the strong point of any bedouin army; only an eye for the main chance and the hope of loot held them together, and the battle of Jarrab proved no exception. When the Rashid cavalry appeared, charging over the sand and salt flats with their war banners streaming in a great cloud of dust, shrieking their tribal war cries and shouting Allahu Akhbar! (God is Great!), the Saudi army at first held firm. The cavalry counter-charge from the flanks went in to divert the Rashid thrust and soon there was a melee of hand-to-hand fighting with dagger, sword and rifle butt across the little plain in front of Shakespear’s position. Shakespear himself was in full view, standing on top of a dune in his British khaki uniform and solar topee, alternately taking photographs of the scene and tying to direct the fire of Hussein, the gunner. Presently, however, out of the dust part of the Rashid cavalry emerged, charging at full speed upon the Saudi infantry in front of Shakespear. For a few moments there was ragged fire from the wild men behind the sand dunes, but as the mixed cohorts of the camels and horses thundered down upon them the bedouin ranks broke. Within minutes they were fleeing in hundreds past Shakespear’s position, and Hussein, seeing his own gun emplacement left unprotected, paused only long enough to jam the breech before he, too, fled calling to Shakespear to do the same. But the Englishman stood his ground. When last seen, his solar topee was gone but he had drawn his service revolver and, bareheaded, was shooting at the oncoming cavalry at almost point-blank range while the Saudi forces melted from the field.

Ibn Saud afterwards blamed one of his tribal contingents, the Ajman, for changing sides in the middle of the fight; and with their record of treachery and sporadic friendship with his family rivals, the Araif, that is probably as good as explanation as any. Certainly, the Ajman later helped the Rashid forces to clean up the booty on the field, which was probably all they were concerned about anyway. But whatever the explanation, Shakespear was dead, and with him had gone Ibn Saud’s most devoted and eloquent of foreign admirers.

That’s from David Holden’s The House of Saud, pp. 49-50.

On Peasant Revolts

A Chechen intellectual explains the Chechen war:

What we have seen in Chechnya under Dudayev is a peasants’ revolt; and you as a historian will know that a peasants’ revolt is the ugliest, the most stupid and the most dangerous political phenomenon.

That’s Ruslan Khasbulatov, quoted by Anatol Lieven in Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. The tone is unmistakably that of the communist intelligentsia. He’s not wrong, of course, on the merits. But it’s also important to remember where he’s coming from.

The Civilization Paradox

A Lydian named Sandanis to Croesus, in Herodotus’ Histories 1.71.2-3.

“Sire,” he said, “you are preparing for war against the sort of men who wear leather trousers and leather for all their other garments as well. They eat not as much as they want, but as much as they have, since their land is rugged. Moreover, they have no wine but drink water instead. They have no figs for dessert, nor anything else good to eat. Now if you should conquer them, what will you take from these people who have nothing at all? And then again, if they were to conquer you, think of how much you will lose: as soon as they taste our good life, they will never give it up and you will never get rid of them.”

Wisdom. It’s hard not to think of Afghanistan.