Jon Sugden in his definitive biography of the Shawnee chief and freedom fighter Tecumseh asked, rather imposingly I might add, a question upon his reader. This question has often swirled around my mind when I read of the fanciful tales of conquerors of the past who have filled the pages of history with corpses. Paraphrasingly, he asked why are the carriers of naked aggression against their fellow man held up in such esteem, whilst those who have battled for a cause of justice are buried in the sands of history; especially when they are on the losing side of events? That old maxim rings ever true that the winner writes history, or perhaps in our age, the side with the more skilled spiders, who spin webs of propaganda and illusion.
Returning home heartbroken and disgusted at the ruin that became of his dream, he immediately threw himself into the war effort of the British. He gathered the remnants of his warriors and swore allegiance to the King of England, leading the Native contingent of the army which was made up of natives, Canadian militia and a handful of British regulars. After several brilliant victories, the British commander Issac Brock died of sickness leaving the incompetent Henry Procter in charge. After the American naval captain Perry defeated the British on Lake Erie, the coalition was forced to retreat, eventually retreating into Canada to Moraviantown on the river Thames, where Tecumseh would give up the Ghost in a hopeless, lopsided battle in which he was stuck holding the rear flank as the British commander retreated. Procter would eventually be court marshaled after the war for "deficiency in energy in judgement."
There is no need here to list the many depravities inflicted upon the native Americans in the genocide of their race. These things are well known yet somehow due to our programming we are always able to compartmentalize these events as "way back then" or "it was for a greater good" which, anyone with a critical mind can easily see that it is all relevant in the here and now and will remain so to those who are able to escape the box in which they were taught to think.
Tecumseh fought this oppression with every fiber of his existence for no other reason than to find justice for his people. And yes his hands were covered in blood, literally, due to the nature of warfare at the time. It also wouldn't surprise me if there was "Innocent" blood on his hands at one time or another. But I ask is there a cause more worthy of fighting for than that of the existence of your people? Spilling blood is a great atrocity of mankind, one of our original sins if you will, but can you find a more just reason to take a life than to defend your hearth and kin?
Take a moment and browse through almost any list of great men from times past. I assure you that a majority of those men, especially before the 20th century were warlords and or generals of one kind or another, whose claim to fame was conquest. In this list of names we see the likes of Alexander, Hannibal, Ceasar, Charlemagne, William, Henry and Napoleon just to name a few. If you examine the careers of these men, you see either raw aggression being carried out, or a flimsy pretense for starting a war of conquest. Without a doubt there are some men of war who have stood on the side of justice and repelled invasions or perhaps made a continent safe for posterity; these are not whom we are examining, instead this essay is to ask why these often times victorious aggressors are legends, while those on the opposite side are relegated to the footnotes of history.
Out of the aforementioned names, let us examine the actions of several of them in chronological order. Alexander the Great, King of Macedon and Greater Greece inherited is father's kingdom while in his early twenties, He also inherited his father's desire to conquer the Persian Empire. Indeed the Empire to the East was the greatest and most splendid on that side of the world since the decline of Egypt. A natural hatred was embedded in the hearts of the Greeks towards the Persians due to several conflicts that stretched back well over a hundred years. This anger was channeled along with a pan-Greek propaganda machine to stir up support in Macedonian controlled Greece.
On the other side of the board was Darius the Third, who gave little serious consideration towards Alexanders massing his army on his border; what could 40,000 Greeks do to an empire of millions?
Darius was soon proven wrong. After the defeat of his armies he came out personally to do battle with Alexander. Suffering several defeats he fled before Alexander, hoping to reorganize again but was slayed by some of his retinue who had hoped for a reward from the young king. Their reward was the end of a sword, for Alexander thought it dishonorable the low-handed way in which Darius was murdered.
If the history books are true, then yes Alexander was an incredible leader. Not only was he a military genius who was usually vastly out-numbered by his opponents but was also a benevolent ruler who treated the conquered quite humanely. On top of that he was a learned student of the philosophies and sciences, a true renaissance man of antiquity. But before we start to get caught up romanticizing the Lion of Macedon because of his unique combination of attributes, let us not forget that he invaded the Empire like a truculent child driven by the lust of greed and ambition. Let us not forget the blood-soaked fields that were left in his wake, the widowed and the fatherless who had to beg for bread while he was out on his glory reaping escapade. And what of Darius, was he not the injured party, suffering injustice at the hands of Alexander? Why can't we hold up his name as a hero who expended every resource in his empire to save it? Darius has often been looked at as a fumbling idiot but if the research is done without bias, you will see that he was simply outmatched in the art of war. Alexander's professional army was tenfold more organized and accustomed to working as a cohesive unit, as opposed to the Persians who resembled a feudal levy. The victors wrote this history as was the norm and they had little virtue left to share with an oriental despot.
Hannibal Barca was born into the military caste of the Carthaginian realm. His father Hamilcar had carried the shame of suffering defeat to the Romans and the loss of Sicily in the first Punic War. Legend has it that as a child Hannibal swore on the alter of the Phoenician god Baal to wreak vengeance upon the people of Rome. In 210 BC He left Carthage with an army nearly 90,000 strong, gathering more warriors from the Iberians than the Celts as made his famous trek from Africa to Italy; crossing the alps on the way. Arriving in Italy with half the number he set out with, he won several decisive battles against the Romans, culminating in the battle of Canne where it is reported that his army, consisting of 40,000 souls, left 80,000 Romans dead on the field; effectively wiping out a generation of Roman citizens.
At this point, one would think that it was all but over for the Romans, but for reasons still unknown Hannibal did not attack Rome, instead he made himself the defacto king of Southern Italy. Enter Fabio and Scipio later to be known as Africanus. Fabio was determined not to meet Hannibal in the field , instead he chose to out maneuver him with delaying tactics that would become proverbial. As the years passed, Hannibal seem to be content, ruling his kingdom in the Boot of Italy. About this time a young man who had worked his way through the ranks by the name of Scipio, brought forth the idea of taking the war away from Hannibal. In a massive flanking maneuver he started to take Carthaginian strongholds in Spain, eventually working his way into Africa. The oligarchy of Carthage had seen enough, they ordered Hannibal back to Africa to take out this threat to the home land! Of course Hannibal the faithful servant accommodated their wishes though its unclear how Hannibal actually departed the peninsula.
Events would play out bringing it all to a head at the battle of Zama; a battle that Hannibal should have won. Scipio was determined not to make the mistakes of his successors and entered with a plan in which all variables were accounted for and won a decisive victory over the legendary Carthaginian. Subsequently, Carthage sued for peace, claiming they would hand over Hannibal as part of the treaty but he managed to slip through their grasp only to spend the rest of his days either fleeing or hiring himself out to the Hellenistic kingdoms to battle the Roman onslaught against history.
It would stand to reason that Scipio, now called Africanus, would be the man to go down in history as the greater of the two. But if you ask many a man who Hannibal was they all know; if you say the name Pubuls Cornial Scipio Africanus you receive a blank look from them. It wasn't until the 20th century that the Englishman Lyndell Hart, famed strategist and writer, had given Scipio the credit he deserved in his seminal work "Greater Than Napoleon".
How is it possible that the man who defeated the greatest generalissimo of his age is nigh forgotten not only by the common student but is also passed over but briefly in the history books? Of course in his time he was considered the savior of Rome but 2000 years later, he is but a whisper in the rustling pages.
Most everyone is familiar with the name Julius Caesar and of how he won the three way civil war to become the first Emperor of Rome or, if you will, destroyed the Republic and replaced it with a dictatorship. Many also know, due to his own chronicle "The War in Gaul" of how he took his army beyond the edge of the known world, driving a gladis in the heart of the Celtic world. His greatest foe in all of this was the Gaelic King Vertagortex. Vertagortex had organized the Gaelic warlords to face the Romans but, unfortunately for them, they were only able to slow the juggernaut brought on by Caesar. Retreating with his army to the walled city of Alysee, Vertagortex waited for another 50,000 warriors to relive the siege and catch the Romans between the two armies. Out numbered two to one, Caesar consequently dug a line of staggered duel trenches to meet the two prong threat, defeating both armies and starving the city into submission.
On paper this is without a doubt one the greatest victories ever. But one must consider though, that Caesar's men were well disciplined and battle tested legionaries with state of the art equipment, facing an enemy that were poorly armed and had the organization far worse than a militia call-up. The numbers really become irrelevant; think of shotguns versus assault rifles. What is more important to us is why was Caesar so deep into modern France in the first place? Was he there to secure the border of the Republic? I think not. He was there for little more than to secure a reputation in Rome and among the armies so he could ultimately be the most powerful man in the Republic. He saw that the senate was becoming a relic of the past, providing a future for someone with a glorious and powerful reputation to rule the teetering Republic.
It's true that the Gauls were hardly the pacifistic type but to Caesar, they were little more than a testing ground for the grand struggle that was to come. And what of Vertagortex? Is this savage king a name held up with great utterance in the front of the classroom? Certainly not, why he rarely gets the credit he deserves for organizing the tribes which in that age was no mean task. No, sadly he was but another causality ground beneath the boot of those who have a love affair with the violently victorious.
The year 1066 is a year that sticks in the heads of most who are born into the native English speaking world. This year marks the final successful invasion of England and would solidly determine both the linguistic and cultural destiny of Great Britain. The architect of this invasion was one William known as the Bastard (since changed to Conqueror, who wants to be founded by a bastard?) who invaded England on a bloated claim of kingship. Most know the place-name of Hastings and even the name of the doomed and short reigned king Harold Godswine, but how many know the battle of Stamford Bridge and the infamous name of Harold Hardrada warlord King of Norway?
Upon the death of Edward the Confessor, the great land-holders of Anglo-Saxon England convened and chose Harold to be their king. Though Edward's wishes were never fully known due to the fact that he had fallen into a coma, his election was felt to be as legitimate as it possibly could be. Of course in a time such as this there were always disenfranchised landowners who felt they were on the short end of things. One of these nobles sought help from the notorious Norwegian King Harold Hardrada, an adventurous viking warlord who was always looking for the fame of the battle-song. Godswine, hearing of the ships arriving to the north, gathered his army and moved quickly, meeting the Norwegian and his rebellious allies. After a viscous battle the Anglo-Saxon army was victorious, chasing Hardrada all the way back to his boats in a glorious defense of their homeland. But lo and behold, there was to be no rest for the newly garlanded king, for no sooner had he watched Hardrada flee he received word that the Normans fleet was amassing and would arriving straightaway.
Less than two weeks after Stamford Bridge, the Anglo-Saxon shield-wall was arrayed in brave order against the the flower of Norman Calvary, who were unknowingly symbolizing the future of European warfare, where as Herald's army represented the past. Though outclassed by cutting edge technologies the Anglo-Saxon army held out for nine long hours, Harold's ranks were falling to the Normans, surely the embattled king saw his fate was mired where he stood. As the battle entered its final phase his position was closed in on and he perished to the clang of sword and shield.
Within that hour the battle was over. The din of the birthing pangs of the England that we know echoed through the land and down the the distant dark tunnel to us in the present. This William once know sardonically as The Bastard; this warlord, little more than an enfiefed and wealthy brigand would see his name rewritten in the history books in the most ennobling way; as the Conqueror. And what of Harold? Though it could not be said that Harold was a most righteous man, he was the rightfully coronated king of the realm. His trial of fighting two invading armies within the period of a week is often overlooked as a formality in the text, when in truth he had just defeated one of the most dangerous men of his times, then he had turned to face the most advanced weapons of his age who were packing more firepower bar none since Hannibal's elephants. Woe the wages of defeat are denigration and anonymity of valor, for when they identified the dead king's body, he was found with his sword in his hand surrounded by his liege men and his faithful brother. A forgotten yet noble demise.
The list could go on and on, for every one of these alleged great men there is a foil who was fighting for a more noble cause. Charlemagne had Widukin, Henry had the Dauphin Louis and Napoleon had Wellington or Blucher (dependent upon whose history you read), yet the names of those who defended escape us and fall victim to time and selective remembrance, while the aggressors roll off our tongues like sweet lullabies. This should be a fact that brings any conscientious person to a position of asking the very same question that I began this essay with. Why are the Great called Great? It is without a doubt that these men dared great undertaking and in most cases overcame unlikely odds, but rarely was it executed for the betterment of mankind. For the most part we see that these adventures were done for little more than personal glory. It is also true that many of these characters we spoke of today were men of artistic taste and in some cases actually set a renaissance and or a rebirth in culture. But we must ask; was it worth the price of watering the earth with blood? It is easy to look back with the hind site of a historian and say yes, the problem is that we have no other point of reference. We will never know what the Persians could have ultimately gave the western world, nor can we imagine an England based upon the books of Alfred instead of the swords of William, and we certianly can't imagine a Europe based upon Carthaginian Semetic culture instead a Latin and Greek Indo-European one!
Ultimately as we try to answer the original interrogatives we must ask ourselves the difficult question, why we call these aggressors heroes? Is it, if you believe in such things, do to man's fallen or evil nature? Are we a mad beast in a Darwinian dystopia, where the strong will eat the weak? Is this the price of evolution? Is it a longing to fill our empty souls with romanticized stories of death and killing to make up for absence of ones own "greatness"; never satisfied with our own existence we must cling to this violent charade? Perhaps it is something far more diabolical and indigenous to the earthly realm. Perhaps these insipid tails of violence, painted in heroic pastels are but a method of conditioning us, preparing us for a life serving a vague notion of nationalism. A notion which places us at odds against those across any given border, perpetuating a fabricated myth of us versus them in which killing and taking from this other is a sense of duty.
I fully understand the significance of the shifting structures brought on by these warlords of history but why are these acts of violence not condemned as we read them. Instead of reading Caesar's War in Gual or Einhards Charlamagne why don't our school children read Ang Su Kye Freedom from Fear or Martin Luther King Jr's Stride Towards Freedom? Instead of putting warlords on the pedestal of power such as Hannibal or Alexander, why not hold up those who have stood for peaceful resolutions like Havel or Gandhi? At the very least the personages of peace should be put on equal footing with those of warlike temper. Sadly these of the latter will always be given a secondary standing due to them not taking the easy way out; for the conditioned mind violence require far less mental effort than peace. In the formative years of a youthful mind shouldn't we be putting young people into the world that seek peace over violence? Perhaps part of this so called education is to drown those coming into there own self-realization, casting them into a society of hateful wickedness. Perhaps the systems of the world recognize the power of the dove and the olive branch, fearing that if we start a movement, a process that doesn't include violence, we will make too much sense to the the rest of the world; causing the subliminal and overt overlords of this world to loose their grip on the soul of humanity.
Collectively and as individuals we each have to make choices for ourselves and for those that are in our care; either the young or the feeble. Shall we continue to go about this, business as usual and let the media, education systems and popular culture dictate to our children what it means to be a great human being. In my own life I raised two children, teaching them to critique the things that they are taught, and yet for convenience sake, to play the game within the parameters of the rules. Same with my friends and family, always stopping just short of getting on their nerves, yet always planting the questioning seeds of doubt. For if I plant it perhaps another will add water, and if chance and fate intervene another will come and nurture the growing thought and in the end liberate a mind that once had a stony shell.
Occasionally the tides of history do work out in favor of those who battle on the side of justice; though most often posthumously. This is illustrated by the players involved in the life of Tecumseh. In the 20th century the great warchief has been transformed in to an epitome of valor; albeit in a doomed fashion. This Panther of the Night Sky has found his way into the lore as a hero to three modern nations. In the USA, a defender of the indigenous and a warrior against a federal government overstepping its legal reach. In Canada he is seen a s a national hero, defending dear Canada from the aggression of the yanks. Finally in England he is made out to be an exemplar of a loyal colonial ally. The war-chief had to pay lipservice to the king being an ever prudent and realistic man, knew that the English sovereign was his only ally against the Americans. What he actually felt about the English we will never know. As for the American side the drama, the only player whose name escaped the 19th century to be widely known was that of William Henry Harrison, who years later after his victory at Prophetstown was elected to the presidency of the United States. His claim to fame was that of being the shortest term in office due to taking the oath of office in a freezing downpour which left him ill and bedridden. His foolhardy pretense of manliness left him dead within several weeks.