War Has One Timeless Quality
Q. Who invented the term "bite the dust"?
A. Not Geronimo, not John Wayne. Give up? It was Homer.
For nearly three millennia since he put stylus to parchment, recorded
history has preserved the stirring tradition of war literature.
In Homer's day, warriors knew each other, summoned foes to
hand-to-hand combat, even took pride in the privilege of facing a
renowned swordsman or top-ranking spearthrower.
When Achilles felled Hector, that single death crushed the Trojan war
machine and sewed up the winning score-Trojans nothing, Greeks
everything, including women, children, and anything that would fit
into a knapsack.
The scene changed little in the next centuries. Wars came and went,
some so small that no poet of Homer's stature bothered to say who
earned the most medals, who raped the most damsels.
By Alexander's era, valiance shrank in importance to organization.
There were no razzle-dazzle shenanigans like wooden horses full of men
to burn the city and decimate sleepy-eyed citizens.
Armies marched on discipline and grit. But, by the time Alexander
reached the Indus River, his men had lost touch with home. They had
forgotten what and whom they were fighting for.
Julius Caesar revived the noble art of killing. His legions grew so
adept at blitzkrieg that he began to fill his notes with the unsubtle
boast," As soon as they heard we were coming, they surrendered."
And in his steps marched more gallant warriors-Napoleon, George
Washington, Kaiser Wilhelm, Patton, de Gaulle, Rommel, Chiang
By the end of World War II, mayhem outstripped the imagination of even
the scientists who invented kill power.
Evolving from a scholarly consortium called the Manhattan Project, a
single hellish war machine named Fat Boy exterminated an entire city
with one soundless flash.
Not only did people die, but some became sick with a new disease which
hadn't acquired a name-radiation poisoning.
Nations debated the outcome. The rules changed. Still, sewers cut out
more uniforms; cobblers continued to get rich off boots.
As technology improved, wars shifted to global proportions. The
invention of air power separated enemies form nose-to-nose
confrontation. It became easier to fire long distances, to let out a
burst of machine gun fire, to have a smart bomb do the work of punier
And mighty factories refined the techniques of delivering the maximum
amount of carnage per payload.
The interjection of racial differences, religious variations, and
peculiarities of lifestyle made grenades, missiles, flame throwers,
and napalm seem more necessary, almost as though one group had to
obliterate the other in order for earth to survive.
The people who ate rice fought the people who grilled hot dogs. The
people who genuflected to a cross overthrew the ones who prayed on
fringed rugs or bowed before incense.
Today, the faces, the uniforms continue to change. The scenery varies.
The weapons grow more efficient, more detached, less personal.
dying remains the same.
"Catawba Valley Neighbors,"
March 21, 1993