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Location: LaGrange, Kentucky, United States

The opinions and interests of a husband, analyst and Iraq war veteran.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

"not with spears only but with axes"

From time to time I rag on John Derbyshire of National Review, calling him "negative" and "codgery" because... well he is. But I will be forever in his debt for bringing to my attention this story of Herodotus:

The story needs a bit of background. During the first quarter of the fifth century B.C., the new empire of Persia was expanding aggressively under two great kings: Darius, up to 486, and then Xerxes. They wanted to conquer the young Greek city-states, and sent expeditionary forces for that purpose. During one of these forays, the city-state of Sparta had killed some Persian envoys by throwing them into a well. In the years that followed, things did not go well for Sparta, and all kinds of bad omens were observed. The Spartans eventually decided they should make some collective restitution for their crime. They therefore called for patriotic citizens willing to go to Persia and offer their own lives in payment for those of the slain ambassadors. Two well-born young Spartan men, Sperthias and Bulis, volunteered. They set out for Susa, the Persian capital.

Persia was a sprawling despotic empire of the pre-modern type. An infallible god-king effected his will through a huge bureaucratic apparatus, the whole thing financed by crushing taxation. (Rather like the Democratic Party, in fact.) On their way to Susa the two Spartans — whose selfless mission was well known, and widely admired — were given hospitality by a high Persian official named Hydarnes. Impressed by these two brave young men, Hydarnes attempted to recruit them into the king's service. "For," he said: "When ye regard me and mine affairs, ye see that the king knoweth how to honour valiant men. Ye also likewise, if ye would give yourselves unto the king, because ye are esteemed of him to be valiant men, might each of you rule over land in Greece, which the king should give you." Then they answered him thus: "Hydarnes, thy counsel as touching us is not evenly weighed. For, of the one thing thou hast made trial, but of the other thou art without experience: what it is to be a bondservant thou knowest full well, but of freedom thou hast never yet made trial, to know whether it be a sweet thing or not. For if ever thou hadst experience thereof, thou wouldest counsel us to fight for it not with spears only but with axes." Thus they answered Hydarnes.

I have this story memorized. Whenever someone asks me why I joined the military, I now reply, "not with spears only but with axes." When I see reports of american busineses and newspapers self censor out of fear of reprisal, when Buchanon on the right, and the Berkley crowd on the left scream for isolationism as a response to world terrorism, I want to scream back, "not with spears only but with axes!"

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