I must concede to feeling something approaching awe for the men since antiquity who have willingly formed ranks in war. War, of course, being a state so keenly undesirable that every single neo-con and Hillary Clinton should spend their eternity engaged in it. Though for those who have stood to sacrifice their only lives in defense of those to come behind, I hold a deep respect. Facing down the spear, sword, musket, or machine gun must bring a clarity of mind unlike anything else. I’ve always been grateful for fate’s whimsey in allowing me to remain comparatively muddle-headed.
Though to think of so many not as fortunate. Men who fought and died defending what would ultimately become us. Men who would much rather have liked to live. To laugh. To love. To enjoy the pleasure of a woman, and perhaps grow gray with her. And likely they all could have. They could simply submit. Or flee. Or betray their own people. Any of which would have probably purchased individual comfort to old age. But so many–enough–stood and fought in their relative youth. And fell. Paying with their own lives to buy a future for ours.
How many brave souls to secure what we cavalierly discard?
In 721, the Umayyads first came north and were defeated by Odo at the Battle of Toulouse. Having assessed the situation in Iberia and the Umayyad attack on Aquitaine, Charles (Martel) came to believe that a professional army, rather than raw conscripts, was needed to defend the realm from invasion. To raise the money necessary to build and train an army that could withstand the Muslim horsemen, Charles began seizing Church lands, earning the ire of the religious community. In 732, the Umayyads moved north again led by Emir Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Commanding approximately 80,000 men, he plundered Aquitaine.
As Abdul Rahman sacked Aquitaine, Odo fled north to seek aid from Charles. This was granted in exchange for Odo recognizing Charles as his overlord. Mobilizing his army, Charles moved to intercept the Umayyads. In order to avoid detection and allow Charles to select the battlefield, the approximately 30,000 Frankish troops moved over secondary roads toward the town of Tours. For the battle, Charles selected a high, wooded plain which would force the Umayyad cavalry to charge uphill. Forming a large square, his men surprised Abdul Rahman, forcing the Umayyad emir to pause for a week to consider his options.
On the seventh day, after gathering all of his forces, Abdul Rahman attacked with his Berber and Arab cavalry. In one of the few instances where medieval infantry stood up to cavalry, Charles’ troops defeated repeated Umayyad attacks. As the battle waged, the Umayyads finally broke through the Frankish lines and attempted to kill Charles. He was promptly surrounded by his personal guard who repulsed the attack. As this was occurring, scouts that Charles had sent out earlier were infiltrating the Umayyad camp and freeing prisoners.
Believing that the plunder of the campaign was being stolen, a large part of the Umayyad army broke off the battle and raced to protect their camp. While attempting to stop the apparent retreat, Abdul Rahman was surrounded and killed by Frankish troops. Briefly pursued by the Franks, the Umayyad withdrawal turned into a full retreat. Charles reformed his troops expecting another attack, but to his surprise it never came as the Umayyads continued their retreat all the way to Iberia. Charles’ victory at the Battle of Tours saved Western Europe from the Muslim invasions and was a turning point in European history.
So how to characterize these valiant men by contemporary standards? Those such as Miltiades, Pausanias, Themistocles, Niklas Salm, John of Austria, and Charles the Hammer. That’s quite easy.
They would suffer all these ridiculous slurs and be driven from the public square, with careers and reputations destroyed. And by extension so too are those willing to take up their banners today. Heroes to villains; villains to heroes. And until we gain the capacity to discern the difference, we’re not waiting for Martel.
He’s waiting for us.