Why Do We Celebrate Military Defeats?

The Texans still remember the Alamo, the Land Down Under annually commemorates getting pointlessly slaughtered in Turkey, and not long ago in the cinemas we got to relive once again that amazing day when the Brits got kicked out of Europe by Nazis. Why are we so fixated by military defeats?

 Who wants to be known for how brilliantly you can lose?

Turns out plenty of people do, and for some very good reasons.

If the war’s still raging, or if you live on one of those eternally strife-torn patches of dirt which planet Earth has in such great abundance, then obsessing over defeats is a great way to rile people up for some vengeful defeat-inflicting of their own. Everybody joins the army in a panic, then goes off shouting “Remember the Alamo!” as they mow down fleeing Mexicans. A similar thing can be said for the shocking defeats that linger in the mind long after the hatreds are forgotten. “Never again!” we say each time we hear the story of Pearl Harbor, “Never again!” A good defeat is a propaganda victory.

And an heroic defeat is a source of national pride.

Imagine a high-roller in a casino joking about that time he lost a million dollars on a bad bet. He isn’t pointing out his lack of judgement. He’s bragging about the fact he had a million dollars to lose in the first place. Same deal with the army. Look at the kinds of defeat we celebrate. They are never about that time we all ran away like cowards. They are always brilliant, like Dunkirk – an entire nation’s worth of amateurs in boats coming together to rescue their boys from the jaws of the Evil Empire. They are the kinds of defeats that you have to be kick-assingly amazing to pull off, like the Light Brigade suicidally charging the guns because that’s what they thought they’d been ordered to do, and by God they were going to do it!

Many of these sorts of defeats are self-inflicted (or ally-inflicted). The cause of failure therefore, is never truly the enemy. We failed. But we were not beaten. We were lions led by donkeys. Our pride, our sense of superiority, remains intact.

These defeats also tend to be set in the context of a wider victory. Dunkirk has its winning-twin in Normandy. If Dunkirk had merely been the prelude to a successful Nazi invasion of Britain, then Dunkirk would simply be too tragic to dwell on. But we won, so Hurrah!

So why celebrate the heroic defeat at all, rather than the more straightforward heroic victory?

Ask the Spartans.

Ask Leonidas.

Faced with an overwhelming Persian army, faced with certain defeat, he and his 300 Spartans and their Greek allies choose to stay and fight to the death. They fought till their spears shattered. They fought till all their leaders were dead. They fought till all they had were their hands, and their teeth. They fought till thousands of Persians lay dead around them. They fought until they themselves had been annihilated. They fought and they were defeated. But the way they fought made them immortal.

Defeats push people to the limits.

How long one holds out against overwhelming odds is the true test of one’s abilities. Winning is easy. Victory never reaches the true limits of endurance – otherwise you wouldn’t have won. Only in defeat are the limits of a fighting force discovered. Only in the heroic defeat, when the troops keep fighting beyond all hope, fighting to the very last man, do the men show that they have no limits, none except mortality itself.

In spirit they are undefeated.

In spirit they are victorious.

The event comes to transcend reality and enters myth.

Which brings us to the two nations who mythologize more about a military defeat than any other peoples on Earth: Australia and New Zealand. Their founding military myth, indeed one of the core founding myths of their national identities, is the story of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. This British led invasion of Turkey during the First World War was a disaster. A pointless waste. Nothing was achieved except slaughter. Yet in it the ANZACs earned themselves a reputation that would be inscribed forever on the soul of the nation. Each year the ANZACs are still remembered with dawn services and wreaths.

So why did Australia and New Zealand become so fixated on a tragedy when they would come to have plenty of more uplifting military stories to choose from? While many factors went into making Gallipoli sacred, a tragedy allows a far more complex response to war than a simple victory, or even a heroic defeat. War is tragic. Yet war is heroic. The celebration of heroic tragedy allows a people to express both the pride and pain of war.

Victory cannot handle this full range of emotions. Victory cannot handle the full depth of what war is. Victory is jingoistic, jubilant, glorious. Victory slides easy into self-glorification, and from there to foolishness and barbarism. The same degradation can befall a heroic tragedy as time passes and the tragic side is forgotten, yet even after a century that lingering dirge-call remains. The mind is brought back to the sorrow. War, heroism, and tears.

It says a lot about a people.

A nation’s preference for remembering loss over victory is a measure of a nation’s soul.


Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Read more on Wikipedia about the defeats mentioned …

The Battle of Thermopylae

The Gallipoli Campaign

Battle of the Alamo

The evacuation of Dunkirk

The Charge of the Light Brigade





Will the War on Terror Ever End?

Wars are fought to be won. Yet the War on Terror feels immortal. A whole generation has come of age since 9/11, yet still no end can be seen. No end seems possible. An eternal war. A contradiction in terms?

When will the War on Terror ever end?

The harder the goal is pursued the faster it recedes. The papers are full of blood each day. Again. Again. Again. Such news barely registers anymore.

Can this war ever end?

Let us take the War on Terror at its most noble. Let us leave aside all those dark questions about oil, or American hegemony. This is the good War on Terror: a fight to defend democracy. A fight against the people who want to violently overthrow freedom, and replace it with an empire of intolerant theocracy.

In this war Democracy dominants the intellectual space, it holds the moral high ground, and it has chosen to rely on two tools above all: the law and the military.

Be a terrorist and you will get arrested. Be a nation of terrorists and you will get bombed. The aim – put every last terrorist in prison, or a grave.

Will this work?

Will the bloodshed ever end?

I don’t know what will happen in the future. But I do know a little history. Idly skimming the pages of the past, something familiar caught my eye. I feel like we’ve been here before.

Once upon a time there was another power. It too dominated the intellectual space. It too held the moral high ground. It too relied on the law and the military.

What caught my eye was a certain obscure old war fought by this power: A murderous ruler harboring evil-doers. A short official invasion to clear them all out. Early success. “Mission accomplished,” one might have been tempted to say. Then decades of war, massacres, reversals, revolts, and – if you care to use the word – genocide. Sound familiar?

That war was the Albigensian Crusade. That power was Catholicism. This was the age of the Crusades. And when you start to think about it, the fundamentals of it all, it begins to look eerily familiar.

In medieval times the great enemy of the Church was heresy. Heretics were a threat to goodness of the gospel. Heretics where a threat to power of the church. Heretics were willing to use violence. Heretics were evil. Heretics had to be stopped. Heretics were an enemy within.

Being a heretic could get you arrested. Staying a heretic could get you executed. Being a land of heretics could get you invaded.

This was the War on Heresy.

And it was brutal.

The Waldensians were burnt. The Free Spirits were burnt. The Lollards were burnt. Even the dead were dug up and burnt.

Military campaigns were launched against all the enemies of Catholicism: the Muslims in Spain, the pagans in the Baltic, and, of course, those Albigensians in France – those ones got hunted down for decade after decade after decade.

In the War on Heresy torture became permissible, executions became a necessary evil, and collateral damage was dismissed with the words, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

To pursue the heretics unto the ends of the Earth, a special anti-heresy division was created  – the Inquisition. Its reputation lives on. Noble aims got mixed up with dirty politics, and corruption, and outright sadism. The noble faith of all-loving Jesus was enforced by boots and chains.

And it worked.

For centuries it worked.

Heresy was under control.

Until it wasn’t.

The Protestant Reformation broke out. Whole countries went heretic. Many of those previously defeated heretics reemerged and fused to the new movement. Suddenly there was an ocean of heretics.

They couldn’t all be imprisoned, reformed, or executed. Not that it wasn’t tried. Millions of people were stabbed, hacked, and burnt to death as both sides engaged in decades of war, massacre, and counter massacre in a futile attempt to eliminate the other. Both failed. But Catholicism failed most. It permanently lost its War on Heresy.

The medieval Catholics never dealt with the real problem: that their own moral corruption was fueling outrage at the Church, and that universal agreement on religion is an impossibility. They fought a war of ideas, a war of morals, with a butchers knife. They lost the moral high ground. Then the intellectual space. Then their political power.

Today the heretics rule the world.

Our War on Terror is also a war on heresy. Democracy has heretics.  They are those groups of people which cannot be tolerated in a tolerant society – the people who don’t believe in tolerance. The two are mutually incompatible, just as Catholicism and it’s heretics were mutually incompatible.

The Communists. The Fascists. Now the Islamic terrorists. They are our heretics.

Enraptured by the mythos of World War Two we are snared in the belief that the enemies of democracy can be defeated with guns. World War Two made such a grand tale. It felt so final. It was our glorious crusade. We defeated Nazism because we shot all the Nazis.

But a war of ideas is not a war of guns. Nazi-style beliefs still lurk underground. Waiting. Surprisingly common.

In contrast, Communism was ultimately defeated because Communism was discredited, by the Communists. They proved themselves a failure. Now not even Communists want to be Communists.

So how will our current war against today’s theocratic heretics of democracy end?

History suggests four broad options.

One: the war will never end. Not for us at least. A bullet cannot stop an idea, and an idea cannot stop a bullet. Each bullet inspires a new convert. Each convert inspires a new bullet. This war will be waged for centuries.

Two: the war will be lost. The war will be abandoned because the war itself is what feeds the enemy. One day there will be too many heretics, and too few bullets.

Three: the war will be lost. The war will have made us our own heretics. A Christian who kills souls to save souls can hardly be called a Christian. The free who destroy freedom to save freedom are not free. Democracy will pass away. Instead we will kill Muslims because they are killing us, and Muslims will kill us because we are killing them.

Lastly – four: the war will be won. This fight will be seen for what it is: a contest of ideas, a struggle of social change, a choice between democracy and theocracy. We’ve made this choice before. The implosion of the old Crusader’s world, that all-encompassing violent repressive theocracy, is exactly the world from which modern democracy was born.

Perhaps, it could be done again?


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, on Wikipedia, here.


© Under Obvious, 2017.