Tuesday, June 9th, 2009
A number of years ago, I was watching a documentary on the History Channel about the Roman Empire, and the reign of Caesar Augustus in particular. The segment that caught my eye related to one of the great military disasters ever suffered by the Empire — -the complete annihilation of three legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus at the Battle of Kalkriese Hill in the Teutoburg Forest of Germany. The defeat not only marked the end of Roman domination of the Rhine, but it was one of the only times that an army of “barbarians” was able to deal a fatal blow to the mightiest empire ever to rule the world. But what caught my eye and held my attention was not the savagery of the battle nor its implications for Roman rule across the Rhine. It was the date of the disaster — -September 11.
I thought immediately upon hearing that date of the coincidence that it bore to our own September 11, a modern disaster of equal magnitude. And I wondered whether Osama Bin Laden, sitting in his tent in Afghanistan, had chosen that specific date to send a message to the world that his army, like that of Arminius (the German prince who defeated Varus), was also capable of stopping an Empire. Was Bin Laden that subtle? Is he well-versed in his history? More critically, if indeed he intended to attach his attack to a notable date in order to make a point, then what other dates lurk in the calendar that we should be paying attention to? This last thought has seen me draw in a deep breath each 3rd of July and hold it until the wee hours of the 5th when I am free to exhale in relief that another critical date, July 4, has passed.
I have often thought that I should send the CIA a short letter calling this issue to their attention. I have not done so out of fear that my memo would likely languish on some desk next to a letter from Phoenix or Michigan calling the department’s attention to the fact that some Arabs were taking flying lessons at local flight schools. So instead, I have chosen to write this blog, confident that my use of Bin Laden’s name coupled with the word, “nuclear” (see below), will surely guarantee that this article will be spotted by one of our giant spying computers and bells will go off somewhere at a desk in Langley, Virginia where it will be read by someone whose specific job it is to look into these kinds of matters.
Again, the question I pose is that if Bin Laden chose September 11 as the date for his attack on the WTC to make an historical point, then what other dates are out there that we should perhaps be paying attention to? I can suggest a few:
June 25th: This was the date in 1876 when General George Armstrong Custer led his 7th Cavalry into a disastrous defeat in the Valley of the Little Big Horn in Montana. Like the crushing of Varus in 9 A.D., the complete annihilation of Custer’s troops was accomplished by a down-trodden foe who no one expected to deal such a blow to such a powerful Empire.
August 15: In 1281, the powerful Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan determined to mount an invasion of Japan after his first attempt had failed in 1274. He gathered 4,400 ships and 140,000 men to attack the Japanese at Hakata Bay on the Island of Kyushu. In the early hours of August 15th, a massive typhoon roared ashore, and all but a few hundred of the khan’s ships were sent to the bottom. The Japanese samurai promptly slaughtered every Mongol warrior who had been able to survive the hurricane and crawl ashore. The Khan never again attempted to invade the Japanese islands, believing that the Japanese were protected by a powerful supernatural force. For their part, the Japanese agreed, calling the two typhoons (the one in 1281 and an earlier one in 1274 that had turned away Khan’s 1st invasion attempt) “kamikaze” or “divine wind”, a term they would reverently employ some 700 years later. Bin Laden may well embrace this date for its emphasis on divine intervention against an overwhelmingly powerful Empire.
July 4th: This is the one that scares me. Bin Laden likes to fashion himself as the
reincarnation of Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or, as we know him today, Saladin. It was on the 4th of July, 1187 that the army of Saladin destroyed the armies of Guy of Lusignan and Raymond III of Tripoli at the Battle of Hattin, effectively ending the Crusades and assuring the return of Jerusalem to the world of Islam. What other date could so satisfy an ego-maniac like Bin Laden, hungry for the adulation of the entire Islamic world? And the double entendre would be unmistakable: our day of independence would henceforth become theirs. And on what other day (beside Christmas, perhaps) could so many of our first alert responders be counted upon to be seated in front of barbeques from one end of this county to the other?
There are, of course, two other dates which should give us pause: August 6th and 9th. If Bin Laden gets his hands on an atomic weapon, then either of these dates becomes significant.
I hope that this exercise has made you feel a bit uncomfortable. As the 2000th anniversary of Varus’ defeat at Kalkriese draws near, I hope that all I have said here gives you pause, and makes you think of the dangers lurking in the calendar. But it is actually my hope that you might stop and consider another form of disaster — -one for which there will never be a date certain that we can point to and say that was the day it all happened. It is the grave potential for planetary annihilation that lurks in the billions of tons of carbon that we, as a species, are pouring into the finite atmosphere of this globe we share with the rest of creation. It is a disaster that even makes a nuclear Bin Laden look like a child with a box of matches.
I do so fear the approach of a true Deathstroke. No doubt, there will be a day in the future when we finally do realize the magnitude of the approaching disaster. And, like Quinctilius Varus and his men, we may frantically attempt to erect barricades on the slopes of our own Kalkriese Hill only to find, as they did, that it is all too late.