Michael Walsh‘s survey of historical Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost is not about dying, as the title might suggest, but about why people chose to live out their last moments in a certain way. The book covers famous episodes from antiquity to the early Cold War.
- The Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.)
- Cannae (216 B.C.) and the Teutoburg Forest (9 A.D.)
- Masada (73/74 A.D.) and Warsaw (1943)
- The Battle of Roncevaux Pass and La Chanson de Roland (778/1115)
- The Battle of Hastings (1066)
- The Last Stand of the Swiss Guard (1527)
- The Siege of Szigetvár (1566)
- The Alamo (1836) and Camarón (1863)
- Grant at Shiloh (1862)
- Custer at the Little Bighorn (1876)
- Rorke’s Drift (1879) and Khartoum (1885)
- The Battle of Pavlov’s House: Stalingrad, 1942
- The Chosin Reservoir, 1950
In each case, the question is ‘why’?
For all of human history individual death has been a given and in the past, by contrast with the present when society has hidden it from view except in entertainment, extinction stood at the front and center in people’s lives. The existential problem was how to live as yourself until the very last possible moment. In a world where everyone had to go, the difficulty was how to go out in style. Walsh quotes the hero of the epic poem the “Siege of Sziget” before he leads his men in a forlorn last charge against the Turks:
“There is one hope for the defeated
That he cannot hope in victory.
Is it not better to die as a man,
Than to live in shame before the eyes of all?
—Miklós Zrínyi, The Siege of Sziget (1651) translated by László Kőrössy”
The same idea was more or less echoed centuries later by Rudyard Kipling with regard to the men who stood on the deck of a sinking Birkenhead to allow women and children space on the few lifeboats.
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An’ they done it, the Jollies — ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies — soldier an’ sailor too!
Their work was done when it ‘adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too!
We’re most of us liars, we’re ‘arf of us thieves, an’ the rest are as rank as can be,
But once in a while we can finish in style (which I ‘ope it won’t ‘appen to me).
There are Last Stands that no one saw or remembered or which the modern Woke, who are able to sit in judgment of everything, now deem politically incorrect. But psychologically it didn’t matter. The Last Standers were their own audience, excepting God or posterity or something Western cultural elites no longer believe in. And that was the only audience that mattered.
Latter-day sensibility, and a loss of faith in traditional Western religions, has decreed that there is, literally, not a fate worse than death. We have, in our wisdom, transformed our short span of existence into a kind of living Purgatory, where life itself is misery and palliative surcease can only be found via drugs, sex, or therapy. That there might exist a teleologically aspirational end state is unthinkable; past and future have vanished, to be replaced by an eternally torturous present that can only be endured, and not transformed. Death becomes no one; if there is nothing worth living for, except for the sake of living, then what is worth dying for?
The doomed were accountable to no one but themselves. Ironically, today’s progressives can sympathize with suicide but are perplexed at how anyone could choose to go down fighting till the last breath. Walsh explains how it is a matter of context:
And so, in the end, when they knew that all was lost, when they knew they not only would not survive but also that they would never see their families, wives, children again, they set their jaws, fixed their bayonets, emptied their revolvers, used their rifles as clubs, shot their mounts for breastworks, and piled their dead high.
Living as if one mattered, though declared surplus to requirements, remains strangely appealing. There is something about this impulse that defies politics, fashion, or even the passage of time itself. But the impulse makes sense only to those who will not retort: ‘what are families, wives, children?’ Maybe the moderns are different from people in the past.
As you will read in these pages, the Romans did it at Cannae, and again at the Teutoburg Forest; so did Custer’s men at the Little Bighorn. The Christian Hungarians and Croatians at Szigetvár embraced a final, suicidal charge as preferable to surrender or supine slaughter at the hands of the Muslim Turks, but cleverly planned to take as many invaders with them as they could, even after death. The Jews held off the Romans at Masada and the Germans in Warsaw until they could fight no longer. Men died also at Thermopylae, at Roncevaux, at Hastings, and before the door of St. Peter’s in Rome. They perished at the Alamo and at Camarón in Mexico, in the Tennessee mud at Shiloh and at the godforsaken Little Bighorn in Montana. The fought to the end at Khartoum, as well as Rorke’s Drift, Stalingrad, and the Chosin Reservoir, because death was always preferable to dishonor, for without his honor, and his fidelity to his training, his country and, most important, his comrades, a man was nothing.
The central idea in Walsh’s book is that a civilization’s ability to find meaning in its particular existence is a proxy of its capacity to survive. For without this sense of meaning, death would be truly victorious unless one could still cheat it with transcendence in “the hope of something afterward.”
The various names for that “afterward,” whether glory or Valhalla, posterity are aliases for the reasons why men live or die in one way and not another. In the past, this impulse to posterity was implicitly understood. But no longer. As Walsh writes today, “even heroism has now, it seems, become politically incorrect.”
This cultural turnabout was the result of the assurance of growing control by great institutions, the progressive promise that the singularity or worker’s paradise was at hand or soon would be. “In political theory and theology, to immanentize the eschaton means trying to bring about the eschaton (the final, heaven-like stage of history) in the immanent world. In all these contexts, it means ‘trying to make that which belongs to the afterlife happen here and now (on Earth).’”
In the interim, humans might still die but they would live so long, so safely, and pass so painlessly that the best thing people could do was not think about it, just attend the entertainments on a vast cruise planet to nowhere. The adults were on the bridge, science was omnisciently scanning. So what if we as individuals should as mortals still have to make our own last stands? Could we be so polite as not to make a fuss over it?
One of the unintended consequences of the recent pandemic was it drove home how vast, wonderful, and terrifying the universe is. The politicians had nearly convinced us they were going to manage everything when events escaped control. Suddenly the disease revealed we might need bravery again. Had the coronavirus proved highly fatal we might have had to make our own Beau Geste, cause a fuss over our own endings.
For all the damage it inflicted, the pandemic experience may have returned to us the sense of mystery, adventure, and urgency humanity had come so close to losing. Absent control, there is no alternative but to live all the way to the end as people did of old.
The men who fought and died in history’s greatest battles generally had no choice; whether conscripts and cannon fodder or consuls and generals, their path to the ultimate tests of courage and fortitude was foreordained upon the opening of hostilities and the engagement in battle. …
Faced with certain, violent death, what would we do? How would we react? Would we cry, break down, beg for mercy—or fight, and sell our lives as dearly as we could, if only for the satisfaction of seeing our enemy’s eyeballs in our palms and his nose in our mouths? …
Gordon was utterly disinterested in capitalizing on his personal popularity; instead, he accepted a minor honor, Companion of the Bath, and spent the next six years constructing useless forts along the Thames estuary. Or perhaps it was that his superiors had sensed what he often whispered in prayer to his special God: “May I be ground to dust if He will but glorify Himself in me.” A man like that was dangerous.
The Last Stand is the story of those who remained, till the finish, incorrigibly dangerous men.