Wallace Breen’s 1970 novel Eagle in the Snow is an excellent read that I couldn’t recommend more highly, the work upon which the 2000 film Gladiator was loosely based. Maximus, a Roman general holding the Rhine before the barbarian migrations of the late fourth century, must shoulder the heavy duty of protecting a civilisation that has lost any conception of itself. He faces young men who have cut off their thumbs to avoid conscription, middle-aged bureaucrats who impede him at every turn seeking to enrich themselves, and old priests who extol the brotherhood of man. “Cross the river,” says Maximus, “and find out what your brothers are like.” I won’t spoil the ending for you; pick it up if you can.
The image of young men severing their own thumbs, rendering themselves incapable of wielding gladius or pilum, left a lasting impression on me, one that was brought recently to mind by an apocryphal story regarding the Ukrainian ambassador. This worthy was asking local high school students whether they would join the Australian military, should the need arise, and was disappointed by the spattering of hands that appeared. It would seem his concern is well documented: the Australian Defence Force report that they are struggling to gain recruits and retain soldiers. This is not unique to Australia, as the United States Army expects to be twenty thousand recruits short next year.
There’s something in these sorts of stories, apocryphal or otherwise, as there are in all the stories we tell ourselves, and we ought to be perhaps a little careful what those stories are. We might consider a little more Thucydides and a little less, well, whatever you receive when you tune in to what our culture presently manufactures.
None of this should cause any eyebrows to rise among those who’ve been paying attention. The schools are the right place to start asking questions and investigating stories, not because the young have any special claim to wisdom—they absolutely do not—but because if you want to know what Australia will look like in the future, that’s where you should look. Those who aren’t here today, as Mark Steyn said, won’t be here tomorrow. Those that are here today are manifestly very different from those who made up the schools even thirty years ago, courtesy of our ill-thought-out and flippant leap into multiculturalism. And as all multiculturalism is premised on the belief, now all but mandatory, that the state of affairs that pre-existed it was irredeemably evil, it’s unsurprising that few want to fight for it, and fewer still want to die for it. Those who do are typically Anglo-Celtic males, whose very existence appears a little problematic according to certain narratives presently in vogue.
We, a nation increasingly propositional in ideation and multicultural in composition, don’t tell the right stories to make the hands fly skyward. All that’s left to love, for the everyman, is ease of living and money to be made, and it doesn’t seem as if those are a given any more, either. On the other hand, the only Australia our elites seem to think matters is the Australia that doesn’t exist yet, an Australia severed from the past and couched in banal progressive sentiments, the Australia imagined by the most fervent university professor, ABC journalist, or member for the Greens. It’s an Australia that could never be born, and even if it could be created, wouldn’t be one worth dying for. The young know this, and this is why their hands do not shoot upwards when asked—why they have, in equivalent terms, cut off their thumbs.
As we tend to address collapsing birth-rates, shortfalls in labour or consumption, and the ever-upward valuation of property by endless immigration, it’s not unfair to assume answers to our military problems might come from the same source; hence a recent proposal to reimport kanakas, with Austeyrs instead of machetes, despite how poorly that went down last time. Hoping for a reimagined version of the foederati to fight our wars might seem a sound plan. After all, Stilicho was a barbarian, and Honorius a Roman. Many Australians from various backgrounds fought bravely in the past, like Billy Sing in Gallipoli, to name only one. But we live in different times now, and the age of the citizen-soldier is gone. The difference then was not merely numbers, but that we gave those characters—as Rome gave Stilicho, even in those darkening days—something to love and aspire to. The “citizen” part of the equation is important, and robust citizenship cannot spring from contempt for a nation’s past.
The truth is that we think we can hold onto the status quo, a status quo that has been predicated on the Anglosphere’s overwhelming advantages, without being prepared to make sacrifices. The fate of those who espouse naive principles in the face of power is that of the Melians in The Peloponnesian War, who badly needed their Dorian brothers across the sea rather than a “great mass of words nobody would believe”. That is no argument against principles; rather, an exhortation that we ought to be careful that our body politic is composed of strong ones, and not prey to bad ones.
The funeral oration by Pericles, where Thucydides relates that the men of Athens meet danger with a light heart but laborious training, has been thrown about as the best defence of democracy from the ancient world. If one thing could be said of the Athenians, it was that they loved their flawed city-state, and were unselfconscious about it. Even the metics, for whom they threw open their city, were expected to serve, if they could never be citizens by simple matter of course, nor form the mainstay of the trireme crew or the hoplite phalanx. The franchise was alive, and mattered, and we take the word idiot from the Ancient Greek for he who was willing to let politics wash over him. The value of such a spirit is not to be expressed in words, as Pericles exhorted; and we must wonder if our spirit, a motley collection of bad principles with no purchase among the young, is worth anything at all.
Christopher Jolliffe is a frequent contributor. He wrote on “The Synthetic Reinvention of Indigenous Culture” in the August online issue and on “The Left and Those They Love to Exploit” in the November issue.