A book examining majorly destructive moments throughout human history, and our tendency to think 'Well, yeah, but that could never happen to us.'
While at times funny, I only recommend this to those who get aroused by history. Anyone looking to challenge the belief that we are immune to what's happened in the past, eat your heart out.
Will we ever again have the type of pandemics that rapidly kill large percentages of the population? This was a feature of normal human existence until relatively recently, but seems almost like science fiction to imagine today. There have always been large wars between the great powers. Any next such war would involve nuclear-armed states. World War III sounds like a bad movie concept, but is it any more unlikely than eternal peace between the great states?
The rise and falls of empires, the wars, the catastrophes, the high-stakes situations—the “Big Stories”—are intense and dramatic by their very nature. The combination of material that is entertaining as well as (potentially) philosophical, educational, and practical is an age-old winning formula. Historians and storytellers from Homer and Herodotus to Edward Gibbon and Will Durant recognized that long before Ajax and Achilles were spearing their way dramatically and bloodily through The Iliad while making “History.” There’s a reason a guy like Shakespeare mined the past so often for his material.
Finally, as we asked earlier, can you imagine the city you currently live in as a desolate ruin? Will it one day be like most cities that have ever existed, or not? Either outcome seems fascinating.
Thanks to a bit of cosmic luck, we were born at the time we were, and in the place we were. It could’ve easily been any other time and some other place. I find that recalling that makes having historical empathy somewhat easier.
Andrew Mellon, the secretary of the treasury under President Herbert Hoover when the 1929 stock market crashed, which initiated more than a decade of economic collapse, thought the coming hardship would be a good thing. “It will purge the rottenness out of the system,” Mellon said, as reported in Hoover’s memoirs. “High costs of living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.” From Mellon’s point of view, maybe he got his wish.
When the collapse came, it didn’t ruin everyone, but about half the population found itself suddenly below the poverty line. It was a decade of hard times. And the accounts from that era are heartbreaking, so much so that it’s hard to imagine any good coming from it. Certainly, few in our modern world would choose to experience an economic disaster like the Great Depression for the potential positive side effects.
And it’s not just about weathering the damage; it’s also about inflicting it. Maybe we could take it, but as US general George Patton pointed out, that isn’t how you defeat your adversary.* Think about the kind of bombing runs the American military had to make—a thousand planes loaded with tons of bombs heading toward cities where ten or fifteen thousand people might be killed in a single night. Or imagine living through the Blitz in London, when German bombers unleashed their payloads on the city nearly every night for more than eight months. The Greatest Generation knew there was a solid wall of planes above them, and they also ordered the bomb bay doors to be opened.
The mid-twentieth-century historian Chester G. Starr wrote about Sparta, an entire society geared toward creating some of the finest fighting men in the ancient world. The soldiers of Sparta propelled this agrarian Peloponnesian Greek city-state to heights it had no right to expect given the size of its population and its relatively modest economic output. But the entire society and culture in Sparta supported and reinforced the army and soldiery. Every male citizen was trained for war and was liable for service until age sixty. The trained citizen militia approach was common to many societies, especially in ancient Greece, but Sparta took it to extremes. There, it was nothing less than a human molding process that started at the very beginning of life: newborns were deemed the raw material of the military, and a Spartan baby was subjected to judgment by a council of Spartan elders who would decide whether the baby was fit enough to live. “Any child that appeared defective was thrown from a cliff of Mt. Taygetus, to die on the jagged rocks below,” wrote Starr.
The infants who were deemed worthy of living were subjected to “the Spartan habit of inuring their infants to discomfort and exposure.” At seven years old, children were taken from their families and sent to a camp to train. As young adults, Spartans ate in communal military mess halls with their brethren, never knowing the comforts of home. They were deliberately underfed to encourage them to steal food and be resourceful, but then they were harshly punished if caught. These Spartan children grew up to be the best fighting men in Greece precisely because their whole culture worked to create them that way
It may seem strange to suggest that high levels of illness might make human beings tougher, but the effect on a society of relatively regular and lethal epidemics and the mortality they cause certainly might have created a level of resilience that most of us today probably don’t possess
In some ways, illness makes us tougher, because immunities often develop in those who have been sick. That’s hard science. But do people who suffer the regular loss of loved ones to disease become tougher or more resilient individuals? Do societies with large numbers of such people living in them become tougher societies? These questions fall into that gray area of things that we intrinsically feel might be important, but that can’t really be measured or proved.
The seemingly softer society’s use of technology, superior organizational capabilities, and money against a potentially tougher and hardier society is a dynamic that’s visible in many historical eras. The modern Afghans may be one of the toughest people on the planet right now, but their individual and societal resilience is offset by Western military forces that might as well be playing the part of the Romans in this story. However, if the Western militaries were forced to fight using the same weapons as the Afghans—AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and IEDs—and they, in turn, used our drones, fighter planes, and cruise missiles, then the question of our toughness versus theirs might be crucial. Remember, the Afghans have been a people at war for forty years, against a multitude of opponents. In some ways, they might be more like our grandparents when it comes to toughness than we are.
Modern militaries have, like Delbrück’s Romans, found ways to work around the toughness deficit.
In many past societies, parents and children had less contact than we are accustomed to today.* Even the bonding experience of a mother feeding her infant was something often farmed out. For thousands of years, in many societies and cultures, the human institution of the wet nurse was very popular. There are stories of wet nurses—women who breastfeed other women’s babies—in the Bible and going back to ancient Babylon. Roman wet nurses gathered at a place called the Columna Lactaria (the “milk column”) to sell their services. For mothers who couldn’t produce milk or had died in childbirth, the wet nurse filled a real need, especially when many such societies didn’t believe in giving infants animal milk. Yet the practice often still meant sending children away from their homes to live with a wet nurse, sometimes for years. The casual giving away of children in past eras can astound; in various writings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, children sometimes sound like litters of puppies rather than human beings.
One of the important variables in this discussion concerns whether culture can be said to have shielded the children of past eras to any degree from the effects of what we today would call abuse, neglect, or emotional and psychological trauma. If a behavior that we moderns consider horribly deviant were viewed in a more positive and culturally reinforced way in the past, some argue that the effects would have been less damaging. It feels a bit like grading child abuse or bad parenting on a historical curve, but if something is more socially accepted and lacks the stigma it would have today, does that lessen its damage? Some would argue that the damage is a constant regardless of the society or era, others that it is culturally influenced. Either these people of the past were basically normal and well-adjusted adults despite their childhood experiences and the differences in parenting, or they were, as deMause argues, almost universally what we would today classify as abused children living in a society created by, operated by, and led by abused children.
Beating children was a common form of discipline from the earliest days of human history to relatively recent times. Many in the Greatest Generation, for example, grew up in a culture that did not think the general practice unusual whatsoever.* In fact, beating was considered by many to be the preferred and proper way to raise good, well-adjusted adults. It was routinely done to students in schools. And while a parent today who regularly struck his child with a belt twenty or thirty times would be considered abusive by the vast majority of people, he would have been considered positively lenient by the standards of past eras, when a belt might seem a poor substitute for something designed specifically for the task of beating kids.
In modern times, we worry about our kids’ exposure to simulated violence on television or in video games and whether it desensitizes them to real-life atrocities. But in many past eras it may have been actual violence, not the made-for-TV variety, that desensitized children to more of the same. Think of the children who grew up in cultures where they would have seen real-life killings and torture up close by the time they were five, six, or seven years old. In some cases, they might have even participated in it.*
It makes one wonder why our ancestors—many of whom were perfectly smart people—didn’t see how damaging these practices were. Yet perhaps our concept of what constitutes “damage” is different from theirs. They were raising kids to live in their world, a world alien to us. Besides, who knows what child-rearing experts of the future will think about our current practices? Maybe our best practices now will be deemed abusive or damaging to children by future standards. In our defense, we could probably say that we did the best we could knowing what we know now—but that’s also probably what our ancestors would have said.
Since human civilization first arose, societies have “risen” and “fallen,” “advanced” and “declined”—or so the histories written decades ago often said. More commonly now, historians refer to societies in “transition,” rather than use terms that denote forward or backward development. Continuity, too, is often emphasized, instead of the emphasis found in earlier historical accounts of hard breaks from a previous era. So, did the Roman Empire “fall” to the “barbarians,” or did it transition to an equal yet more decentralized era, one with a more Germanic flair?
We moderns almost unconsciously consider ourselves exempt from outcomes such as this, which is one of the reasons why that final scene in Planet of the Apes is so effective.* It is unimaginable to us that we could have descendants who might live in a world more primitive than our own. Likewise, it was just as impossible for Romans living in the era we now label “antiquity” to envision a future in which the place they knew as “the Eternal City” would ever be a ruin.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are commonly given the names Conquest (or Pestilence), War, Famine, and Death. In much of the modern world, the horsemen don’t seem as scary as they used to. War and conquest are still around, of course, but no World War III (yet). We are no longer able to relate to what our forebears went through with disease (pestilence).* And mass, society-wide famine is almost unheard of in most of the world. It seems like much of the darkness that humankind lived with from time immemorial has been banished from our future. But it’s never wise to bet against any of the Four Horsemen long term. Their historical track record is horrifyingly good.
There are some incidents of mass fatality–level famine in modern advanced cities or states in the mid-twentieth century. The unusual sight of humans dying from starvation next to modern buildings and on modern streets clashes with the image in our minds of poor, war-torn, drought-stricken, underdeveloped societies on the edge of the globalized world. We are conditioned to think that way by recent history. It’s hard to picture London or Tokyo or New York with mass deaths in the street from starvation.
When enough people are driven by desperation, not even the greatest state can stop them; symbols of wealth and prestige mean nothing if enough people reject their meaning. In such times, some will rise up, burn, and rebuild on the ashes. Others will leave. And so, in this time of instability, disease, violence, famine, and drought, the assorted ‘Sea Peoples’ took the second option: they travelled eastwards, bringing their families and possessions along with them, leaving their homeland behind. To support themselves or when attempting to settle, sometimes they turned to violence, probably supported by mercenaries, creating their legend.
First, let’s step out of our timeline to the year 1815, when the Mount Tambora volcano erupted in what’s now part of Indonesia. It is the only eruption in the last thousand years that merits a 7 out of a maximum 8 rating on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI).* It caused tsunamis and earthquakes, darkened the skies, and unleashed enough ash to cover a one-hundred-square-mile area to a depth of twelve feet. The effect on global climate was profound—1816 was known as “the year without summer.” And, among other things, it was thought to have brought on famine. There have only been a handful of volcanic eruptions to reach that high on the VEI since humans began keeping a written record of their history.
Whereas the seismic tsunamis are almost too small to be noticed while moving through the open sea, and they explode in height only when they approach land, megatsunamis start at maximum height upon generation and lose force and height as they move across miles of water. Seismic tsunamis are often preceded by a strange receding of the beach tide, only to have the water roar back later, but megatsunamis are more like rogue waves—they can come out of nowhere.
Smallpox is one of the most infamous diseases in history. To give an idea of its virulence, it killed an estimated 300 to 500 million people in the twentieth century alone,* but the disease was eradicated from the planet in 1980*—meaning half a billion people were killed by smallpox in just eight decades.
Smallpox killed multiple reigning European monarchs and five Japanese emperors, and it was likely the cause of many early plagues of history, such as the one in ancient Athens in 430 BCE.* Smallpox was also one of the main killers of the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas and Australia after first contact, the majority of whom may have died from the disease before the Europeans who first transmitted it across the oceanic disease barrier actually encountered them.* Just as it is difficult for most of us today to imagine the food insecurity that was common in most human populations in most eras, it’s difficult to conceptualize the range of illnesses and diseases against which earlier cultures had no defense. Pretty much nothing separates us more from human beings in earlier eras than how much less disease affects us. We are still victimized by illness and disease of all kinds, but unlike in the distant past, we now have so many more ways to fight back, and such a better understanding of the underlying reasons for maladies. Real plagues—a common experience in all of human history—are thankfully rare today. Some of our greatest modern fears over disease are simple we might ever again have one page as bad as many average plague in earlier eras.
When people don’t have food, under certain circumstances all law and order and societal controls can break down. Plagues can cause the same problems if they’re bad enough. Anarchy, revolution, and civil war can sometimes do to a society what outside invaders can’t manage. All it can take is too little food or too much disease.
One of the modern theories on societal collapse argues that because of the entire planet’s connected nature in the twenty-first century, individual or localized “dark ages” of the sort that formerly occurred are nowadays absorbed by the rest of the global body and civilization as a whole.* Others have suggested that the depth and severity of any potential “dark age” are lessened due to modern interconnectivity. So you might have another Great Depression or the fall of a superpower, but you won’t have a century of global decline and technological backsliding. It’s sort of a global diversification of risk in our modern civilization, a redundancy that allows the system to survive local blackouts.
This brings up the question of how much the people living in a dark age would even realize it. If you were born in Greece in 1000 BCE,* did you know (or care) that there was a greater age before yours? Take a kid born in the United States in 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression. On his tenth birthday, the world was still mired in the effects of the crash. To that child, the privation and lowered sense of expectations felt normal; he had no experience or memory of anything else. His parents, however, likely felt that times had gotten tougher. While it sounds like a bad thing to be living in a society off its technological, cultural, or economic highs, it’s very possible the happiness level of individual human beings adjusted and evened out comparatively quickly. It’s hard to know what you’re missing after it’s been gone for a couple of lifetimes. Maybe we are looking at this entirely wrong. If we lived in an era when our history books taught us that Ben Franklin’s eighteenth-century Revolutionary War generation had landed a spacecraft on Mars and could completely cure cancer (which of course we can’t do or haven’t done yet), would we care? Of course we would want the things of the past that seemed like improvements, but would we want the rest of the package that came along with it? If, for example, a Native American from five centuries ago had a bad tooth, she might really want out modern dentistry to deal with it. But if in order to get modern medicine she had to become modern in all other aspects of her existence, she might now consider the deal worth it.
There are multiple ways that any account or story can be viewed, but it’s helpful to be reminded from time to time. Certain narratives, such as “golden ages” and “rise and falls,” are so ingrained in our thinking that it’s easy to forget there might be other ways to see things.
In the scope of human history, there are two kinds of cultures that have had a large geopolitical impact on the historical stage. The first are the societies and cultures that can trace their lineage back to much earlier versions of themselves, like the Chinese and Egyptian civilizations. They’ve had their high points and low points, but they’ve always been a political force to reckon with through thousands of years of history, and they’re still here. Perennial players. The second are societies that seem to have had a glory-filled golden era, then fell into obscurity. Their historical moment in the sun, so to speak. The Mongol people are one example. Today, the Mongols are on the periphery of world events, a seemingly poor and out-of-the-way and behind-the-times culture, at least compared with what we call the “developed world.” But the Mongol people at one time ruled most of the known world and did so for several hundred years. This may have seemed like a long stretch at the time, but it was a blink of an eye compared with the ancient Assyrians.
The great state of Babylonia, to the south of Assyria, was the empire’s great adversary throughout their Bronze and Iron Age histories. Babylonia’s capital city, Babylon, located some fifty-five miles south of modern Baghdad, was one of the greatest cities ever built. It was likely the first metropolis inhabited by more than two hundred thousand people, and at its height had maybe twice that many. Remarkably, in this era before modern sanitation and modern medicine and with so many people living in such close proximity, Babylon managed to stay largely plague-free. (Babylon would outlive its great Assyrian rival to the north and would eventually seem like an urban refuge from a previous age in the new world to come.)
These cities were gargantuan by Greek standards, and Xenophon asked the locals about them; they said the structures had been built by the Medes, because that’s who’d preceded the Persian Empire they were then living under. But in fact these weren’t Median cities, they were Assyrian. The one “near a city called Mespila” is thought to have been Nineveh—Xenophon was marveling at its majestic remains two hundred years after its demise. Xenophon was someone whom we today would think of as inhabiting the old world. Ancient Greece is, after all, a very early European civilization. But he was looking at something that was already ancient in his day—the equivalent of a Statue of Liberty in the sand from a Near Eastern empire that had been the superpower of its age a mere two centuries previously, and one that now seemed so thoroughly erased that the locals didn’t even know to whom it had belonged.
Before its fall, the Mesopotamian culture that Assyria was a part of was akin to Civilization 1.0. Babylon and Assyria represented the apex of that civilization’s version, with a growth in power, sophistication, and development that had begun in places like Ur, Akkad, and Sumeria. This basically unbroken civilizational tree lasted longer than any of the versions since. By way of comparison, if we were to date our modern civilization to the beginning of the Renaissance, we could count it as so far lasting around five or six hundred years. Assyria and its world was three to five times older than that, depending on how you date it, but their own records show an unbroken line of kings dating all the way back to the 2300s BCE,* and Nineveh, their greatest city, fell around 600 BCE. That’s nearly two millennia that these people were a recognizable regional entity. The oldest work in European literature is often credited to Homer and dated between 800 and 1000 BCE—compare that with The Epic of Gilgamesh, from Mesopotamia, which was put into writing in about 2100 BCE and had been an oral story earlier than that. Civilization 1.0 had deep roots.
Many historians will point out that this Assyrian behavior was pretty standard for the era, and that there was a practical purpose to all this boasting of brutality. The Assyrians are considered by many to have built the first major empire in human history, and every empire that has followed has adopted many, if not all, of the strategies and techniques the Assyrians used to govern and administrate theirs. And one of their preferred techniques to keep their subject peoples in line was a form of state terrorism. The formula is well understood today, as it’s been used many times in history. Cities, regions, and peoples that rebel will be utterly destroyed, and the retribution will be devastating. The goal is to keep the conquered in line, but as so often happens, the repression breeds dissatisfaction, and the Assyrians were forever putting down, and then harshly punishing, revolts.
Babylon, much closer to home, was a different sort of problem, one that they never managed to completely solve. The Assyrians had always treated Babylon better than they’d treated most of their other adversaries because the city was the cultural center of the very, very old world—the Paris of its day. Many historians have compared the relationship of Babylon and Assyria to the one between Greece and Rome. The Romans were militarily superior, but they had a real admiration for Greek culture, and they adopted aspects of their statue making, philosophy, literature, and architecture. The Assyrians were similar in their estimation of Babylon’s ancient—and for that time and place, very advanced—culture. This regard and admiration had saved Babylon from the fate so many other cities and states had suffered at the hand of the Assyrians.
The historian Gwynne Dyer has said that Sennacherib destroyed Babylon as thoroughly as a nuclear bomb would have. In fact, the only difference between the ancient world and the modern is that it took a lot more human muscle power to accomplish the same thing. The Assyrian soldiers pulled the walls down and burned the city. (Imagine what would be involved trying to create a Hiroshima or Nagasaki if human hands had to do the work.)
In addition to killing the citizens of Babylon, the angry “king of the world” diverted a river over the city, and then had salt and thorny plants sowed into the soil to create an environmental wasteland.
The end for the Assyrian Empire may have come in part because of its success. In waging all these wars, the Assyrians ended up beating down some of the most ferocious and powerful tribes in the Middle East. Some historians have suggested that many of the peoples battered into submission remained pacified even after the Assyrians had left the scene. By the time the Persian Empire that succeeded the Assyrians stepped in, it’s possible that the Persians may not have had to have been as brutal, because Assyria had already cowed many of the tribes, peoples, and states who otherwise would have posed a threat.* It’s even been suggested that the reason Alexander the Great’s invasion of Persia three centuries later seemed easier than perhaps anyone thought it would be was because the region had already been broken to the yoke of empire after centuries of wars with Assyria.
We assume such a fate won’t be ours. But once upon a time, so did they.
It’s easy to take for granted all the things that keep the lights on in our society—the complex, interconnected system that provides things like power, food, and military or police protection. The financial system seems to run on autopilot. The same is true of the electrical grid; most of us hardly notice it until a storm knocks it out and we light some candles and wait for the power company to fix it. But what if the electricity were never fully restored? How would a people as reliant as we are on modernity deal with a forced, permanent reduction in it? No generation of humans has ever had the capabilities ours has, or has relied on them to the degree ours does. And our minds are hardwired to think in terms of continuous improvement and modernization, an unspoken assumption that capabilities will always be advancing and the pace at which technological discoveries and innovations occur will only speed up. It may be one-directional thinking, but it broadly reflects how things have been for many centuries. It’s understandable that over time we would forget that things could ever move in the opposite direction. After all, when was the last time anything went the other way?
Either way, it’s difficult to keep the faith clean during such a brutal religious conflict. Saint Lebuin—who it was said devoted his life to converting the pagan German tribes—is, according to Barbero, supposed to have given his famous ominous warning to the Saxons about Charlemagne: “If you will not accept belief in God, there is a king in the next country who will enter your land, conquer it, and lay it waste.” The Saxons apparently ignored the warning, continued to kill evangelizing clergy, and never ceased their usual small-scale raiding and banditry on the border.
Britain, under Roman rule, had been part of one of the great cutting-edge empires in world history, and then it rather rapidly lost that status. It’s hard for us living today to relate to that. Several centuries of living as Romans had changed the formerly “barbarian” tribesmen into “Romano-Britons,” a people who enjoyed their hot public baths, wonderful public buildings, fantastic roads, powerful walls, and any manner of forts and defenses—all manned by Roman soldiers from all over the empire. The Britons had been connected to the great Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilizational version of a power grid (the roots of which stretched all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia)—and then in the early 400s CE that direct connection was disrupted
The troops and money that supported the system in Britain were badly needed back in a threatened Italy. After several centuries of Roman governance and administration, the emperor essentially told the inhabitants of Britain that they would have to look after themselves.
The result was that a hundred years after Rome’s power receded, the inhabitants of Britain were living in a less cutting-edge age than the one inhabited by their ancestors. What would be the result if that happened today—if a central government ceded all power over a given area? Some problems, such as food and fuel shortages, would appear almost instantaneously, while others would develop over a longer period, as systems and structures deteriorated and degraded.
At its height (around 100 CE), the Roman Empire was probably the greatest state the world had yet seen. Only contemporary Han dynasty China could be considered to have been on par with Rome. The empire was incredibly sophisticated, controlled an enormous landmass, governed something like seventy million* citizens, and kept the “barbarians” at bay. The fact that Rome was also one of the most warlike states in human history is not a coincidence. None of this empire building would have been possible if Rome hadn’t possessed one of the finest armies in world history.*
The Roman writer Livy wrote that Rome conquered the world in self-defense, but this idea seems more than a little self-serving for a patriotic Roman writer to claim.* It rests on an assumption that conquest and the smashing of dangerous foes was often done to pacify the unstable frontier, but the frontier never seemed to stay pacified. There seemed always to be new enemies (usually ever tougher and fiercer) beyond the ones recently defeated. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, for example, stabilized the Gallic situation, but added a new Rhine River border to Rome’s frontiers with new ferocious tribal neighbors that had previously been Gaul’s problem. Now they were his problem, and Rome’s ever after. From the perspective of the Romans, it must have seemed like every barbarian tribe had another even more barbaric tribe behind it forever stretching off to the ends of the earth. If you are seeking border security, where does it end?
The Germanic tribal peoples in central Europe weren’t the same after five centuries of contact with the Roman world, either. Germans who fought with Rome as allies, auxiliaries, or mercenaries were an obvious conduit for the transmission of Roman ideas and culture to the tribes. This was especially true for any of the tribes in the interior of Germanic territory who lacked direct physical contact with Roman lands. Even before the Roman Republic morphed into the empire, the value of using German warriors had been recognized. Often, these German fighters in the empire’s service would get to travel to Rome and experience one of the greatest cities the world had ever seen, then go out to fight on the frontiers of the empire, rubbing elbows with other cosmopolitan peoples in far-flung places. They would then return to their tribes in Germany, bringing with them a massive transfer of experience gained by operating in an advanced society. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of individual warriors over many lifetimes and it’s not hard to see how transformative it would have been.
Central authority in the West fell apart over the course of the fifth century. The Visigoths—whom Rome had allowed into the empire and who had beaten them at Adrianople—ended up sacking Rome itself in 410. This was the first sacking of the Eternal City by an alien power since another tribal people, most likely Celts, had done it eight hundred years earlier. But unlike the Assyrian city of Nineveh, which was down for the count after being knocked out, Rome rose from the canvas for a few more rounds. It survived the sacking of 410 only to be sacked again in 455, this time, it is said, much more brutally by the Germanic Vandals. It was a German military leader of the Roman foederati* who all but dismissed the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
The Franks had been one of many tribal groups to be given foederati status by the Romans; in turn, they simply became the political authority in their region when Rome fragmented in the West. There were in fact several branches of the Franks—centered in modern-day France and western Germany—but they were eventually brought under the rule of one king, Clovis I (c. 466–511 CE). Clovis seems to have been an even mix of Viking warlord, Mafia don, and outlaw motorcycle gang leader. The sources portray him as a guy who tells somebody to look for something on the ground and then splits the guy’s head open with a battle-ax when he bends over to comply.
On Christmas Day 800, something weird happened with Charlemagne and the pope in Rome in front of a lot of people. The event is traditionally one of history’s “great” moments, but there’s a great deal about this event that is unclear. It had a huge effect on subsequent history, though. Supposedly, Charlemagne went innocently to mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica to pray, and while kneeling at the altar the pope suddenly slipped a crown on the great king’s head and proclaimed him Imperator Romanorum.* Historians have debated ever since whether the claim that Charlemagne was unaware of the pope’s intention to do this should be believed. But all of a sudden Europe had its first emperor since the Roman Empire in the West had fallen apart.
Yet, there’s some interesting historical irony—or perhaps karma—involved in this “renewed Roman Empire,”* run, as it was, by descendants of the Germanic tribesmen who helped end Roman rule in the West. These new emperors were plagued with one of the same problems the Western Roman emperors had faced when they last ruled from Italy: ferocious Germanic tribes. In fact, they could well have been the same tribes. It’s almost as though nothing had changed. In Roman Britain, for example, the Roman Empire had protected the island from the sea raiding of the Germanic Saxons. The legendary King Arthur supposedly fought these same Saxons after Rome left, and now three hundred years later Charlemagne was still fighting the pagan Saxons
Either way, it’s difficult to keep the faith clean during such a brutal religious conflict. Saint Lebuin—who it was said devoted his life to converting the pagan German tribes—is, according to Barbero, supposed to have given his famous ominous warning to the Saxons about Charlemagne: “If you will not accept belief in God, there is a king in the next country who will enter your land, conquer it, and lay it waste.” The Saxons apparently ignored the warning, continued to kill evangelizing clergy, and never ceased their usual small-scale raiding and banditry on the border.
It’s much safer to be alive now than it used to be. Before the middle of the eighteenth century or so, the environment humans lived in was unfathomably lethal.* One of the things that makes our modern existence so different from that of almost all the human generations before us is that the threat of death, and especially untimely death, by disease is so much more remote. The fact that we live in an age when we don’t expect a large percentage of our children to die in childhood makes us the historical anomaly. Does it make us different? How so? The everyday illness and epidemics that people in the past faced, and the pandemics they occasionally dealt with, are beyond the scope of our understanding. Imagine all the ripple effects if our modern world were hit with a pandemic that killed just 10 percent of the human population. That’s not close to the worst sorts of numbers of some earlier plagues, but given how many people there are in the world today, that would mean seven hundred million deaths in a short span of time. One out of every ten people. About ten times the deaths of the Second World War. What’s the aftermath of that like?
Certainly these instances represent spikes in mortality, but people in the premodern world lived with what we would consider to be extreme levels of death by disease at all times. If we moderns lived for one year with the sort of death rates our pre–industrial age ancestors perpetually lived with, we’d be in societal shock.
In 541 CE, what’s been described as the world’s first true pandemic arrived, and huge numbers of people died.
The Plague of Justinian, as historians have dubbed it, was once believed to have killed a hundred million people. That number is now thought to be far too high, but it gives a sense of what a large event this was. It was the precursor to the Black Death of the Middle Ages, and it was caused by the same thing—the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis, which was spread by fleas hosted by rats. It was a horrific way to die.
William Rosen describes its effects on Constantinople when the outbreak hit the city hard: “Every day, one, two, sometimes five thousand of the city’s residents—one in one hundred of the preplague population—would become infected. A day’s moderate fever would be followed by a week of delirium. Buboes would appear under the arms, in the groin, behind the ears, and grow to the size of melons. Edemas—of blood—infiltrated the nerve endings of the swollen lymphatic glands, causing massive pain. Sometimes the buboes would burst in a shower of the foul-smelling leukocytes called pus. Sometimes the plague would become what a modern epidemiologist would describe as ‘septicemic’; those victims would die vomiting blood.”
The disease spread far and wide, but details of the contagion are available only from a small percentage of the affected areas. Constantinople is one of them. According to Nick Bostrom and Milan Ćirković, the editors of Global Catastrophic Risk, 40 percent of that large urban center’s citizenry was felled. And Rosen notes that more widely, over twenty-five million people—perhaps as much as half the population of the known world at the time—died in about one year
In the wake of so much death, society was hammered down, and darkness filled people’s thoughts. Having witnessed so many of their neighbors and loved ones die, survivors had no confidence that life was going to last very long. This attitude is reflected in the art of the period, which is a window into the psyche of these traumatized people. For a start, the physical manifestation of death, usually portrayed as a skeleton of sorts, begins to appear everywhere. When the great mortality began, people turned to holy relics and prayers, anything that they believed could help protect them—but when people saw their loved ones die anyway, it shook their confidence in their belief systems. A generation after the plague struck the West, a terrible pessimism permeated society. Having witnessed a scourge that had carted off perhaps seventy-five million people—up to half of the world’s entire population at the time—some folks went off the deep end with quackery and mysticism. Many others adopted a live-for-today attitude. There were orgies and rapes and robberies and killings by people who figured they had nothing to lose. A quarter of the people in fifteenth-century England didn’t marry. That’s an amazing statistic in that era.
Before the plague struck, peasants were afraid to protest poor working conditions, but after, all bets were off. To paraphrase Barbara Tuchman, modern man may have been born because of the Black Death. Suddenly, the well-ordered class system—one often defended by those who benefited from it as “divinely ordained”—didn’t matter so much, and ideas of equality and merit-based advancement seeped in where nobility and lineage had previously held sway. Population disasters always prompt questions about balance, and they are usually the sort of questions that are easier to ask about in the context of animal ecosystems rather than human ones. Recently, for example, an idea was floated that, due to the incredible loss of life during the Mongol conquests in the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan may have shrunk humankind’s carbon footprint on the planet. Is that a cause to celebrate? If our ability to massively lower the traditional death rate from disease is part of explaining our highest-of-all-time global population level, perhaps we have somehow thrown a monkey wrench into a self-correcting system that was keeping things in balance?
What began in Philadelphia—at least in its most dangerous form—quickly advanced. There was still an international war on, and modern transportation had made great strides, so the virus could get from place to place at a far greater pace than any previous pandemic could. The collision of this outbreak with this first period of true globalization was devastating.* At its height, whole cities in the United States were virtually shut down, as areas where human beings congregated were closed to prevent people from transmitting the illness. People stayed home from school and work rather than risk exposure, and the gears of society in some places seemed imperiled by the justifiable fear of getting sick.* By the time it receded in 1920, modern epidemiologists estimate that the flu had killed somewhere between fifty and one hundred million people; “roughly half of those who died were young men and women in the prime of their life, in their twenties and thirties,” Barry writes. “If the upper estimate of the death toll is true, as many as 8 to 10 percent of young adults then living may have been killed by the virus.”
The same sense of hubris affects us today as affected the generation that was blindsided by the Spanish Influenza. A modern epidemic comparable with the great ones of the past is a thing more akin to science fiction to most people living today rather than something seen as a realistic possibility.* But those who regularly work with infectious diseases and see the Black Death–like damage that something like Ebola or Marburg virus can have on a small scale in isolated communities are all too aware of how a hemorrhagic fever virus in one global region, or an avian flu mutation somewhere else, could remind us that, just like the Titanic, our civilization is not unsinkable. In fact, the culprit need not even be something new.
Humankind is more than seventy years into an ongoing experiment. The experiment will answer the question of whether we can handle the power of the weapons we’ve created. Since the weapons aren’t ever going to get any weaker, the only way this experiment will likely ever conclude is if we find out that we can’t.
The gigantic Soviet bomb—known as “Tsar Bomba” in the West—was described like this by the historian John Lewis Gaddis in The Cold War: “[It was] the single largest blast human beings had ever detonated—or have since—on the planet. The flash was visible 600 miles away. The fireball,” now quoting someone who saw it, “was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it.
We currently live in an era of human history that some have referred to as the Long Peace. There has not been a war for more than seven decades between great powers such as we’ve seen from Mesopotamia onward—the world wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War, the Punic Wars. Large-scale warfare between the most powerful states has been a regular feature of human history right up until about seventy-five years ago—right about the time that humanity’s weaponry made a quantum leap forward in power. This is not to say there haven’t been bloody conflicts—human violence is, alas, ongoing and constant—but we’ve managed to avoid major conflicts between the superpowers. Have we seen the last of the big wars?
It’s hard to imagine us ridding society of problems relating to any number of baseline human instincts: sex, greed, intoxicating substances, violence . . . war?* Could we give up war? When the adaptation required to avoid the nightmarish outcome involves altering aspects of human behavior that seem almost innate, it’s easy to get pessimistic about our chances. Even if we decided it would mean self-destruction and renounced the practice, it would be tough to feel confident that we wouldn’t slip back into our old habits. We might be good for a while, but “forever” is a long time to try to maintain vigilance against nuclear conflict.
Today, when we talk about the two atomic bombs* the United States dropped on Japan, we tend to do so in the context of the morality of dropping them. The truth is, the decision makers almost certainly didn’t have the range of options we often assume (or wish) they had. The idea that President Truman could have done something other than use the atomic bomb on Japan is probably a little out of step with the political realities of the time. As the historian Garry Wills wrote in his book Bomb Power: “If it became known that the United States had a knockout weapon it did not use, the families of any Americans killed after the development of the bomb would be furious. The public, the press, and Congress would turn on the President and his advisors. There would have been a cry to impeach President Truman and court-martial General Groves. The administration would be convicted of spending billions of dollars and draining massive amounts of brain power and manpower from other war projects and all for nothing.”
The author Susan Southard writes in her book Nagasaki that within a second of the bomb being dropped, the resulting fireball was 750 feet in diameter, and the temperature inside it was 540,000 degrees Fahrenheit, higher than at the center of the sun. “Horizontal blast winds tore through the region at two and a half times the speed of a category five hurricane, pulverizing buildings, trees, plants, animals, and thousands of men, women, and children. In every direction, people were blown out of their shelters, houses, factories, schools, and hospital beds; catapulted against walls; or flattened beneath collapsed buildings.” And all of it happened in an instant.
One Hiroshima survivor, Hiroshi Shibayama, saw the explosion and ran toward the city center where the bomb had gone off. He wrote, “The people were burned so badly that it was hard to distinguish feature from feature, and all were blackened as if covered with soot. Their clothes were in rags. Many were naked. Their hands hung limply in front of them. The skin of their hands and arms dangled from their fingertips. Their faces were not the faces of the living.” The survivors’ accounts leave a modern reader slack jawed.
Albert Einstein is supposed to have said that he didn’t know what sort of weapons the Third World War would be fought with, but the one after it would be fought with sticks and stones. Air Force general Curtis LeMay allegedly coined the phrase “to bomb someone back to the Stone Age.”* Both quotes, whether said by these men or not, invoke the idea of a future all-out war knocking humanity backward on the civilization scale. For the first time in their history, humans had created weapons so powerful they had the theoretical potential to spawn dark ages.
Realizing that they had delivered the most powerful weapon ever created into the hands of a rather violent species, some of those who helped create the superbomb tried to look at the potential positives. Maybe humanity would finally be frightened enough and motivated enough to renounce war, something that had been with us since the dawn of history. Oppenheimer himself said, “It did not take atomic weapons to make man want peace, but the atomic bomb was the turn of the screw. The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable.” Idealism had become realism (or else).
Many debates took place within the United States in 1945 and 1946 concerning topics such as who should be in charge of the weapons. The military seemed like the logical choice—it was the one who was going to use them, after all. But President Truman wasn’t having it,* and eventually, it was decided that going forward the US president would have the exclusive power to authorize and order the use of the superweapons. But this was a level of personal power the constitutional framers of the United States had never foreseen. And that, historian Garry Wills wrote, was one of the side effects of the bomb—it changed the American constitutional system. “Lodging ‘the fate of the world’ on one man,” Wills argues, “with no constitutional check on his actions, caused a violent break in our whole governmental system.” But it was a development that “was accepted under the impression that technology imposed it as a harsh necessity.” How, for example, would a president have time to consult with other leaders or branches of government if the enemy’s missiles were already in the air?
There were differing opinions about what to do with the United States’ atomic monopoly. President Truman’s secretary of war, Henry Stimson, described the advantage of the monopoly in poker terms: The bomb was the equivalent, he said, of a royal straight flush. How do you resist playing with a hand like that? What would Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great—or Hitler, for that matter—have done with a monopoly on nuclear weapons? Not use them? If you gave the great Carthaginian general Hannibal nuclear weapons in his life-or-death struggle with the Roman Republic, handed him the button, and said, “If you push this, all of Rome will be devastated,” does he push it, or does he say, “Maybe I should think about this”?
The British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, who was such a proponent of peaceful approaches to conflict that he was jailed for opposing the First World War, wrote just after the Second, “There is one thing and only one thing which could save the world, and that is a thing which I should not dream of advocating. It is that America should make war on Russia during the next two years and establish a world empire by means of the atomic bomb.”* Russell went on, in a speech to the House of Lords, to theorize that after the next war—which he deemed imminent—civilization would have to be rebuilt anew. (He believed this effort would take five hundred years.)*
Indeed, there is a pretty good argument to be made—and many have made it—that one of the primary reasons for adopting the atomic blitz strategy in the first place was budgetary—it was a cost-saving move. If you have an air force with lots of atomic bombs, maybe you don’t need to keep buying all the other expensive military equipment like tanks or cannons.
Some wanted to rely on a strategy that would eventually become known as deterrence. For deterrence to work, however, the side being deterred must truly believe that these weapons will be used against it. This meant that any nation seeking to lean on deterrence couldn’t ever publicly say anything like, “These weapons are awful, and we’ll never use them.” Yet this is exactly what the United States had said right after the war in 1945. Was the United States ready to blow up Russian cities and slaughter so many of its people if Stalin called its bluff? If he did call the bluff, and the United States backed down, its future ability to use atomic bombs as a threat would be greatly diminished—and thereby the value of its nuclear arsenal, too. This is a conundrum that would outlive most of the officials debating it in 1948.
On August 29, the Soviets conducted their first atomic bomb test in a central Asian desert—about sixteen years sooner than Western scientists had predicted. Suddenly, the whole dynamic changed. The United States now had to worry about having atomic bombs dropped on it. The oceans that had long shielded the North American continent no longer provided safety; in turn, the American nation and its populace had never faced a threat even remotely like it. Thus ended that brief period at the beginning of the nuclear age when atomic power rested in the hands of a single country. It’s notable, given the evidence of past human history, that with its monopoly, the United States didn’t use that advantage to dominate the world.* Perhaps this means that in an ethical sense there had indeed been human progress—a “growth in human greatness.” But perhaps, too, as Bertrand Russell would point out,* this was a single victory in an endless struggle. The first round went to humankind’s ethical and evolutionary growth because the United States avoided bombing the Soviet Union when it was the only country to have the bomb, but now two countries had it.
Those who saw such weapons in a more positive light often thought that these scientists lived in a fantasy world. But David Lilienthal from the Atomic Energy Commission—who pushed back against using atomic bombs during the Berlin Airlift—wrote in his diary about the way the government was leaning, and it was not in the direction the physicists wanted. “More and better bombs, where will this lead is difficult to see. We keep saying we have no other course. What we should say is we’re not bright enough to see any other course.”
In the 1930s, the “isolationist” US republic boasted only a small volunteer army that avoided “foreign entanglements.”* At the dawn of the 1950s, it stood astride the world like a colossus. Several major laws, acts, doctrines, and policy changes had reoriented American foreign and military policy in those years into the very opposite of isolationist.
And as superficial as it might sound when deciding who should be vested with the most awesome power in global history, personal charisma and likability would also factor into this decision. From an outsider’s point of view—here comes our Martian again—this could appear to be a very strange reality. In a game of geopolitical multideck atomic poker, with the stakes as high as they were, humans would potentially pick the guy with the best hair?*
Samuel Johnson is supposed to have said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” For that two-week period, when all seemed near lost, humankind treated the threat with the level of gravity it had always deserved. In a perfect world, we would be able to do this continuously, but history has shown that the lesser aspects and banalities of life have a way of intruding.
Start with the famous arms merchant and inventor of dynamite Alfred Nobel, who did as much as anyone to create the modern growth in weapons power since Napoleon’s day. Yet he famously told countess Bertha von Suttner, “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your (peace) congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” His sentiment that modern war would be so terrible it might make war impossible is also how many viewed what the new technologies and weapons might do. Such a rationale helps explain why good, ethical people could find themselves part of such a potentially catastrophic outcome. It can also make all sorts of horrible things sound like good ideas.
The rules of the game when it comes to modern* warfare are complicated, often contradictory, and, during wartime, usually in flux.* If you had been an American or British general in the Second World War, for example, and had continually ordered your ground forces to destroy the structures and rip up the infrastructure of enemy cities while deliberately yet indiscriminately killing large numbers of the civilian noncombatants, you would have been removed from command. The Allied armies did not engage in this sort of deliberate conduct, but aerial bombing, which accomplished the same thing, was considered acceptable, even routine. In fact, if an air commander could get such results reliably, he very well might have been promoted.
By our current peacetime standards, the ethics of Total War might seem hard to justify and easy to condemn. But it’s extremely difficult to imagine what it was like to be alive during the last years of the Second World War. Decision makers were faced with often terrible choices. That war was the worst conflict in human history, and it caused suffering on an unimaginable scale all over the world. What extreme actions would you be willing to contemplate if you could potentially end that war at the very start? Had the British or the French been in possession of a single atomic bomb at that time, would you have been in favor of their dropping it on Berlin once Germany invaded Poland? Such a decision would have doomed about a million Germans to a fiery death, including a ton of women, children, and the elderly and infirm. It would also destroy a cultural center of historic and generational importance. But it might have ended the war on the first day. If it had, many more lives would have been saved than had been sacrificed to that one bomb. The numbers are staggering: thirty million souls lost on the eastern front alone; six million lost in the Holocaust. What is the right move?
For comparison, the Second World War killed between 70 and 85 million people. This number includes deaths in the Second Sino-Japanese War that began several years before the 1939 German attack on Poland.
Underappreciate factoid: Americans have not elected a bald man since Eisenhower. Even this might have been an anomaly, because Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent in both presidential elections was Adlai Stevenson, a man with even less hair than Eisenhower.