Coincidentally: Arma Virumque

By an instinct common to all youth who have not had pacifism violently hammered into them, the inventive child will turn any toy into a weapon. War is in the blood, and among the sons of Cain, every cradle is Crécy. In his nursery of toy soldiers, the typical toddler calls his playpen Marathon and thinks his playground is Zama. It is an affront to reality and a betrayal of psychology to keep these children, and their parents, ignorant of military history. “I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier” may be the song of natural mothers but not of Mother Nature. It is the good man, said Harry the King, who shall teach his son the story of the battle.

As combat has been in the blood since the second human generation, soldiers form a long parade of coincidences. A prime example of the particular form of coincidence known as isochronism looms from the mists of the court of Aldfrith. From 786 to 796, he reigned over the British kingdom of Lindsey, bringing prosperity and justice to his people—if we are to believe the scraps left by his official court bard. One thousand years later, an isochronic decade (1786-1796) separated the British refusal to surrender their fort at Detroit and its capture by Captain Moses Porter.

Hardly less impressive is the concordance of the daring Danish raid on the holy island of Iona in 818 and the construction of the first Danish steamship in 1818 as the noble Polish general and friend of America Kosciusko was dying. These subtle coincidences have been ignored by most of the world, but not so the blatant events of 1066, for Halley’s Comet (not, of course, called that back then) became visible over England in January and those who read great moment in syzygies and other astronomical coincidences suspected that something cataclysmic was about to unfold. They were proved right, for not many events have altered the affairs of men on this earthly orb as did the Norman Conquest.

Cromwell’s dramatic victories at Dunbar in 1650 and Worcester in 1651 and his own death in 1658 took place on September 3. Correlations, synechdoches, and consiliences rattled the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland on July 1, 1690. The Catholic army of James II had Protestant mercenaries from Prussia, and the Protestant Orange army had numbers of Catholic mercenaries by way of the French—although the rumor that the Orangemen were backed financially by the dying Pope Innocent XI (Benedetto Odeschalchi) has little evidence. Pope Alexander VIII (Pietro Ottoboni) continued with a more conciliatory tone his predecessor’s policies, which were motivated by an animus against Louis XIV. Thus, when a painting of the battle hanging in the Stormont in Belfast was cleaned not long ago, all were surprised to behold an image of the pope in the clouds blessing William of Orange, and the painting was removed altogether.

On the fatal day at Oldbridge by the Boyne, James II got a violent nosebleed right at the highest pitch of the battle and had to withdraw from the field. The king’s nosebleed is like the storm that wrecked the Spanish Armada: depending on whose side one stood, it was either blessed providence or tragic coincidence. Surely, it was as poignant as Douglas MacArthur dying, or fading away as he would have it, on the 2,000th anniversary of the expulsion of Lepidus from the Roman triumvirate.

Two years before the death of Kosciushko, Simon Bolivar sailed back to Latin America from Haitian exile and began his maneuver toward New Granada (id est Colombia) unaware that Jose de San Martin, the Argentine general, had begun his own march on Chile and, later, Peru. This unpremeditated pincer effect, thanks to the extraordinary coincidence, was a seminal factor in Bolivar’s victories eight years later in Junin and Ayacucho and shaped the ultimate challenge to Span¬ish rule on the southern continent.

It is never amiss to conjure up the victor of Waterloo in his celebrated dispatch of June 1815: “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” William Tecumseh Sherman, having graduated from West Point in the year that the capital of New Zealand was named for the Iron Duke, agreed as he surveyed the carnage at Shiloh: “The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.” Some celestial symposium made up of all the generals from Alexander the Great to George Patton, who did not make the distinction, would be either the jolliest of fêtes or a pitched battle, but overwhelming odds are that they would be unanimous with Wellington’s motion.

*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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