Thursday, December 07, 2006

I'm fighting an illness. I'm not a physician or anything, but it's probably something cool like the black plague or ebola. Sore throat and the occasional chills--classic symptoms of black plague or ebola. Oooooh, maybe it's typhus--not to be confused with typhoid fever, which is just nasty. Typhus is a good one.

The good Hornblower contracted typhus near the end of Commodore Hornblower and barely survived the ordeal. When Hornblower wakes from the prolonged fever and is informed of what ailed him, he thinks, "The typhus. Gaol fever. The scourge of armies and fleets."

In my sojourn through the Hornblower saga, I've happily ignored all the extra u's and misplaced s's, but I just can't get around the British spelling of "jail." Look at it: Gaol. I see Neanderthals roaming the French countryside. Or maybe some sort of Celtic god of head colds. But never "jail." Not for the first few seconds, anyway--the time it takes to catch myself sounding out "ga-owl." Like an idiot.

On tyranny. Fans of Hornblower will recognize that I am nearing the end of the line now. Commodore Hornblower is the third to last in the series, and I finished the penultimate volume, Lord Hornblower, last night. Only Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies remains, but that one belongs to a different era. The first ten books span the Napoleonic Wars, as Hornblower goes from a young seasick midshipman to a famous commodore commanding fleets.

There is much to recommend in the Hornblower books. Most obviously, the writing, history, and nautical science are all first-rate. But that is not all. The books are in so many ways a conscious primer on leadership--how to maintain discipline and how to inspire, how to keep distance and when to let them in close. Some of those lessons are not well-suited to the American mindset, especially in the relationships with servants and the focus on titles. But overall, I imagine that astute aspiring business leaders could get more out of reading Horatio Hornblower than can be gleened out of the thousands of remainder-rack-fodder books on leadership and four years of the standard business degree combined.

From the historian's perspective, Hornblower provides something else: a long view of the tyranny unleashed on the western world by Napoleon. Ten books give a taste, a small taste, of what it must have felt like to be in almost constant war for over twenty years. Even for those who survived, whole lives were lost in campaigns and battles, marches and bivouacs. Men grew old in uniform. They forgot what peace felt like. They forgot what victory felt like. They forgot what hoping for victory felt like.

Imagine the fortitude it took to resist a great tyrant and military genius for an entire generation--to suffer setback after setback, to see heroes fall, and to lose great battles and win great battles and see none of it bring the end any nearer.

Two centuries later, and our war is yet so small. A Napoleon has not emerged from the cauldron of hatred our enemies stir. Maybe it will stay that way. Maybe the war will remain small, and maybe no new tyrant darkens the future. Then we can stay happy and dumb, living our lives as we are, while pundits and officials play politics with our small wars.

Or maybe what seems small now really isn't. Maybe it's just the beginning.

I honestly don't know. But I can't miss the gray peeking through. Gray that wasn't there when whatever this is began. Gray that wasn't there when the plane hit the tower.

An odd entry, as I look back. Sorry for the mood swings. Blame it on the typhus. Time to sleep it off, and prepare for the low-level disaster that will be the game tonight on NFL Network.

Most likely that's it for the week. Have a nice weekend, and watch out for stray gaols.

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