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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The Glory of Lost Causes (W4 version)

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away (February 18, 2006, to be specific), I wrote this on our predecessor site, Enchiridion Militis:

I have long agreed with Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for. To put it more analytically, it is one of my most deeply held convictions that a man does not have integrity at all unless there is at least one thing, one good thing, for which he would die in a ditch, knowing that his side is lost but fighting to the last. He who will compromise on everything has lost his soul.

So I have collected, over the years, a small but precious stock of literary allusions to the glory of lost causes, and I propose to dole them out over a series of posts in lieu of other, more detailed politico-ethical reflections.

It did occur to me as I was thinking of these various quotations that some of them may seem to be “cheating.” Several of these are Christian in origin and hence contain the idea that we will not really lose in the final, eschatological sense, that Truth and Justice will finally triumph and hence that the appearance of losing here in this life is to some degree illusory. Yet they seem to fit with the theme of the glory of lost causes nonetheless. So my astute readers will have to forgive me for including in this series both quotations that imagine a final, heavenly reward and those that imagine none. And you can tell me what you think–does the point about lost causes get made better if we don’t believe in a heaven than if we do?

The first brief quotation is a stanza of “Am I a Soldier of the Cross.” We sang this at my little Anglican church on Septuagesima Sunday. (And if you don’t know what that is, you should!)

Thy saints in all this glorious war shall conquer though they die.
They view the triumph from afar and seize it with their eye.

The second (one of my very favorites) is an excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Battle of Maldon,” in which the good guys lose to the Vikings. I’d put it here in AS, but that would a) give the impression that I can actually read Anglo-Saxon, which is not true, and b) be impossible, as the requisite characters are not available to me here. This is Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation.

…Then Wistan advanced,
the son of Thurstan; he fought with the Vikings,
slew three in the struggling throng
before he, Wigelm’s brave son, was himself brought down.
That was a savage fight; the warriors stood firm
in the struggle. Strong men fell,
drained by wounds; the dead dropped to the earth.
...
Byrhtwold grasped his shield and spoke.
He was an old companion. He brandished his ash-spear
and most boldly urged on the warriors:
“Mind must be the firmer, heart the more fierce,
courage the greater, as our strength diminishes.
Here lies our leader, hewn down,
an heroic man in the dust.
He who now longs to escape will lament for ever.
I am old. I will not go from here,
but I mean to lie by the side of my lord…”

Well, that was then, this is now, and things haven't changed much. Lost causes are still the causes most worth fighting for. But I never did dole out further quotations along those lines, partly because I was lazy and/or preoccupied, and partly because EM ended. So, making no promises or purposes for the future (being now older and more honest with myself about my own laziness), here are a few more, including some new to me since then and some that are old friends.

The Lady Galadriel (HT to Steve Burton back on Enchiridion Militis, who reminded me of this one in the comments on that old post):

For the Lord of the Galadrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.

Whittaker Chambers, from Witness, a book I had not read in 2006. (Steve Burton also suggested this quotation in the comments to the original post.)

I wanted my wife to realize clearly one long-term penalty, for herself and for the children, of the step I was taking. I said: “You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.” I meant that, in the revolutionary conflict of the 20th century, I knowingly chose the side of probable defeat. Almost nothing that I have observed, or that has happened to me since, has made me think that I was wrong about that forecast. But nothing has changed my determination to act as if I were wrong–if only because, in the last instance, men must act on what they believe right, not on what they believe probable.

Then in 1938, with the clearest understanding of the consequences, we freely made the choice which history is slowly bringing all men to see is the only possible choice–the decision to die, if necessary, rather than to live under Communism. Nothing has made us regret that decision.

And this, from a poet I have just recently found who deserves to be much, much better known, Lizette Woodworth Reese, from her poem "Growth":

Nor is the last word said;
Nor is the battle done;
Somewhat of glory and of dread
Remains for set of sun.

That stanza deserves to be graven on the heart of all on "our side" in these dark days.

The song of Sam Gamgee in the Tower of Cirith Ungol:

Though here at journey's end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

Dear readers, in the end, I believe that this may be one of the most important messages we can understand, though each of us will apply it to his life and to his times in his own way: It is, finally, the message of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must die to live. He that saves his life will lose it. You must be willing to lose. And though it matters, often matters hideously and vitally, whether we win or lose, in an important sense it does not matter whether you yourself choose the losing or the winning side but whether you choose the right side.

Elizabeth Goudge, from The White Witch:

"It has come upon us," he said. "I know," she said impatiently. "Is it only today you realize we are at war?"

"I don't mean the war," he said. "I mean our time of judgment, yours and mine....Men choose one side or the other, making the best choice that they can with the knowledge that they have. Yet they know little and the turns and twists of war are incalculable....And so the one war becomes each man's private war, fought out within his own nature. In the last resort that's what matters to him, Froniga. In the testing of the times did he win or lose his soul? That's his judgment."...

"One life knows many judgments," she said. "They are like the chapters in a book. What if every chapter but the last is one of defeat? The last can redeem it all. And God knows the heart....Patient still, He adds another chapter, and then another, and in the hour of victory closes the book."

Comments (24)

I don't have the book with me or I'd quote it, but there is a particularly cool scene in "The Silver Chair" (Chronicles of Narnia book 6) when the character of Puddlegum gets up and stamps out the enchantment of the Lady of the Green Kirtle's fire, claiming that he was going to fight for Aslan and for Narnia even if they WEREN'T real, because they were worth fighting for.

I think it was one of Lewis's better allegories; he could occasionally be too heavy-handed, but I think he made an important point with that one. I'd imagine that a lot of people who aren't fans of the series just have a field day with that scene, though. Imagine, a person who comes out and actually says he'd prefer to live as if a fantasy existed instead of accepting reality! If atheists in general aren't collapsing in horror at that section of the book they really should be.

There's the Song of Roland:

That Archbishop has heard them, how they spoke,
His horse he pricks with his fine spurs of gold,
Coming to them he takes up his reproach:
"Sir Oliver, and you, Sir Rolland, both,
For God I pray, do not each other scold!
No help it were to us, the horn to blow,
But, none the less, it may be better so;
The King will come, with vengeance that he owes;
These Spanish men never away shall go.
Our Franks here, each descending from his horse,
Will find us dead, and limb from body torn;
They'll take us hence, on biers and litters borne;
With pity and with grief for us they'll mourn;
They'll bury each in some old minster-close;
No wolf nor swine nor dog shall gnaw our bones."
Answers Rolland: "Sir, very well you spoke."

A very forthright one is "The Ballad of the White Horse"

Through the long infant hours like days
He built one tower in vain—
Piled up small stones to make a town,
And evermore the stones fell down,
And he piled them up again.

And crimson kings on battle-towers,
And saints on Gothic spires,
And hermits on their peaks of snow,
And heroes on their pyres,

And patriots riding royally,
That rush the rocking town,
Stretch hands, and hunger and aspire,
Seeking to mount where high and higher,
The child whom Time can never tire,
Sings over White Horse Down.

And this was the might of Alfred,
At the ending of the way;
That of such smiters, wise or wild,
He was least distant from the child,
Piling the stones all day.

For Eldred fought like a frank hunter
That killeth and goeth home;
And Mark had fought because all arms
Rang like the name of Rome.

And Colan fought with a double mind,
Moody and madly gay;
But Alfred fought as gravely
As a good child at play.

He saw wheels break and work run back
And all things as they were;
And his heart was orbed like victory
And simple like despair.

Therefore is Mark forgotten,
That was wise with his tongue and brave;
And the cairn over Colan crumbled,
And the cross on Eldred's grave.

Their great souls went on a wind away,
And they have not tale or tomb;
And Alfred born in Wantage
Rules England till the doom.

Because in the forest of all fears
Like a strange fresh gust from sea,
Struck him that ancient innocence
That is more than mastery.

And as a child whose bricks fall down
Re-piles them o'er and o'er,
Came ruin and the rain that burns,
Returning as a wheel returns,
And crouching in the furze and ferns
He began his life once more.
...

"To sweat a slave to a race of slaves,
To drink up infamy?
No, brothers, by your leave, I think
Death is a better ale to drink,
And by all the stars of Christ that sink,
The Danes shall drink with me.

It did occur to me as I was thinking of these various quotations that some of them may seem to be “cheating.” Several of these are Christian in origin and hence contain the idea that we will not really lose in the final, eschatological sense, that Truth and Justice will finally triumph and hence that the appearance of losing here in this life is to some degree illusory. Yet they seem to fit with the theme of the glory of lost causes nonetheless.

I think that Tolkien has this explicitly in mind in crafting the nature of his Elvish races, for they are designed to be immortal unlike men who have a definite after-life, so when the elves die in battle they have no certain "good life" to look forward to. Hence the various last stands of the elvish lords are wrought with the same burnished pang as that of the pre-Christian heroes: Finrod Felagund giving his life for Turin Turambar, for example.

T. S. Eliot, from For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on style and order, 1929:

"If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph."

It's interesting to ask whether Eliot was right. From the point of view of a Christian concept of the sweep of history, there are both specific and large-scale triumphs. For example, there are individual souls who have the beatific vision and there is also the eschatological reign of Jesus Christ. The idea, then, is that by being willing to lose in the here and now, even lose spectacularly, we gain our souls, which are the only thing finally that we really have to worry about gaining.

From the standpoint of "virtue is its own reward," I think that classical morality would say that a good man should be happier to give up his life in a good but lost cause than give in to an evil. There must be some limits to that. E.G. in many cases fighting a civil war eventually ceases to be justifiable when you can no longer see any possibility of winning. However, doesn't this depend on an assumption - that the winner will rule with some sort of nod to the common good - so that the usual rule for ius ad bellum that you see a prospect of winning no longer applies when the other side is just going to go about rape, pillage, and murder?

I was just thinking about ius ad bellum and fighting in a lost cause. I think you are certainly right in your last sentence. And that really leads into the whole difference between being the aggressor and the defender. The just war criterion regarding a prospect for victory applies first and foremost to the aggressor. Supposing that an unjust aggressor attacks another. I find it difficult to imagine myself shaking my finger under the noses of the defenders and telling them that, under the rules of just war theory, they now have a duty to surrender to the unjust aggressor because they have no prospects of success in resisting him.

Do we have to distinguish between cases like (a) the Viking raiders are going to fight me to the death and then rape my daughters and kill everyone, (or lop off my head when I surrender and then do the same thing), versus (b) the Union Army is going to put me in a POW camp until the end of the war and they force us all back under the federal government? Was Lee's surrender at Appomattox morally obligatory either at that point, or maybe the next battle where he had even fewer men and supplies?

I guess the question is really, what is the difference between "surrendering to the inevitable" and "surrendering to moral evil as such"?

Well, I'll definitely risk sidetracking the thread altogether if I ask in seriousness whether the South was the aggressor or the defender in the Civil War! Suffice it to say that it was complicated and that the proposition that the South was merely the defender against aggression is not knock-down obvious.

Sometimes even surrendering to the inevitable is a bad idea, because it heartens everyone who knows of it to see a last stand when you are in the right. But that, of course, is difficult to parse out.

"So I have collected, over the years, a small but precious stock of literary allusions to the glory of lost causes"

I think of these historical events that have been dramatized for the movie or tv viewer:

(1) The Battle of the Alamo.

(2) "300"

(3) Masada.

Well, I'll definitely risk sidetracking the thread altogether if I ask in seriousness whether the South was the aggressor or the defender in the Civil War! Suffice it to say that it was complicated and that the proposition that the South was merely the defender against aggression is not knock-down obvious.

Right, not necessary to sort through. As long as Lee and his people thought they were the ones in the right, they still had to go through the moral arithmetic of deciding whether to "fight to the last man" or cede to the inevitable.

I seems to me that in order for there to be something to parse out, there needs also to be some kind of criteria to use. At the moment I would guess that it comes down to a sort of 'lesser of two evils' sort of analysis. Death, even death of your whole army, is not ALWAYS the worst of things. But you have to be able to see some kind of something better - or not as bad - in the outcome by opting for death.

But you have to be able to see some kind of something better - or not as bad - in the outcome by opting for death.

Well, sort of. Sometimes being willing to be killed in a good cause is an end in itself. Think of the martyrs for example. The "something better" in their refusal to pour a libation to Caesar was just that they refused to pour a libation to Caesar. That was it. Nothing more needed. Thus they saved their souls. And I think that there is _some_ connection, though perhaps not a tight one, between that and the pagan idea of glory. "Thy saints in all this glorious war shall conquer though they die" brings the two things together in one metaphor. There is an analogy between fighting to the last man against unjust aggression and refusing to pour a libation to Caesar, and both bring eternal glory to the one who says, "Here I take my stand. I will not move unless you kill me."

I like to quote from a letter of Juan Donoso Cortes:

"To which of these two civilizations is temporal victory promised? I answer this question with no hesitation, with no heaviness of heart, that temporal victory will go inevitably to the philosophic [modernist] civilization. Has man desired to be free? He will be. Does he abhor bonds? They will fall to pieces at his feet. There was a day when, in order to experience liberty, man decided to kill God. Did he not do it? Did he not place Him on a cross between two thieves? Did the angels, perchance, come down from heaven to defend the Just One suffering agony on earth? Well, why would they descend now, when it is not a matter of the crucifixion of God, but of the crucifixion of man by man?…As for myself, I hold it proven and evident that evil will always triumph over good here below, and the triumph over evil is something reserved for God, if it can be said, personally…

It should not be said that if defeat is certain, the struggle is useless. In the first place, the struggle might delay the catastrophe; in the second place, the struggle is a duty, and not simply for those who consider themselves Catholics. We should give thanks to God for having granted us the struggle, and not ask, in addition to the grace of combat, the grace of triumph, for in His infinite goodness He reserves for those who fight well in His cause a reward greater than victory."

Thus they saved their souls.

and not ask, in addition to the grace of combat, the grace of triumph,...a reward greater than victory."

Well, "saving their souls" can be understood in the sense of 'saving themselves for the next life" which is of course a much greater good than this life.

C.S. Lewis suggested that we have forgotten, in our 2000-year old development of Christian culture, that before Christianity not all well-made stories were designed around a happy ending, that it is the Christ-told story of final victory that has made us, deep down, not only prepared to accept but to assume a plot-line that always, always allows for a better outcome after a defeat, that no defeat can be final defeat. But if we don't assume Christianity, if we don't assume the promise of God remaking the world anew, if we don't assume that we will have a coherent after-life in which we will experience a reward for this life, then at least theoretically it is possible that my death is a kind of eternal defeat for me, and even worse that some barbaric overturning of human good can spell permanent defeat for morality, for nobleness and love and truth. In that framework, we can still ask, would it be "better" to die than pour out a libation to an idol. The answer is still yes, but the reason must be carefully stated. I am not sure that "glory" answers, because (at least in some versions) it assumes that there is someone else to notice and carry on the torch of the truth you stood up for. The reason, I think, must be self-sufficient to you and the present moment: thus do I live for one moment longer in truth, rather than start to live a lie. Thus does my soul remain permanently unsullied by the horror of degeneracy and sin, rather than grow diseased by adhering to what my conscience tells me is evil. That is, the reason must be stated in such a way that being in the right for one moment and then being dead is a BETTER THING than letting evil take my soul for a time.

This is a mindset not in the least comfortable to modern men, that to be a do-er of the right thing even in the midst of pain and suffering, and without any future reward, is still a better thing than to be do-er of evil.

Thanks, Bonald, very good.

Well said, Tony. Yes, glory (e.g., in the minds of posterity) is always an interesting one. What if nobody remembers me?

Now, we can take the Lewisian line one step further, because Lewis himself was always very interested in the question of how to reconcile this somewhat tragic pre-Christian vision with the Christian comedic vision. I've just begun re-reading "The Weight of Glory" (a sermon) slowly with one of my daughters. One of the things Lewis says at the beginning is that heaven must be thought of as the enjoyment of the good, and that in that case we won't worry about whether it's a bribe anymore. (Most of us don't worry about whether heaven is a bribe, but Lewis sometimes thought it an objection worth answering.) So suppose we take that idea of living one moment longer in truth, keeping one's soul unsullied, and so forth--the enjoyment of the good for that moment. And in a sense, Tony, you're already making the moment eternal by making it iconic--that moment of truth is better than growing old by being willing to lie. Now, as Christians we can argue that heaven for the individual is like the real, experience-able eternity of the highest good of the soul. Heaven is not a "reward for goodness," exactly, but goodness itself for eternity. In that way, if the pagan perceives that it is better for the soul not to yield to evil for one moment, even if it means death, the pagan is already beginning dimly to perceive the nature of heaven.

Bonald, I especially liked this in your quotation:

It should not be said that if defeat is certain, the struggle is useless.

and this

We should give thanks to God for having granted us the struggle, and not ask, in addition to the grace of combat, the grace of triumph, for in His infinite goodness He reserves for those who fight well in His cause a reward greater than victory.

Truth, I have never seen "Masada", is it worth getting? And the version I saw of "300" is the old one, I am sure my kids would consider it a B movie at this point, though I don't think it was at the time.

Heaven is not a "reward for goodness," exactly, but goodness itself for eternity.

Indeed. Lately I've been ruminating on the notion that Heaven is just the fulfillment of the nature already given to us, and which we are already expressing and enjoying, albeit but poorly; that it is the attainment of what ordinary, humdrum human life is meant to be, is designed to be, and, someday soon, ever shall be.

The pagans of the ancient world were quite used to the notion that the sacrificial victim - and likewise, the soldier who died in battle for the sake of the people - was glorified at his consecration to the god even before the consummation of the rite, and afterward raised immediately to the heavens, there to live forever as a star. To them, this idea was as unremarkable as, say, heliocentrism is to us. Thus to be chosen as a victim, while certainly terrifying, was also a tremendous honor, and an *opportunity.* Only the lucky - the young, the unblemished, the beautiful, the very best, first fruits of the people - got it. Everyone else: too bad.

Until very recently, this attitude was still alive among us, and we thought it a glorious honor to serve in war, or to dedicate oneself to the religious life.

So, the earliest Christian evangelists were going out to pagans and saying, in effect, "you know the glorious godhood to which Herakles and Dionysos were translated at their deaths? That's what's in store for you, and for everyone who presents his body a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (which is, after all, nothing more than his reasonable service). So, lucky you! It's fantastic news! You get to be a god, and all you have to do is choose the right side and fight to a martyr's death if need be. For what you get, the price is chump change. It's a no-brainer."

Such a deal. We don't these days account properly for the present value of everlasting life with God. It is literally infinite. I've been trying to wrap my head around that, and feel as though I'm failing. I must be, because I keep sinning. I must be very, very whacked by sin, to keep making such a *stupid,* short-sighted bargain.

A settled conviction of the certainty and concreteness of immortality makes the decision to fight for a righteous lost cause much easier, indeed, an occasion even of great joy. It is bound to make warriors rather careless of their own safety; and this renders them exceptionally lethal, as against warriors who understand their death as the end of all possibility of enjoyment. Nothing is so terrifying to a man who has everything to lose as a foe who is *positively eager* to die for a chance at killing his enemy.

Excellent comment, Kristor!

Here are some things that I puzzle and ruminate over sometimes. Consider Tony's remarks above about surrendering to an enemy that won't rape and pillage vs. surrendering to an enemy that is totally evil. How much of a difference does that actually make to our visceral evaluation of the glory of fighting in a lost cause? How much of a difference should it make even to our considered evaluation? Take a case like Thermopylae. Suppose there were evidence that, hey, the Persians usually treated conquered people pretty well and weren't going to ravage the Greeks to misery nor even kill all of the soldiers. (This is hypothetical.) Would that make the stand at Thermopylae less glorious? Would it then be anything other than pettifogging stuffiness to say that they should have surrendered and saved lives? Apply the same question and repeat to any glorious last stand.

Now let's take that same conundrum over into the political realm. (Here I'm getting really controversial.) It seems to me that there is great merit and value in fighting hard in lost political causes, even when the alternative is not to do something intrinsically wrong oneself. Say that there is some bad law. You could just quietly, personally vote against it, without making any serious attempt to rally your fellow partisans to try actually to defeat it. Much less (ahem) stage a filibuster. Or you could even abstain in the vote, or just go home. Not cooperate with evil but not put any great effort into fighting it, either. And often and often we are told that we'll just get ourselves blamed or make ourselves odious or "give the media a handle" if we really try hard to fight something political where victory is unlikely. From a prudential or utilitarian point of view the reasoning, if the empirical premises are correct (a big if) seems impeccable. And even from a non-utilitarian point of view, we can be told that no one is asking us to do something intrinsically immoral. Just not to make a big issue out of it. Allegedly, we stand to lose more politically than we stand to gain, so why do it?

But something in me rebels against all this punctilious calculation. Is there not a place even in politics for glorious stands even when it wouldn't be per se immoral to refrain from making the last stand? Isn't that what _Mr. Smith Goes to Washington_ is all about? Isn't there a reason why a red-blooded American's heart leaps when he watches that movie or reads or hears of many other "pointless" or "useless" last stands? Isn't there something that dies inside a man when he spends his whole life trying to find a way to avoid rocking the boat, making prudent-sounding excuses for never fighting a lost cause? Couldn't that just be a slower way of losing one's soul, though not as straightforward as pouring out a libation to the emperor?

I realize that these questions are worded in a somewhat loaded way, of course...

Here I apply some of the same thoughts to Hobby Lobby:

Christians in America today rarely have a villain put a literal gun to their heads and ask them to deny Christ. For almost any compromise one might be called upon to make, one can find plausible excuses. And for almost any challenge that might be laid upon one's heart spontaneously, one can argue that it isn't actually religiously required that one accept that challenge.

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2013/01/hobby_lobby_for_the_sake_of_th.html

Hi Tony,

Yes, Masada is definitely worth watching. Peter Strauss and Peter O'Toole are wonderful in this miniseries. I got lucky. A Jewish friend gave me his boxed VHS set.

Suppose there were evidence that, hey, the Persians usually treated conquered people pretty well and weren't going to ravage the Greeks to misery nor even kill all of the soldiers. (This is hypothetical.) Would that make the stand at Thermopylae less glorious? Would it then be anything other than pettifogging stuffiness to say that they should have surrendered and saved lives?

My honest answer? If the Greeks truly felt as if their stand at Thermopylae would accomplish nothing except whatever value is intrinsic in making a last stand (in actuality this gave the people of Greece time to flee before being scorched, but whatever) then yes, they absolutely should have surrendered and saved lives. If Japan hadn't placed such a huge emphasis on fighting a lost cause, there would have been no bomb. At what point is it just not worth it? I think you've given as good a set of criteria as any.

MA, I think you present the far extreme of when it really is obligatory to just surrender: when the only "benefit" is to hold out to the last man as a lost cause. But your example of the Japanese, I think, illustrates the difficult moral issue in a less extreme case. In that situation, I think that a reasonable person could suppose that the Japanese no longer had any hope of winning the war, but still had hopes of other things, like (a) retaining the life and at least figurehead status of the Emperor, (b) retaining something of their way of life, as opposed to being subject to rape and pillage and then being forced into either direct slavery, the indirect slavery of colonization, or being remolded into a western way of life like the barbarian Americans. We were calling for unconditional surrender, which in the history of warfare has often been used as a predecessor to any of the 3 results in (b).

I think that there is a slightly different take on the moral question between when you are acting as part of an army, i.e. as an organ of a polity larger than the city or immediate area under attack, and when you are doing what might be called immediate self-defense of your own home, neighborhood, or town. That is to say, looking at it like the Greeks when the Persians were coming to town: for any given town, the Persian army was going to wipe them out, rape the women and plunder the town. But for the whole of the Greek nation (such as they considered themselves, even though splintered into city-states), the Persian king was attempting to seize the entire territory and put it under his rule, which meant that eventually he wanted something left to rule, and he wasn't going to turn over EVERYTHING to be destroyed outright - if they would just surrender already. The Spartans at Thermopylae rightly grasped that surrender meant becoming slaves, because the Persian king was an absolute ruler who could order the death of any subject for any reason or for none at all. If we hold the Spartans' willingness to die rather than become slaves as upright, then we might say the same thing of the Japanese. Possibly.

On the other hand, the Spartans were not going to their deaths in a lost cause. That is, while the 300 knew they were going to their deaths, they thought that their deaths might provide sufficient space for the rest of the Greeks to put together a winning strategy - a hope borne out in reality. Their cause was lost as to their personal benefit, but not lost as to the totality of their hopes centered on their families, towns, and nation.

Which is why I made the distinction above. If you are a petty "kingdom" consisting of one town and the 100 farms around it, on the coast of England circa 600 AD, and the Viking raiders are landing, your holding out "to the last man" isn't going to aid the rest of your nation - because there really isn't a coherent nation that will take heed or of which your kingdom is a part. But since the Vikings (at least at that time) weren't going to take prisoners except for a few women to be hauled back as slaves, surrender just meant death anyway and you might as well go down fighting.

But the question becomes more challenging later in the period when there is a coherent kingdom, and the Vikings sometimes come to conquer and rule rather than just raid and plunder. At least in part. Normandy came to be ruled by the Normans, i.e. the North-men, the Norse men. In the Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred the Great fought the Danes without significant hope of success, whereas while Harold fought William the Conqueror until death at Hastings, the successors in power after Harold fought William for a short while after Hastings but eventually gave in. But the, it was clear William was angling for ruling, not for complete destruction of England.

I still maintain that aggression is relevant. I know it's asking rather a lot to ask that the Japanese realize that this was not a war of American aggression against them, that in fact it was their own leaders' imperial ambitions and attacking the U.S. that was the cause, but that does seem to me to be relevant. Now, as Tony points out, other things are relevant as well. Even if you know that your own side was the aggressor, if the "response" is going to be some kind of scorched earth policy from those who are now the enemy, that can be an argument for fighting on. And there certainly were Japanese people who believed all manner of insane falsehoods about the Americans. (E.g. Women would throw themselves and their children to their deaths off of cliffs because they were told that the Americans were coming to rape them.) But did all the Japanese believe this? On what grounds? Were the leaders who had the decision to make about surrendering really that badly informed?

MA, I think you present the far extreme of when it really is obligatory to just surrender: when the only "benefit" is to hold out to the last man as a lost cause.

Well, the Thermopylae example was not mine, but Lydia's, and she provided the alternate parameters. I'm very aware that there were several excellent reasons for the actual 300 to hold out until the last man besides whatever is inherent in standing up for a lost cause.

As for the Japanese, you make a lot of good points. There's not a lot for me to argue with there.

On the other hand, the Spartans were not going to their deaths in a lost cause. That is, while the 300 knew they were going to their deaths, they thought that their deaths might provide sufficient space for the rest of the Greeks to put together a winning strategy - a hope borne out in reality. Their cause was lost as to their personal benefit, but not lost as to the totality of their hopes centered on their families, towns, and nation.

I'd also point out that, at least according to Herodotus, the Spartan king only took Spartans that had already had sons. So in a sense, there weren't fighting to the last man. This is markedly different in my mind to modern totalitarian regimes which, in their final death throes, threw their children into the war machine.

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