Digging up history to learn about ourselves

Hardly a day goes by we don’t see some news story about some historical discovery. My favorites are the regular revelations about the CSS Hunley, the first submarine to sink a ship in combat, (click) but even more interesting stuff is coming to us today out of England.

Researchers and archaeologists there have positively identified the body (click)  of King Richard III, found underneath a parking lot. The link is to the BBC story on the discovery — my apologies to our own web site — because the BBC has the best interactive photo-study of the discovery.

Why do we care?

Wander through the discussion boards on various news sites, you will see a lot of debate over whether Richard III was a good king or a bad one, whether Shakespeare depicted him accurately, or whether The Bard was influenced by the Tudor monarchs under whom he labored. This is critical because Richard III was succeeded by people who didn’t have as good a claim to the crown as he did, and the Brits take their royal succession seriously.

The New York Times chat list on this story has a lot of discussion about religion — the Britons say they will re-bury Richard III in the local Anglican cathedral near where his body ws found, but a lot of folks are noting that Richard III was Roman Catholic. The Anglican church didn’t exist until one of his successors, Henry VIII, created it so he could grant himself a divorce.

What I found interesting was the evidence, on the skeleton, that Richard III really did die in battle, as Shakespeare depicts him, perhaps not really crying “A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!” but certainly losing his job in the most extremely prejudicial and permanent way possible.

Back then when a king was deposed he didn’t retire to the south of France, he got his head chopped off, if he was lucky. William Wallace, of Scotland, had his guts pulled out and displayed where he could see them before they cut off his head.

You can see that same sort of personal courage in the story of the Hunley — men going out in an untried machine to do single combat with a ship of an enemy navy and dieing in the process.

The men had the kind of guts we rarely see today — they knew they were likely to die. They were the third crew of the sub, the first two crews having died horrible deaths as their iron experiment sunk with them in it.

And yet the third crew got in and gave it a go.

When is the last time we saw an actual king, or president, or prime minister, do that? They just don’t go into battle at the head of their troops any more. It is said that old men want to wage war, but it is young men who fight. Richard fought his own battles in an era when leaders were expected to lead.

Fighting then was also very personal. You saw the guy who killed you. Richard III was cut down by a halberd (a lance with a type of ax head on the top) and then hacked at with daggers and swords after he was left alone on the battlefield by his allies.

I don’t doubt that our soldiers today have the sort of guts it took for that third crew to get into the Hunley and set off after the USS Houstatonic, but I can’t help but think the War in Afghanistan and Iraq would have been a lot shorter if President George W. Bush had to go point on patrols when he sent our young men and women into battle.

And, yes, that includes Obama — he’s kept the war in Afghanistan going, why should he get a pass?

If taking his turn dodging land mines and sniper fire in a war that just seems to grind on and on to no purpose inspires him to end that war a couple dozen casualties sooner, I’m all for sending him over.

 ps.  I was wandering around slate’s web site and found this. While Abraham Lincoln was too old for the draft, and was not eligible anyway since he was already Commander in Chief, he hired someone (click)  to take his place in the Army during the Civil War anyway.

It was an interesting practice — if you had the money, you paid someone else to take your place in the draft. The moral implications are mind-boggling.


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2 Responses to Digging up history to learn about ourselves

  1. Bob Becker says:

    Re: hiring substitutes. Was done in the Revolution too, though by towns as a rule in New England. When the Congress and state revolutionary governments began to draft, a town would simply be told its quota in the coming draft— so many ablebodied men. Some towns began to advertise widely, offering signing bonuses, so men from the town wouldn’t have to fill the draft quota.

  2. Neal Humphrey says:

    Buying your way out of military service is a common practice. In this country you used to be able to avoid conscription by paying a standard $300 “commutation” fee. Commutation was done away with in 1864, but not paying for a substitute, which in our free enterprise system, sent the cost of a conscript substitute sky-high.

    Some enterprising fellas started working as agents to provide conscript substitutes, others worked as free agents, taking the fee, then deserting, then finding another rube to substitute for. Of course this led to the rise of bounty hunters tracking down the deserters.

    You can still enlist as a 20-year “lifer” in the British armed forces, serve part of your hitch, then buy out your remaining time if you want an early discharge.

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