Message from the future
A chilling short story/article from science fiction writer Dan Simmons.
Go read it all, it's worth the time.
I stopped. What had he called it? Category Error. Making the problem unsolvable through your inability – or fear – of defining it correctly.
The Time Traveler was smiling at me from the shadows. It was a small, thin, cold smile – holding no humor in it, I was sure -- but still a smile of sorts. It seemed more sad than gloating as my sudden silence stretched on.
“What do you know about Syracuse?” he asked suddenly.
I blinked again. “Syracuse, New York?” I said at last.
He shook his head slowly. “Thucydides’ Syracuse,” he said softly. “Syracuse circa 415 B.C. The Syracuse Athens invaded.”
“It was . . . part of the Peloponnesian War,” I ventured.
He waited for more but I had no more to give. I loved history, but let’s admit it . . . that was ancient history. Still, I felt that I should have been able to tell him,or at least remember, why Syracuse was important in the Peloponnesian War or why they fought there or who fought exactly or who had won or . . . something. I hated feeling like a dull student around this scarred old man.
“The war between Athens and its allies and Sparta and its allies – a war for nothing less than hegemony over the entire known world at that time – began in 431 B.C.,” said the Time Traveler. “After seventeen years of almost constant fighting, with no clear or permanent advantage for either side, Athens – under the leadership of Alcibiades at the time – decided to widen the war by conquering Sicily, the ‘Great Greece’ they called it, an area full of colonies and the key to maritime commerce at the time the way the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf is today.”
I hate being lectured to at the best of times, but something about the tone and timber of the Time Traveler’s voice – soft, deep, rasping, perhaps thickened a bit by the whiskey – made this sound more like a story being told around a campfire. Or perhaps a bit like one of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories on “Prairie Home Companion.” I settled deeper into my chair and listened.
“Syracuse wasn’t a direct enemy of the Athenians,” continued the Time Traveler, “but it was quarreling with a local Athenian colony and the democracy of Athens used that as an excuse to launch a major expedition against it. It was a big deal – Athens sent 136 triremes, the best fighting ships in the world then – and landed 5,000 soldiers right under the city’s walls.
“The Athenians had enjoyed so much military success in recent years, including their invasion of Melos, that Thucydides wrote – So thoroughly had the present prosperity persuaded the Athenians that nothing could withstand them, and that they could achieve what was possible and what was impracticable alike, with means ample or inadequate it mattered not. The reason for this was their general extraordinary success, which made them confuse their strengths with their hopes.”
“Oh, hell,” I said, “this is going to be a lecture about Iraq, isn’t it? Look . . . I voted for John Kerry last year and . . .”
“Listen to me,” the Time Traveler said softly. It was not a request. There was steel in that soft, rasping voice. “Nicias, the Athenian general who ended up leading the invasion, warned against it in 415 B.C. He said – ‘We must not disguise from ourselves that we go to found a city among strangers and enemies, and that he who undertakes such an enterprise should be prepared to become master of the country the first day he lands, or failing in this to find everything hostile to him’. Nicias, along with the Athenian poet and general Demosthenes, would see their armies destroyed at Syracuse and then they would both be captured and put to death by the Syracusans. Sparta won big in that two-year debacle for Athens. The war went on for seven more years, but Athens never recovered from that overreaching at Syracuse, and in the end . . . Sparta destroyed it. Conquered the Athenian empire and its allies, destroyed Athens’ democracy, ruined the entire balance of power and Greek hegemony over the known world at the time . . . ruined everything. All because of a miscalculation about Syracuse.”
I sighed. I was sick of Iraq. Everyone was sick of Iraq on New Years Eve, 2005, both Bush supporters and Bush haters. It was just an ugly mess. “They just had an election,” I said. “The Iraqi people. They dipped their fingers in purple ink and . . .”
“Yes yes,” interrupted the Time Traveler as if recalling something further back in time, and much less important, than Athens versus Syracuse. “The free elections. Purple fingers. Democracy in the Mid-East. The Palestinians are voting as well. You will see in the coming year what will become of all that.”
The Time Traveler drank some Scotch, closed his eyes for a second, and said, “Sun Tzu writes – The side that knows when to fight and when not to will take the victory. There are roadways not to be traveled, armies not to be attacked, walled cities not to be assaulted.”
“All right, goddammit,” I said irritably. “Your point’s made. So we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq in this . . . what did you call it? This Long War with Islam, this Century War. We’re all beginning to realize that here by the end of 2005.”
The Time Traveler shook his head. “You’ve understood nothing I’ve said. Nothing. Athens failed in Syracuse – and doomed their democracy – not because they fought in the wrong place and at the wrong time, but because they weren’t ruthless enough. They had grown soft since their slaughter of every combat-age man and boy on the island of Melos, the enslavement of every woman and girl there. The democratic Athenians, in regards to Syracuse, thought that once engaged they could win without absolute commitment to winning, claim victory without being as ruthless and merciless as their Spartan and Syracusan enemies. The Athenians, once defeat loomed, turned against their own generals and political leaders – and their official soothsayers. If General Nicias or Demosthenes had survived their captivity and returned home, the people who sent them off with parades and strewn flower petals in their path would have ripped them limb from limb. They blamed their own leaders like a sun-maddened dog ripping and chewing at its own belly.”
I thought about this. I had no idea what the hell he was saying or how it related to the future.
“You came back in time to lecture me about Thucydides?” I said. “Athens? Syracuse? Sun-Tzu? No offense, Mr. Time Traveler, but who gives a damn?”
The Time Traveler rose so quickly that I flinched back in my chair, but he only refilled his Scotch. This time he refilled my glass as well. “You probably should give a damn” he said softly. “ In 2006, you’ll be ripping and tearing at yourselves so fiercely that your nation – the only one on Earth actually fighting against resurgent caliphate Islam in this long struggle over the very future of civilization – will become so preoccupied with criticizing yourselves and trying to gain short-term political advantage, that you’ll all forget that there’s actually a war for your survival going on. Twenty-five years from now, every man or woman in America who wishes to vote will be required to read Thucydides on this matter. And others as well. And there are tests. If you don’t know some history, you don’t vote . . . much less run for office. America’s vacation from knowing history ends very soon now . . . for you, I mean. And for those few others left alive in the world who are allowed to vote.”
“You’re shitting me,” I said.
“I am shitting you not,” said the Time Traveler.