Sunday, May 8, 2011

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

In his account of one of the many battles between the Romans and the Samnites, Livy describes the enemy's uniforms. The Samnites, he says, "besides their many preparations for the field, made no little glitter with new decorations of their armour." Items of "glitter" included gold and silver trim on their shields, tunics of various colors, and plumes on their helmets "to add to the appearance of their stature."

Now many countries through the ages have dressed their troops in attractive uniforms. I would venture to say that not a few men from history, wavering in a decision to enlist, have ultimately made the commitment because of the impressive look of a dress uniform. Certainly many a young woman has come to accept her husband's or boyfriend's decision only after seeing him in his new uniform. A sharp uniform builds confidence, commitment, cohesion, and courage. So I'm not surprised to learn that the Samnites favored such decorations or that they matched the decorations with "many preparations for the field" or that they occasionally won a battle against the Romans.

I am a bit surprised, though, to learn that the Romans of the Republican era despised such finery. Perhaps my view of the legionnaire depends too much on Hollywood costume epics. According to Livy, the commanders taught their men that "a soldier ought to be rough; not decorated with gold and silver, but placing his confidence in his sword. That matters of this kind were in reality spoil rather than armour; glittering before action, but soon losing their brilliancy when besmeared with blood. That the brightest ornament of a soldier was valour."

There are two types of people in the world: those who like to divide the world up into two types of people and those who don't. Those in the first group might agree that the world could be divided into people who see decoration as good and people who see decoration as bad. People like Livy's Republican soldiers see decoration as bad because they value only useful things. Some things are useful and necessary, and some things are decorative and superfluous, they would say; keep the goal in mind and (it seems so logical and straightforward!) employ only the useful to reach the goal. The soldier's goal, they would say, is victory, and swords achieve victory -- not plumes.

But people like the Samnites might tell the utilitarian Romans that they aren't looking at the problem the right way. Plumes make a soldier look taller and feel taller, and those psychological effects can make a soldier more confident. Colors help make a soldier committed to his unit, and that commitment keeps him marching into fire when all his mates are. Those dress uniforms help keep the girlfriends and wives proud of their men, and that pride keeps the home front in support. And confidence, commitment, and pride at home help win wars. We agree, the Samnite argues, that the soldier should value the useful. We simply see decorations as useful.

Our culture has lost a taste for glitter, it seems. We no longer see plumes and gold trim as useful, but only as the frivolous decorations of a bygone era. Americans moved to the city in the twentieth century. We embraced the assembly line and the sales pitch. Our favorite decorations are made of plastic: from the chrome-colored trim in our mass-manufactured automobiles to the flowers and trees in our corporate offices, it's all plastic. We have become prosaic. Ken Burns's Civil War includes the reading of many beautiful, eloquent letters written by the farmboys and mechanics who fought that war. If you could find ten current soldiers who would watch an episode, seven of them would likely have trouble understanding these letters, let alone being able to write more like them.

The language of the Shahnameh is full of poetic images. The king is as tall as a cypress. The princess is as beautiful as Canopus. The warrior has the courage of the lion and the claws of the leopard. At the hero's death the moon came down from her sphere to mourn. Such turns of phrase grace every page. But most Americans obliviously walk by cypresses planted by landscapers. Most Americans can't see the stars through the light pollution and chemical pollution. Most Americans think of a lion as a caged animal. Between our schools that no longer teach grammar and literature (my college students prove it) and our devotion to online friending and pharmaceuticals and plastics and everything that's fake, how far are we from any hope of regaining an appreciation for glitter? Unless we learn to view gold trim on a shield in the Samnite way, I fear we can never begin to understand a statement such as this one: "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other."

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