“Beowulf lying wrapped in a blanket among his platoon of drunken thanes in the Gothland billet; Judith going for a promenade to Holofernes’s staff tent; and Brunaburgh with its bayonet-and-cosh fight — all of this came closer to most of us than the drawing room and deer-park atmosphere of the eighteenth century.”
— Robert Graves, Goodbye To All That
We’re told that the only constant in life is change. True enough, as far as it goes. Just as true, though, is Ecclesiastes 1:9:
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
I am fascinated by continuity in history, the manner in which old, even ancient, modes persist amid the flashy now of modernity and post-modernity. I see it all the time in my study of frontier history. The through-line from Rogers Rangers raiding the Abenaki town of St. Francis in 1759 to Al Sieber and his native scouts trying to run down Apache militants to the Marines trying to pacify Samar in 1902 and run down Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua in the 1920s to LRRPs in Vietnam to JSOC operators hunting high-value targets in the Middle East to this very moment is bright and easily tracked.
The fine medieval narrative historian Dan Jones said something in an interview that I like very much:
It can always sound really glib when historians start dancing up and down and saying, “hey, my book is super-relevant today.” And, justifiably, a lot of historians get jittery or sour-faced at the word or the question “how is this relevant?” So, I prefer a slightly different term, which is resonant.
Ah, resonance. I love that word. Relevance is a cold concept that’s all in the head, the intellect. Resonance is something you feel — the reverberations of the actions of people that vibrate down the centuries.
Robert Graves, who fought in the trenches of the Western Front in the First World War, felt the resonance of the ancient tale of Beowulf. In fact, as noted in the epigraph above, the atmosphere of Dark Ages Gothland felt pretty damn close to those who had endured what amounted to a four-year medieval castle siege on steroids.
I get a charge out of seeing old ways being revived, revised and adapted into a modern context. Part of it is aesthetics. I mean, how can you look at a German SWAT operator kitted out in chainmail and not think “that’s just badass!”
There is a purpose to this, though; he’s not indulging in Game of Thrones cosplay at work. Form is following function. The officer was reportedly responding to a knife-wielding threat. Modern body armor — Kevlar — won’t stop a stab. Chainmail, which has been in use since the Iberian Celts introduced it to the Romans in the distant mists of time, is still the most effective protection against edged weapons. The old way works right now.
Trench raiders in World War I often looked like weird versions of medieval men-at-arms, armored up to cross No Man’s Land and break mead benches in the other guy’s trench.
A medieval knight or man-at-arms would have instantly recognized the improvised weapons front line soldiers crafted for trench raiding.
Current-day operators have tied themselves explicitly to a frontier heritage.That heritage resonates powerfully — and Graves can rest assured that, thought the timeframe is the same, it’s as far from an 18th Century English deerpark as was teh Gothland billet.
The knives and tomahawks of Daniel Winkler have become both a practical bridge to a storied past and a symbol of that connection and of membership in an elite cadre of warriors. Winkler has been an iconic figure in the frontier historical reenactment community for decades. I frequently admired his work in the pages of Muzzleloader Magazine. The master bladesmith works in the old style, hand-forging period-correct, traditional blades of great beauty and functionality. He made the knives and ’hawks for the principal characters in the movie The Last of the Mohicans. Since the advent of the Global War on Terror, he’s been making blades for special operators, including at least one who was part of the SEAL Team that killed Osama bin Laden.
The private purchase and presentation of Winkler-made hatchets and tomahawks was part of an explicit homage to and evocation of a frontier warrior heritage. The ’hawks and hatchets were more than symbolic — they were used as breaching tools and as hand-to-hand killing weapons. For some, including some in the JSOC community, the use of such weapons symbolized a descent into savagery.
One SEAL interviewed for an in-depth story in The Intercept thought that the hatchets were a bad look:
“Guys are going out every night killing everything. The hatchet was too intimate, too closely aligned with a tomahawk, to have been a good idea.”
Too intimate. Interesting phraseology. The trench raiders of World War I might tell that SEAL a thing or two about intimacy. Such things persist, for good or for ill, because no matter how much we think things change, many fundamental things do not. The aphorism is accurate: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”