Personal reflections on this day’s violence

I looked at a spearhead made from recycled metal last month in Cambridge. The metal was from all sorts of different sources – good steel, broken weapons, things with stories and histories. Some of it was almost certainly gathered from old Roman ruins, and I think its owner was using all these materials to show off.


It's rusted now, but when this spear was new, you would have been able to see that it was made from dozens of recycled bits and pieces, each with a story to tell about its origins.

‘Look at me,’ this spear said. ‘I am made from old bones and stones and Roman ghosts. The man who controls me is one bad dude.’

This spear was actually a horrible weapon. Its iron was poor quality (you can’t mix random scrap together and hope for anything good), and it wouldn’t have held a sharp edge or withstood serious, extended use. Sharp enough to kill someone, sure – it was a real weapon, not a wall-hanger decoration. But not as good as it could have been if pure, brutal efficiency were its only intended purpose. But for the warrior who owned this spear, the weapon’s message was just as important as its practical brutality: this guy was willing to take risks to show his style. He was a BAMF. He was a player.

There was always room for play in early medieval war. Play was the point: you fought hard to show you were tough, hopefully roughed the other side up more than they roughed up you, and most of the time you all went home and got drunk with your buddies when it was all over. This is how free men bonded. There were occasionally bad wars with high body counts, but they were rare once-in-a-generation affairs (cf. Halsall 2003).


Violence and play, skde by side on this early medieval Vendel pressblech?

So a man could take a showy ghost-metal spear into a fight, knowing it wasn’t the strongest or deadliest spear he could have, and be ok with that fact. Because that spear made him look good, and winners won with style, honor, and machismo – not by murdering everyone in the neighboring valley. After all, if you killed everyone, who would remember what a terror you were?

But tonight, when jets are in the air and the UK is joining the rush to bomb Syria, there’s not much room for lighthearted play. You can’t wave around a bomb, knock some heads together, and call it a victory. You either make craters, killing innocents and warriors alike, or you stay home.

And when someone bombs a concert, or shoots up a school, house of worship, social service center for the disabled, there’s not much room for play: bullets are bad at nuance. They kill and maim, or they don’t.

Violence has always been a part of human life, and it has never been nice. Violence in the early middle ages was nasty and cruel. I’ve seen many early medieval skulls that were split open by swords. Early medieval warriors talked about the glory of war only in abstract, ritualized terms. Like many scarred veterans today, they refused to record the actual, traumatic details of their personal experiences under fire. We must not romanticize the past.


This split skull cautions against romanticizing the past: swords were cruel weapons. (Photo taken in the Grosvenor Museum, of an early Anglo-Saxon victim of violence.)

Yet always, there were opportunities to temper violence with sport. For most of human history, outside the great empires, men could go to war, bloody their enemies, and hope to see both sides go home alive (as long as they were careful to keep the feud from escalating too much). Now, everyone dies. Our weapons are so powerful, so good at killing, and so humorlessly earnest in taking life that we’ve lost this freedom for play. When we open fire or launch our drones, it’s death or nothing.

We should never have allowed ourselves to forget how to mitigate violence with performative play, and we should never have traded in our whimsical recycled junk-metal spears, weapons whose destructive potential was limited by design, for our mdoern pilotless engines of death.

My heart is full of grief tonight for the people who will die tonight in Syria, for those who died this morning in San Bernardino, and for the the thousands more who have already perished this year from unrelenting global conflict, flight, and terror. And it’s full of sadness for the terrible machines we’ve made that make this slaughter our first and easiest choice.