The Victorious General

battleTHERE WERE two kings called Rex and Caesar who warred over an adjoining stretch of territory. Ownership of the land had been complicated by complex intermarriages, both among the royal families and the families living in the disputed border territories. As befitted kings of their time, they conducted war only in the warring season, and took good care of the preservation of their troops’ lives, engaging only in a series of minor skirmishes.

Each king realised, too, the usefulness of having an enemy, and cherished the powers which this gave him at home. And when they met at the palace of a third or fourth king, they greeted each other as brothers, and embraced, and kissed each other on the cheek, though they were always discreet about this, so as not to let their citizens know.

Now there came a time when King Rex’s war-master died unexpectedly. The king at once chose a successor, but chose unwisely, as kings sometimes do. The general he appointed was a man named Dorn, a hard and cruel man who had fought his way up the ranks. His intelligent mind was full of strategies, and his fist was armoured and clenched a weapon.

Now General Dorn set about organising King Rex’s armies to be more efficient, to be more motivated, and to win the war which had dragged on for lifetimes. He changed the troops’ training regimes, increased their pay, improved their weapons and further boosted their morale with hints of looting and other pleasures. Wherever he rode, the soldiers cheered him.

His first military exercise was a slaughter. His men surrounded the enemy in the night, set fire to their camp and killed anyone who tried to break out.

In three or four more decisive battles, General Dorn took back nearly half of the disputed territory. Then King Rex called him back to the capital. “What is going on in the war?” he asked.

“I can win the war in half a year.”

“Win it?” the King asked in surprise, “How could you do a thing like that?”

“In two months we could recover all the disputed territory. Already we control the heights and the river. The enemy is weak and does not expect surprises.” He drew out a map and unrolled it on the table. “We will draw them here. Here we will assemble a false army, with tents and all. Here we take their flank, and here we pounce from above. Our new troops are invincible. Their morale is high and their new weapons are performing beyond expectation.”

“And after that?” King Rex asked, “Do we sit in the disputed territory and defend a difficult border while they try to take it back?”

“No, Sire, we need not.” Dorn gestured at the map. “Their might is all concentrated here and here. If we crush them as I have indicated, their home forces will be weak, their courage low and their territory open to invasion. The only way to end the war is to break the enemy completely—eliminate King Caesar’s armies and occupy his territories, so that they might never make war upon us again. Already we are preparing siege engines. We will have their capital within three months, and should have the provinces under control in three more. Six months in all. The seasons are with us if we act now.”

Then the King had General Dorn’s guard dispersed, and sent his main cronies off on long and obscure missions purporting importance to the war effort. He had the General bound in chains and shackles, and brought him thus bound to a great banquet of the council of the ministries, lords and sages.

“This traitor has proposed a plan which staggers me in its perfidy,” he told them. “He has proposed to more than double the burden of the state, to incorporate our enemies so that every other citizen needs must be a foe, and all this by conquering, and doubtless martyring the blameless King Caesar. To dispute the territories is the way of our ancestors. General Dorn has not well understood the purpose of war. Tell me, General, where did our ancestors come from?”

“Sire, it is said that they rode in over the plains from the north, bringing these and these gods, and cattle and so on.”

“They were nomads?”

“Migrants, yes, sire.”

“And what did the young men do?”

“The men? They looked after the animals, defended the tribe, hunted and so on.”

“They fought?”

“You could say so, Sire.”

“And before that? Before there were horses?” the King asked.

“They fought sire.”

“And now we do not migrate. We are penned here, in rooms and walls and fortifications and borders. But this is new, and human nature is old. The young men still want to fight. We train them well in it, and every year or so we let some of them loose on one another. How dare you presume to act for the King?”

The King then turned to the table. “How should we sentence this traitor?” he asked.

Some suggested death by sword, and some imprisonment, or various other punishments and penances. Then a lord who was so drunk as to be past caring stood and said “Your Majesty has been somewhat remiss in this matter, so I do not support a harsh punishment for General Dorn. He was appointed in haste and went to his duties before he could be properly briefed. His actions seem to stem from an excess of zeal rather than traitorous motives.

“What, then, do you propose,” asked the King.

“The general is an excellent strategist. His grasp of military matters and the movement of forces must not be lost to the state. He must become the chief advisor to his successor. Only his brief need change—that he should now work to prolong but minimise the war, until, over the years, it becomes the most delicate of rituals.”

“So long as the young men fight.”

“Indeed, sire. As long as the young men can fight.”

“It is done then,” said the King, smiling for the first time since receiving the General. “Now let us eat and drink.”

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