The Oasis is Burning

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7.5 - The Heroic Age

“Gallery” read the burned oak sign hanging over the double doors at the rear of the entrance hall. Leroy caressed the polished copper handles with a placid delight. Under a completely different set of circumstances, this would seem mildly unnerving rather than terrifying. But when your host still has a few flecks of blood on him from his previous guests, the effect is somewhat less comforting.

“I’m sure you formed certain assumptions when you first saw the large estate,” said Leroy. “In truth, my own quarters are quite modest. Most of the space is set aside for my broadcasting room and what lies beyond this door. It took some swift and creative alterations to make it all work.”

“I’ve heard that torture chambers are tricky to install.”

Leroy grinned. “You’re a clever one. More skilled with your tongue than most of my men are with a bayonet, I imagine. That makes me wonder why you felt the need to bring a knife into my estate.”

“You want my knife? You can take it off me. I’ll try not to cut you.”

“Of course you won’t, and you can keep it. I’m not particularly worried. After all, if I see you reach into that bag of yours, I can always crush your windpipe.” Leroy turned the handle. “After you.”

Maybe I should have expected that the psychopath would have put at art gallery in his home, but it hadn’t even occurred to me. He seemed like the type who would be more into Remington than Renoir, but then again there are many kinds of art. There are plenty of pictures that would be right up a gun fondler’s alley, and he owned prints of most of them. There were paintings and sculptures and tapestries, an extensive series of armor-clad warriors wielding every type of man-killing implement ever forged by a death merchant. The spectral light of the artist’s brush glinted off of an array of spears and swords and arrows and rifles and machine guns and tanks and jet fighters.

Leroy made a grand flourish as he entered the room. “This is my humble collection, my homage to heroism and glory down through the ages. Most of these pieces, alas, are reproductions, though I have obtained a number of original works by artists in Missouri and Kansas. What do you think, Mr. Gainsborough?”

I don’t know from art, but when a man like Leroy Brigg asks your opinion, you make one up. “I think that these are some fantastic renderings of weapons, and much safer than the real thing.”

“Warfare makes you nervous, doesn’t it?” said Leroy. “You are hardly alone. Modern man has decided that he has no need for things like honor or victory. He settles his conflicts through alternate means.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It is not a graceful means of solving a problem, but the boons of a well-prosecuted war are matchless.”

I took a few moments to study Leroy’s collection. It’s not that the aesthetics of carnage particularly captured me but I did notice something incongruous about the works. “There’s a lot more diversity here than I expected.”

“You’re surprised that it’s not all warrior WASPs?” Leroy laughed. “Well, a general cannot always pick his soldiers. I sent out a message and the silent majority responded. In all honestly, I would have been just as pleased if the militants had heeded the call.”

“There was a message here somewhere? Must have missed it.”

“Of course there was a message, Atticus, and a simple one: Power is not a matter of status but one of action. Forceful action. Martial action.”

Each time Leroy’s eyes fell on one of his collected works, that tyrannous grin grew slightly broader. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he placed himself onto each of a hundred battlefields, hoisting his own flag over the fray.

“As a people, we’ve lost touch with our true nature,” said Leroy. “War is in our blood, in our very genes. The earth worshippers tell us that only man makes war, but that’s simply not true. The chimpanzee is a warrior par excellence. He stakes out territory, goes on raids with his simian comrades and seizes the spoils of victory. He even commits war crimes on his captives.”

“Sounds delightful. Maybe CNN will send a camera crew next time.”

“Of course, what the apes do is raiding for survival and petty gains. Human warfare is much more refined, even philosophical. It carries far greater gifts than food and captives.”

“Like free bullets and trips to the hospital.”

“I wasn’t naive enough to expect you to simply agree. Very well, I shall give you a brief history.” Leroy strode through his gallery, fist clenched before his eyes. “Alexander of Macedon. Octavius Augustus. Qin Shi Huang. Richard Lionheart. Genghis Khan. Suleiman the Magnificent. Oda Nobunaga. Pyotr Alexeyevich. Hernan Cortes de Monroy Pizarro. Shaka Zulu. Napoleon Bonaparte. What do these names have in common?”

“A world history quiz?”

“They were all conquerors, warmongers, killers. And yet also masterful leaders, men of letters, poets and scholars, builders of nations. Modern man cannot reconcile how such great things could be birthed by such monsters.” Leroy stopped in front of me. “These are the gifts of war, and they are many. New technologies to fill the necessity of the front line. New social orders to clear out the dead wood of obsolete and feeble governments. Spectacular art and literature to record the victories. But those are merely the fringe benefits.”

“True. What war is really good for is clearing out all those annoying kids.”

“You joke, but in this case you are not far off. The real function of power is how it shapes the generation to come. Allow me to show you.” Leroy walked to a small statue of a man wielding a massive club. “This is an Eagle, the highest rank of warrior in the Aztec Triple Alliance. Indeed, one of their most revered figures. This young man earned that position by capturing enemy warriors to be used in rituals. Yes, human sacrifice was a barbaric and superstitious practice, but imagine the courage needed to capture an armed man with your own two hands - not once, but twenty times.”

Leroy next stopped at a statue of a horseman. “This is a kheshig, one of the great Khan’s finest. He was trained since birth to fill that role. When he could sit upright, they put him in a saddle. When he could focus his eyes, they put a bow in his hands. The result? A stubborn and resilient force that could ride for days at a time, pushing the endless march across all of Asia. These were some of the finest warriors who ever lived, but it’s the next one that’s my favorite.”

Leroy rested his hand on the largest statue, a bronze casting of a rifleman in a Civil War uniform. “This young man was only fifteen years old when he headed to the front. He ran away from his parents, lied about his age, defied blood relations on the other side of the field, all to earn the right to put his life on the line for his country. To be honest, I forget if he was meant to be a Rebel or a Yankee, but there were thousands like him on both sides. These were the truest of warriors, young men who shook off the so-called civilized mores of their time and listened to his blood. And he would go on to make this nation into the strongest, the wealthiest, the most advanced, the most cultured in all of human history.”

“That was certainly a history lesson,” I said. “I guess we’re just doomed if we don’t have another civil war.”

“Precisely.”

“Thing is, I wasn’t being serious.”

“I know. I was.” Leroy stepped in front of the statue. “Why do you think I opted to start this campaign in a college town? Spend a few hours on campus and you can see what just a few decades of peace have done to the youth of this nation. They are children in the guise of adulthood. This young man endured disease, cramped conditions and poor food in the name of his cause; today, they won’t go anywhere without high-end alcohol and a selection of redundant digital toys to entertain them. This man faced down the Gatling gun and the surgeon’s bone saw with only his own grit; today, all it takes is rough language to reduce them to tears. This man put his life on the line; these children idly chat about revolution, never intending to truly rise up because they have no reason to do so. Without the whetstone of combat, the youth have lost their edge. Yes, we have wealth and technology, but those are but tools. What good are fine tools when they are guided by trembling hands?”

Leroy’s grin was gone by this point, faded into a tense expression that was halfway between disappointment and vindictive rage. I flashed back on his personal history and realized that this was the part of the warlord that his students had seen all those years ago.

“That’s quite an argument,” I said. “There is a flaw.”

“And what might that be?”

“You.” I leaned against the wall opposite the statue. “I’ll tell you something I’ve discovered over the years - The people who talk the loudest about the character of the people are the ones who never follow their own advice. You have rich people who talk about the values of the poor as if they had a goddamn clue, who swap stories of romantic poverty. And you’ve got the bellicose crowd who talk about the loss of our martial virtues and the death of patriotism while they rode out any number of perfectly good wars at home. You were never honed against the whetstone of combat. Oh, you’ve seen death and plenty of it, but you’ve never dodged bullets on the battlefield.”

“And your point would be?”

“It’s twofold. One, your own success disproves your theory on weakness. Two, and this is the important part, you’ve never seen what war does to a country. Neither had I until a few days ago. There’s nothing creative about the destruction that’s going on out there, just decades of knowledge and craft gone up in smoke and a whole lot of talented young people with their faces blown off. Not what I call progress but hey, I’m just a burnout. Can’t speak to philosophy, all I know is if I’m getting a drink in the evening, then I’d rather get it someplace that doesn’t have blood splatters on the walls.”

There was a moment of silence, then the boom of Leroy’s laughter. “Perhaps you have more steel in you than I assumed. Very well, Atticus. We’ll just have to disagree on this point. Now, please follow me into my office. There is but one matter left to discuss.”

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