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WAR NERD: SPARTACUS LIVE ON AL JAZEERA!

February 4, 2011

The Exiled, 2 Feb 2011: While we wait for Egypt to finish cooking, there’s some great footage to watch. It may not be warfare as practiced by Lee and Grant, but it’s weirdly close to what urban combat must have been like before firearms. If you watch this clip from Al Jazeera—and let me say now, thank God, Allah or Odin, whoever, for Al Jazeera. Best network around, actual reporters on the ground in places other networks are too cheap or chicken to go.

What you’ll see in this clip is the quick transition from “peaceful demonstration” to urban warfare in Tahrir Square, the big zocalo in Cairo. Of course these transitions from “peaceful” to violence aren’t all that clear down at street level. Even before rocks start flying, you’ve got a huge crowd of young males screaming as loud as they can, pushing each other to do something. And in a place like Egypt, just standing out in the street facing the cops is doing something in a big way. You can die that way, like one demonstrator did in another video from Egypt. It’s a classic video. What it shows you is the answer to the question, “Who’d be the first to die of all the guys you know?” And the answer, unfortunately, is, “The bravest one, the one who really believes in what he’s doing.” That’s what you see here: this guy doesn’t notice that all his friends have slunk off, and he keeps flinging rocks at the cops. Then there’s one shot. He falls down with a bullet in his head. It’s funny, you know: you could make an argument against war from that, you could say that the first thing war does is weed all the bravest guys out of the gene pool. It would explain a lot, actually, like what happened to the Italians. Maybe the Romans just used up the brave ones.

You can’t help thinking of Ancient Rome when you watch this riot video from Cairo. What you see is humans re-learning the lessons of ancient warfare. And they do it in a matter of minutes! I swear, this video had me more upbeat about the species than I’ve been for a long time. It’s not that we’ve lost our edge, we’re just rusty.

We still know how to do it. First rule: mass wins. You get your side together and stay together. Second: deploy skirmishers. Those are the hotheads throwing rocks about 30 feet ahead of the main mob. They’re to provoke the enemy, absorb the enemy’s first counterstrike. It’s a suicide job, so it’s a favorite in the male age 12-20 demographic.

A tight mob standing in the street is just dead bodies walking, of course, if you’re using 21st-century weapons. But the Egyptian Army has bowed out of this one. In fact, you’ll see the head of the Army making a very, veeeeeeeeery careful speech midway in this clip. He actually says to the demonstrators, “We [the Army] are with you, of you, by you and under you” or whatever, then adds, “We will be there no matter what changes occur….” Man, if I was Mubarak I would not be Mubarak (happy) hearing that line from my enforcers. But if I was a rioter it’d cheer me up no end, because it would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about automatic rifles, APC cannon, anything at army level.

Instead, the best Mubarak’s remaining goons can do is organize a cavalry charge. I kid you not. About ten seconds into the video you’ll see a real live cavalry charge by a dozen riders, some on horses, some on camels. This is Mubarak’s response: amateurs on livestock. Sad.

I can guess exactly how it happened, though. Mubarak’s having a scotch in his office, scowling at the local news show, when an Army liaison officer hunches in, all greasy smiles and apologies. Mubarak starts screaming:  “Where’s my army? Where’s the security police? What do I pay you guys for?” And this sweaty officer, who got this job because the other colonels hate him or because he drew the short straw, breaks the bad news as politely as he can (after all, you never know; Mubarak might survive after all, best to be polite): “Your excellency, we, ah…feel that the honor of the armed services should not be…ah…stained, yes, stained with the blood of our fellow citizens.” That must’ve made Mubarak’s jaw sag for a second. As if the Egyptian security service from Ramses II’s palace guards to the GDSSI ever had a problem spilling the blood of their fellow fucking citizens! Mubarak’s not dumb, though, he knows what it means: “You’re on your own here, your former excellency.” Mubarak gulps another mouthful of Glenlivet and says, “Fine then, I don’ need you fucks anyway…get outta my office.” And the little uniformed rat scuttles out of the big air-conditioned office. This is when guys like Mubarak start thanking God for that account in the Cayman Islands and get on the private cell to tell the pilots to get that Learjet warmed up.

But he’s not giving up just yet. He can still call on the whole network of locals who owe their fat bank accounts to his dynasty. He gets the phones working and a few minutes later gets a call: “Uh-huh…Yeah…Camels??? That’s the best you can do, Camels? Are you fucking kidding me, you idiot?…What do you mean, ‘there are some horses too’? Horses and camels? I want F-16s with napalm and you give me camels, you dog!”

But even camels and horses are intimidating at first, if you’re on foot at street level.  So when the Mubarak Loyalist Petting-Zoo Squadron comes clopping down the cobblestones, the mob/infantry falls back and this tiny cavalry force charges down the pavement. But these guys are untrained in cavalry charges. They do what every incompetent cavalry force in history does: they lose cohesion and get overwhelmed by infantry. The camels and horses charge at different speeds, so they get separated. And they have no commander, no clear objective. They’re armed only with whips, a very short-range non-lethal weapon. And these horses are not battle-conditioned, so when they see a wall of humans ahead of them, screaming and throwing shit at them, they stop. That’s what happens when you use a nag that’s been dragging tourists to the smoggy sights of Cairo for years gets call on to do a charger’s job.

With the horses stopped dead, the cavalry is doomed. And what happens next is beautiful to watch. It restored my faith in humanity: even after centuries, these brave Cairo guys know exactly what to do against cavalry. We still got it! They let the riders pass through, then, when one of the horses rears and pivots around, disorienting his rider, the rioters converge on the horse from behind, from the sides. They pull the rider down and start kicking him to death. Play this video a few times and you’ll see that one man in the crowd, a big guy it looks like, is a natural warrior. He just seems to know instinctively how to deal with a mounted enemy: he bounces like a guard on defense, waiting for the horse to make its move, then grabs for the bridle from the side. That kills all movement and gives his friends the guts to attack, pulling the rider down to the pavement. That’s a great, also kind of a horrible moment, when the rider gets pulled down. Reminded me of that great scene in Dawn of the Dead when those arrogant bikers try to ride through the mob of zombies and get their intestines eaten tartare style. You can’t overestimate the power of cavalry, especially if it’s not ruthless enough to ride through, not at, not towards, the crowd.  It’s a scene that’s happened so many times over the centuries: the peasants take their revenge on the cavaliers, the horse riders. Cavalry that’s stopped is dead cavalry. That’s what happened to the Bradleys in the slums of Baghdad, and it happens much, much faster when all you’re riding is a little horse. (Notice, by the way, how the camel, much higher and harder to reach, survives much better than these little cart horses.)

It’s amazing how the idea of the cavalry charge keeps coming back as the preferred tactic for breaking up crowds when the state just doesn’t have the balls to machine-gun them. I saw the same thing during the demonstrations after that rigged election in Iran, only the Iranian state has more real bedrock support than Mubarak, among the silent fascist Iranian majority from the slums and villages. So instead of a dozen sad sacks on farm animals, the Iranian riot police sent amateur thugs on motorbikes, with clubs. It didn’t go much better, though: the bikers lost momentum and were overwhelmed, pulled off their bikes from behind. And then they cringed on the ground while the infantry tried a little soccer practice on their heads. Unfortunately, the problem with the Iranian protestors is that they’re mostly the educated nice types, so they dragged away the few sensible people who were trying to do the logical thing: kicking the bike guys to death. No way to win a war, you poor Tehran yuppies. We’re just primates here, and the best thing you could do is bash your enemies’ head in while you got the chance. Ah well, too late now.

From what I saw of the Cairo cavalry charge, it didn’t look like the Cairo protestors were as squeamish as those overcivilized Tehranites. They were giving them a good fatal-looking beating when the cameras, clearly manned by wimps, veered away at about the 28-second point. I guess the violence-level was approaching PG level, or maybe a mob beating just doesn’t film well, too many people in the way.

As the camera moves away it finds something else for carnivores to enjoy: a few stragglers on foot being mobbed. This is another ancient, actually timeless, strategy: find a small group of the enemy separated from the main force and annihilate them. Around the 50-second point you see these few Mubarak supporters getting a serious beating from the crowd outside a mosque, while the muzzein’s mic keeps insisting, “Alllahu Akbar!” I mean, why not? It’s one point everybody on both sides can agree on, probably, unless some Copt was dumb enough to get involved in the goyim’s arguments. Allah may be akbar, but that won’t help you when it’s 30 to one. Reminds me of an old Oi song I used to love—used top be a big Oi fan—about the joy of being a soccer hooligan:

We have ourselves a smashing time

We really have some fun

Especially when the odds are ours

25 to one, to one!

Precious mem’ries, how they linger. I kind of outgrew the whole Oideology behind all that, but at least those lyrics teach you a good lesson about mob war: never, never get separated from the main group. There are no Chuck Norrises in a mob fight, there’s just the weight of numbers and who’s got their crazy on.

A little past the 1:00 mark, the scene shifts to another ancient warfare scene: light skirmishing with missile weapons—rocks, in this case. Two groups are standing about 40 feet apart throwing rocks at each other. The range suggests they don’t have much respect for the general level of throwing in Cairo. No MLB arms in this crowd. Both main bodies are hanging back, letting the skirmishers show off, waiting to see which side will break. That’s always been one function of light infantry, like the Greek slingers, the peltasts, the original rock-throwers, or the Roman velites: testing the enemy’s nerve and cohesion, seeing if they break. A mob will break either by charging or by running, and either way is a bad idea. If the velites provoked a German or Celtic mob/army to attack, the Romans were delighted, because it’s much easier to destroy. If they ran, you unleash the cavalry.

Unfortunately we don’t get to see the end of this skirmish. But you can pretty well guess who’s going to win. If you watch carefully you’ll see that the mob on the right side of the screen, I’m guessing the pro-Mubarakers, are cringing, walking backwards, beginning to break.

Then at about 1:20 we break for a commercial, meaning a spokes-officer for the Army makes a little speech about let’s all be nice, you’ve made your point, we all love our dear Egypt. It’s so lame I doubt it was even designed to calm down the rioters. What it does seem designed to do is make it clear to every dog in the streets of Cairo that the Army isn’t taking sides on this one. The officer says, “We [the Army] will be there, whatever the changes.” The message is, “Hey, if you guys can take down Mubarak, then we’re going to be just delighted to work with you…as long as the paychecks come on time.”

The army commercial lasts to about the 2:10 point, when we get back to the real stuff. I swear to God, every damn second of this footage is great. First you see a charge by one side, showing the other side has broken. Then another standoff, with a skirmisher in a white shirt throwing rocks 25 feet ahead of his mob, daring the other side to hit him. While he’s at it, look at the awning to the left and you’ll see something you find in every riot shot ever taken: a bunch of guys just standing around. These guys at least have the sense to stand in a doorway, protected from rocks, but I’ve seen many riot or urban-warfare shots where some goon is just standing still with a grocery bag in his hand, looking the wrong way while the wrath of Khan is breaking loose two doors down. I don’t know why. Deaf? More likely dumb.

Then around 2:20, we are privileged to see a great event: the revival of the testudo. I mean that: it’s an honor to see brave, smart humans re-learning all this so quickly. The Testudo (tortoise), like most of you war buffs know already, was a Roman formation for advancing under missile fire, using each soldier’s shield to form a shape sort of like a turtle’s shell. Well, here come a bunch of rioters in Cairo, early 21st century, and to respond to the sort of situation the legions would have faced advancing on a fortress or massed archers, they come up with something pretty damn close to the testudo: big squares of sheet metal. The front rank carries these upright and the smarter rioters wedge in close behind them. Survival in a battle like this…well, “survival” might mean staying home if you had sense and watching it on tv…but I mean, if you’re going to join the dance, then survival means noticing second by second what will keep you alive. And my point is that at this second, what would work would be staying as close as possible to that front rank, because the rocks are going to fall on the people a few yards back, unprotected by the sheet-metal.

The goal of a Testudo advance would be getting close enough to use your gladii, the long knives the Romans relied on for serious slaughter. I wish we could see the moment when these guys struck the enemy formation and dropped their sheet-metal shields for close combat—if they did. Just as likely they faded under rock bombardment.

We’ll never know, unfortunately, because the producers at Al J decided to waste my time by cutting to Ban ki Moon, the Korean who fronts for the UN these days and the man whose bland flat face could put a weasel on speed to sleep. He comes on to say he’s “deeply concerned” about the rioting. Yeah, me too: deeply concerned your little sermon is keeping me from seeing how the Testudo turns out. What’s the point of these sermonettes anyway? Did anybody expent Ban to say, “I rove dese liots! Anybody give me five to one on Mubalak?” We all know it’s his job to tsk-tsk, we get it, why waste riot time on it?

He’s not even any good at acting concerned. He looks bored, which is how he always looks. You want to see a concerned Korean, try  coming up two cents short at your local AM/PM minimart. Ban’s cousin looking at me like I’m a fattened-up Antichrist.

The only interesting thing about Ban-ky’s speech is the way he tilts it toward the demonstrators: “Any attacks on peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable.” Now that was interesting. I love the guys rioting in Cairo, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve seen the UN get the vapors over much smaller and milder riots than these. Why are they so worried about the demonstrators this time around?

Put that together with the Egyptian Army guy’s try at schmoozing the demonstrators and you get a pretty clear picture of the Vegas odds on this one: Mubarak off the boards, no more bets. I’m not saying the UN and the Army are right; bigwigs guess wrong all the time, and the Army guy’s speech left a back door open in case Mubarak pulls out of this dive. I’m just saying it’s clear the smart money (which isn’t always smart) says he’s gone.

Well, if he’s outta there, I say we still let him buy a condo in Florida. We’ve done it for creepier clients than him, God knows. And besides, he gave us the best footage of ancient combat ever filmed.

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