By no means do we need to celebrate the mercenary’s and warlord’s ethos in order to recognize that their life offers a sharp alternative to the contemporary dominance of anonymous struggle in interchangeable insignificance — one that doesn’t require throwing your own life away in a tide of innocent blood.
Drinking last night with a friendly mercenary, talk turned to Aristotle’s famous heuristic that he who doesn’t live as a citizen is either a beast or a god. Why, I asked, did mercenaries think they ought to break violently with basic political order as a framework for life? How could today’s most radical vision of winning depart so dramatically from the mainstream of modern and ancient philosophy alike — harkening more to the battlefield of Troy than to Plato’s academy? The response was as circular and lyrical as the vision of life expressed by Homer himself, and not entirely on account of the booze.
Above all, I was struck by how grown-up were the mercenary’s reflections. This was a considered adoption of potent, life-narrowing burdens, carried over time. It occurred to me that I was being allowed a very slight glimpse into the future. It seems outlandish that lots of today’s mopey and hopeless millennials would make the choice to become a warlord or a mercenary — or even to try. Yet many of them, in a barely-suppressed panic, increasingly share the same vision of failure as the mercenaries and warlords — the corporate cubicle, the dead-end life, the tamed and imprisoned habits, the long, wearying going through of the economic and cultural motions.