Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don Juan of Austria is going to war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black and purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettledrums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
These lines, 24 through 28, of G. K. Chesterton’s famous poem Lepanto commemorate the last great naval battle fought between the contending Holy Roman and the Ottoman Empires.
Some see it as the final battle of the Crusades that epic struggle between the Christian West and the Islamic East which began with the First Crusade in 1095.
Those with a longer historic view may see fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as just the latest phase in a continuing clash of cultures and religion.
Hundreds of oared galleys smashed into each other in the Gulf of Corinth off western Greece on October 7, 1571.
Rowed by convicts, debtors, slaves or those unfortunate enough to be press ganged into service, the men who pulled the oars had little say who or what they fought for. Tens of thousands were dead or disabled by the end of the day.
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Some historians argue that the real story behind the Battle of Lepanto was commerce. Who would control lucrative Mediterranean trade routes?
They say religion and culture provided the popular gloss on the struggle required to mobilize the needed resources and sacrifices to wage war.
Has much changed?
A bullet permanently maimed a 24-year-old Miguel de Cervantes’ left hand in this battle. He continued fighting for another three years in the on-going struggles for regional dominance.
Finally in 1575 he had had enough and decided to go home. On the way the Turks captured Cervantes. He spent the next five years as a captive in Algiers until ransomed.
Don Juan, the illegitimate brother of King Philip of Spain, got all the glory following Lepanto. Once Cervantes finally got back to Spain with his maimed hand, a series of dead-end jobs, debt and imprisonment awaited him.
Some literary historians point to these experiences as the source for Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote.
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
The United Nations General Assembly back in 1981, decided to establish an International Day of Peace.
The members hoped “to devote a specific time to concentrate the efforts of the United Nations and its member states, as well as of the whole of mankind, to promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways … (The International Day of Peace) should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.”
Eventually they settled on September 21 as the day for “reaffirming the contribution that the observance and celebration of the International Day of Peace make in strengthening the ideals of peace and alleviating tensions and causes of conflict.”
A couple of years ago, the nations of the world gathered at the General Assembly declared as well that next Thursday “shall henceforth be observed as a day of global ceasefire and non-violence, an invitation to all nations and people to honour a cessation of hostilities for the duration of the Day….”
Every year, globally, we spend more than a trillion dollars on killing and preparing to kill one another.
When will we stop glorifying war and spend as much on peace?
How much would it take to feed all the hungry in the world, heal all the sick or house all the homeless?
I hear that there is some interest in holding an International Day of Peace prayer vigil at Sacred Heart on September 21 from 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
A society gone wrong, like that foolish old knight Don Quixote, should strike out in a renewed search for peace.