Timeless War

America’s wars are fought in mythic time.  They are ongoing, continual, unending—a timeless struggle against relentless evil.  The eternal cycle of attack-defense-victory-attack renders war cosmic, inevitable, and even sacred—nothing short of a millennial contest with the devil.  Timelessness transforms chronic conflicts into transcendent forever war.

Detail from the Parabiago plate depicting Aion. (Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto)

Detail from the Parabiago plate depicting Aion. (Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto)

Aion, Hellenistic god of eternity, symbolizes the cyclical and unbounded nature of time, unlike Chronos, who splits ordinary time into past, present, and future.  Rome adopted Aion to guarantee perpetual rule.  The mythos of America’s imperial warfare is equally timeless.

“America is at a crossroads,” says President Obama (speaking to the National Defense University, May 23, 2013).  “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”

Blink twice and you see the language of continuity where the President points to change:  war is persistent but not boundless.  Continuity and change intersect.  In the world of myth, crossroads are meeting places, points of convergence as well as divergence.  Hecate, goddess of the crossroads, inhabits this site of connection and transition, where dark deeds in ghostly places congress with the purity and beauty of the lovely goddess-maiden.  Her timeless presence conveys the uncertainty and confusion that flows from the confluence of good and evil.

The timelessness of war is one of the main through-lines of the presidential speech, beginning with the acknowledgment that “Americans are deeply ambivalent about war.”  The present war, like every war, must “come to an end”; yet, “our nation is still threatened by terrorists.”  James Madison warned that no nation can “preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” but “our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue.”  Thus, “our fight enters a new phase,” and war persists to the end of history.

Make no mistake, as President Obama is fond of saying.  We face a “real threat” that is now “more diffused.”  The “current threat” and the “future of terrorism” consists of “homegrown extremists” (“radicalized individuals here in the United States”) as well as “al Qaeda and its associated forces” residing in “the most distant and unforgiving places on earth,” hiding in caves and training in empty deserts.  America cannot remain on a “perpetual wartime footing,” but it must “continue to fight terrorism.”  Success on all fronts requires a “long-term strategy” and “sustained engagement.”  Such is “the price of being the world’s most powerful nation.”

The cosmic spiral of imperial warfare is unending—Rome’s tribute to Hellenistic Aion.  The enduring promise of peace is perpetually postponed.  Even Irene, the springtime goddess of peace opposed to the war spirit of Polemus, was celebrated by ancient Athenians to commemorate military victory over Sparta.   Peace today, as before, is contingent upon war, and war is forever, so long as we remain insensible to the mythos of our modern era.



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