Book Review: The End is Always Near
I started off not really liking this book, but as I finished the last chapter, I felt much differently. I believe my initial reaction was due to expecting this book to be something along the lines of his popular Hardcore History podcast. While I think he approached this book in a similar manner to the podcast, I don’t think the voice he uses for the podcast translates to be as effective on the page. I did end up liking this book for what it actually was, but I had to warm up to it over the first few chapters.
The negatives: lots of footnotes (some not particularly interesting or relevant) and lots of rhetorical questions paired with speculation (which Carlin is wont to do, and I guess is the point of this book). Additionally, I also found there to be a lack of detail. Carlin expertly uses anecdotes to provide color to his stories on the Hardcore History podcast, but here they’re used as evidence of broad generalizations. I sometimes felt like I couldn’t understand how he arrived at the logical conclusion, and that jumps were made without providing a path for the reader to get there. I think this book also suffered from the lack of background (especially for the earlier chapters). Because such a wide range of history was discussed, Carlin could not practically provide the background information for all of his viewpoints, and he left it up to the reader to research. Some of the discussions felt thin to me for that reason; if I had been better informed of the context, I might have better understood the reasoning he employed.
The positives: As always, Carlin takes an unconventional approach to thinking about historical situations This text draws some connections that might not traditionally be considered, weaving human psyche into historical narratives. Carlin utilized many interesting, though sometimes grotesque, historical mashups: the marketing and PR power of the modern world with the encouragement of child abuse and discipline of past eras; the regression from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in our modern era; the human cost in today’s world of a pandemic in proportion to the bubonic plague or the Spanish flu.
Carlin does such an excellent job on his podcast. While this book seemed to follow the ethos of the podcast, for some reason it didn’t translate to the page. That’s okay. This book is solid as a standalone. It’s an easy and fun read. The doomsday discussions even seem relevant to our modern world with the recent geopolitical events unfolding over the past few days…
Chapter 2: Suffer the Children
Chapter 2 explores how the attitudes around childrearing, discipline and upbringing may have impacted the eventual society comprised of those children as adults. Children were often subject to violence from their parents, witnessing violence in wars and public executions, working from young ages, been detached from their parents as they were attended to by wet nurses or sent away to begin schooling or work, or sometimes used as sexual objects. Were the psychological effects from actions that would be defined as child abuse today be as potent in a society that allowed them, and perhaps encouraged them? How did our ancestors not know that their practices of child raising were harmful and likely caused damage? Well, their definition of damage my be substantially different than ours, since they were raising kids to live in their world and not ours. Their world was substantially different.
Chapter 3: The End of the World as They Knew It
Chapter 3 considers what “progress” means in a historical sense. Progress is not a continuous line; with each era of progress comes a subsequent era of regression (using the modern view of what “progress” means). The Bronze Age, from 3000 to 1200 BCE, was an age of wealth, writing, power, trade, and military sophistication. Its successor, the Iron Age, has been considered a step backward for civilization.
The “fall” of the Bronze Age was quite quick and occurring within a single lifetime. Historians have postulated many theories as to what happened and why it occurred so quickly. One theory is the oft-discussed “sea peoples”. This theory places the blame on some variation of widespread barbarian invasions or mass migrations of people equipped with the sword felling existing cities and infrastructure. It was popular in the mid-20th century, but no longer.
Another is the famine theory. When populations go hungry and become desperate, sudden flashes of radical change can occur as institutions lose their symbolism and sanctity and are torn down from within. Famine can be brought on my many factors, but the leading thought on the Bronze Age today is that a long drought built up enough steam to blow the lid off the era.
Chapter 4: Judgement at Nineveh
Chapter 4 covers the fall of Nineveh, a great metropolis whose fall essentially marked the end of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire had been one of the influential empires of its time, with its reign spanning over 2,000 years.
The empire’s destruction wiped clean its history from surrounding eras; based on texts from the era, only two centuries after the fall of Ninevah, locals from the city’s ruins could not correctly attribute the city to the Assyrian empire.
As for military might, the Assyrians employed a well-strained infantry, which was uncommon for middle eastern armies. They also employed multi-person chariots, and might have been the first to still and organize their horseman by modern standards.
Babylon and Assyrian were like the Greece and Rome of their time. Rome was militarily stronger but respected and imitated and adopted much of the Babylon culture. However, the Babylonians were hard to pacify, and eventually the militaristic Assyrians conquered and razed Babylon, diverting a river through it and sowing salt and thorny plants into its soil.
Why did it fall? Its expansion necessitated the inclusion of various mercenaries and non-Assyrian subjects in its army. The Assyrian army was know for its toughness and effectiveness, but was potentially diluted with less loyal troops. Additionally, succession was a struggle. Upon the death or fall of each king, sons and heirs would duke it out to wrest control of the throne. This often resulted in war and death that reverberated across the empire. However, these themes ran through the existence of the Assyrian empire, so why did it fall when it did?
The tipping point might have been the conquering of Egypt. It stretched the empire too far, and led the ruler to move focus to untying the complex knot of the Egypt situation rather than maintaining the home front. A newcomer empire, the Medes, attacked the Assyrians and were repelled but attacked again next year with success. The Babylonians, smelling blood in the water, paired with the Medes as a coalition again the Assyrians. Joining them was the barbaric Scythian empire with their frightful mounted archers, another foe of the Assyrians. Together, in 612 BCE, Nineveh fella after a 3 month siege. As they tore down the city and massacred the inhabitants, the triple alliance did not forget the cruelty inflicted upon the world by the Assyrians.
Chapter 5: The Barbarian Life Cycle
The Gual / Celtic people, an imperial province of Rome, were west of the Rhine, while the menacing Germanic people (the Cambri and the Teutons) lived East of the Rhine. The Roman Empire and these barbarian tribes squared off often. In the very early Common Era, Rome stopped major attempts to conquer and Romanize the Germanic tribes, realizing that it was futile and instead accepting that the empire would like extend to the Rhine at its limits, and building fortifications along the Danube River.
However, the Roman army employed Germanic warriors to fight in their armies. Over roughly half a millennia, this system diffused the two cultures together through the implicit spread of ideas, technology, and techniques. Around 400 CE, the two peoples looked remarkably similar as they wore similar clothes and the cultures diluted one another to create a solution of the two.
The appearance of the Huns along the German plains pushed Germanic people further south and west. The Goths hurried to the limits of the Roman Empire, refugees requesting asylum within the empire. The emperor at the time, Valens, saw a shed of light in the situation, thinking that taking in the Germanic refugees could provide him with additional Germanic warriors for his army. But even after entering into the boundaries of the empire, the Goths were still hungry and desperate, some trading children into slavery for food. This was the stick in the beehive amidst all the other problems of the empire: small, weak, fragile armies; social problems; tax case problems; and a multitude of more minor but still combustible issues.
Over a series of conflicts, the Visigoths ended up sacking Rome in 410 and again in 455. The Western part of the empire was all but finished in 476. The provinces the Romans had instituted became their own states that nearly match modern boundaries - the Franks in France, etc. in 496, a king of one of the beaches of the Franks converted from paganism to Christianity. The relationship between the two was mutually beneficial, and the church and the Franks thrived.
In the late 700s, the Frank ruler began to unite large swathes of land similar in size and scope to the western Roman Empire. In 800, this king, Charlemagne, was crowned by the pope. Apparently this was a surprised to Charlemagne and created confusion for his people and those outside of his borders, but he was called the Emperor of the Romans (much to the chagrin of the eastern Russian empire, Byzantium, which marketed itself (perhaps more truthfully) as the righteous descendant of the Roman Empire). Charlemagne was a German-speaking warrior king, looking like a German and styling himself as the Germanic tribes did. And as emperor of Rome, he battled Germanic tribes outside the stretches of his kingdom. And the barbarian lifecycle continued.
Part 6: A Pandemic Prologue?
The Black Death occurred in the 1340s. It decimated all parts of life. For the clergy, this resulted in younger, less pious men getting promoted higher than they would otherwise, and invited corruption and mismanagement into the church; many of these issues would be present in Martin Luther’s reasons for splitting from the church and the formation of Protestantism in 1517. It broke apart the bonds of society as interaction could mean death. Pessimism percolated throughout, crime rates skyrocketed, marriage rates plummeted.
With 30%, 40%, 50% and even high rates of mortality in certain areas, the finished surplus of workers gave rise to less strict class systems and more fairness and meritocracy for workers and nobles.
The Spanish Flu in 1918 killed more people than the war that was going on while it spread across the globe, and killed between 50 and 100 million people. It killed 8 to 10% of the young adults then living. The AIDS virus was another recent (and still is) “plague” amongst our modern population that took a nontrivial amount of time to figure out.
Plagued and outbreaks also come with the potential more realistic risk of panic and disorder. Instead of weapons of mass destruction, biological warfare could be considered weapons of mass panic.
Part 7: The Quick and the Dead
In a world where nuclear bombs exist, and those bombs could cause untold destruction to non-combatants in the blink of an eye, the world is making a gamble that a major war won’t break out ever again. There are two options - major war breaks out and thus bombs are used, or the world is “at peace.”
We are dealing with a level of weaponry where scientists and advisors have advocated for the pursuit of improving on the bomb to be dropped. The rationale is that humans haven’t “evolved” enough to handle this type of firepower. The current state of affairs, with separate states pointing weapons at the others, is a fertile environment for weapons of mass destructions to be misused (or just used).
The US had a monopoly on nuclear bombs after WW2, and figured to have a monopoly for awhile. However, this monopoly only lasted 3 years - in 1949, the Soviet’s had a successful A-bomb test, and the approach to the usage of atomic weapons changed drastically.
At one point, the thought was to preemptively strike the USSR because they would inevitably end up with an atomic bomb themselves, and two states with nuclear weapons was much more dangerous than just one. It was seen as the humane way, as the only path to ensure the destruction of the human race was not total. But the Soviet’s developed a bomb earlier than many thought, and a world in which the threat of atomic annihilation hung over all diplomacy was born.
Proxy wars were fought in part because the combatants could avoid the whole nuclear problem. If two nuclear-bomb-equipped nations never eyed each other down directly in the context of a war, the question of using a nuclear bomb could be avoided.
Part 8: The Road to Hell
Okay, so nuclear bombs are bad. But have we already reached an inhumane point? At the beginning of the 20th century, it was clear that fight was going to change the way wars were fought. Okay, maybe not clear to everyone, but definitely clear to some people.
In WWI, the Germans “dropped some bombs” in Paris, which amounted to a single flyer dropping hand bombs and killing a few people. The Germans also used zeppelins to drop bombs on cities, but they were terribly inaccurate and once it’s enemies figured out how to shoot them down they became very ineffective.
The Spanish civil war, the training bed for WW2 weapons, featured the bombing of civilians in Guernica. It killed on the low thousands, but induced terror amongst the civilians that they had become targets.
In WW2, a potential “mix up” caused the Germans to bomb London and the British to bomb Berlin. The official doctrine of the belligerents was to attack military targets, but because the bombing was so inaccurate, it essentially was legal to kill civilians. And thus, cities were demolished without regard for non-combatant life.
It’s easy to slide into the Total War calculus of killing 100m people to save 300m. It’s a dangerous game to play, putting a spin in mass killing machines. But it’s logic that allows nations to wage war in the ways they wish to wage war. Let’s just hope cooler heads prevail when nuclear bombs are on the table.