There is an infinite multitude of Pasts, all equally valid. At each and every instant of Time, the line of events forks like the stem of a tree putting forth twin branches. Andre` Maurois.
Mons Saturnius, Nuevo Roma
Somber. Somber indeed. As somber as any group of men who ever attended their king at council. And with good reason. Weighed against the conquests that had pushed the boundaries North (Raetia and Noricum), South (Ifriqiya and Nilus), East (Pannonia, Dacia, Achaea, Bithynia and Cappadocia) and West (Narbonensis, al-Andalus, Lugdunensis and Caledonia) establishing La Cittá Eterna as the dominant Empire, the war in Medius Oriens had been relatively quick and easy. Veterans of the punitive expeditions in Ostfriesland compared the operation to an extended parade – more marching than fighting.
In a dazzling display of Bewegungskrieg the Regio Esercito had utterly destroyed the army of Tarik ibn Ziyad with minimal casualties to its own forces. Incorporating the region into the realm however was an all together different story for the Ummah were a stiff necked people, in equal parts devious and treacherous, ostentatiously polite and submissive to your face, quick to slip a blade between your ribs as soon as you turned your back. Maintaining a semblance of order required nearly as many troops as the conquest itself; peace was out of the question for the people refused to accept the blessings of Empire.
Dispensing with the usual opening pleasantries First Citizen Vittorio Leonida Alatheus, Princeps of the Capitolines, Imperator of the Twelve Kingdoms and Lord High Protector of the Church motioned for his seneschal to begin. With difficulty Visconte Paolo Boselli rose, bowed to his sovereign and then to his peers. Boselli had served the King’s father Alaric and his grandfather Euric before him. His was the voice of experience, reason and wisdom; a voice to be heard and seriously considered for though his body showed the ravages of age, his mind did not and anyone who knew him, knew well his remarks were those of a thoughtful and judicious man. In an intonation that belied his age Boselli spoke, “My lords, no one can doubt the wisdom of our invasion of Medius Oriens. When these savages were not fighting amongst themselves, they were making war on their neighbors and fomenting trouble in our nation by supporting the Brigantaggio that plague our countryside. Too weak to attack us directly they sowed the seeds of discontent throughout the Empire, secretly sponsoring acts of subversion and sabotage. No, they were a threat, a threat that had to be dealt with sooner rather than later. We were right to act. HOWEVER,” and here Boselli paused as much for effect as to catch his breath before continuing, “Tarik ibn Ziyad has been deposed, his army destroyed. Our treasury is empty; our people grow tired of war, our soldiers long to see their homes and families again. While we tarry here other enemies test our borders. Medius Oriens will never be a productive part of the Empire and the cost to garrison this inhospitable land and to control its troublesome inhabitants is too high. In truth our continued presence inflames their hatred and incites further violence. There is nothing further to be gained here. It is time to return to our own land, tend to our own pastures.”
In the time it took Boselli to speak General Luigi Cadorna’s temper which had begun to simmer at “however” had reached full boil. The wide leather belt from which his ceremonial sword hung barely contained the General’s immense girth and the straining buttons of his tunic were a hazard to anyone careless enough to take a seat across the polished oaken table from him. Nothing could contain his outburst. Pushing himself to his feet he fairly shouted, “You speak of money and fatigue, what of the blood we have shed? To run now dishonors our sacred dead! You speak of pastures. Perhaps it is time for you to be put out to pasture! What does a glorified clerk know of military matters?”
Slowly the seneschal took his seat. His reply was mild but effective, “Judging from the current state of affairs in Medius Oriens one might ask the same of you Lord General.”
Stifling a laugh the Minister of the Opera Nazionale Combatteni, Barone Piero Melograni, spoke, “Gentlemen please, these matters are far too important and our Liege Lord’s time too valuable to waste on personal animosities.” Clearing his throat, the thin bespectacled Melograni continued, “Besides, for all his, how shall we say, passion, General Cardona makes a valid point, as do you Visconte Boselli. True Tarik is dead and his army destroyed but rather than bend a knee these people form militia groups to oppose us – I believe they are called Ikhwan or perhaps the term is al-jamaah al-musallahah – but, forgive me sirs, I digress. If we leave without establishing some semblance of order these groups will grow as a cancer grows, destabilizing the region, exporting terror to our shores and at some future date we will be forced to return. We must destroy them or, at the very least, push them back into the Nejd from whence they came.
At this point Cardinale Orlando Emanuele, Liaison to the King, August Defender of the Faith and Regent to His Holiness Evan Callistus V rose, straightened his red flowing robes and spoke, “My lord, gentlemen, if I may. The church enjoins us to love our enemies. That is as it should be however a wise man once said to defeat your enemies you must first understand them and to understand your enemies you must know them. In my capacity as Regent to His Holiness and liaison to you Lord King I have read all that I can find concerning the Medius Oriens and talked at length to merchants and scholars who have sojourned there. I will not belabor you with all that I have learned for time is of the essence and as General Cardona well knows we can recapture anything but time. Suffice it to say they are a tribal people as we were two millennia ago whose first allegiance is to the clan. They do not share our love of king nor our loyalty to state. Those concepts are secondary in their barbarous culture if they exist at all. That is part of the problem in dealing with them. Another is that unlike our Most Catholic Church their apostate religion has fractured into numerous sects and to gain status, thereby adherents, thereby supremacy, each faction attempts to surpass the others in its extreme views and actions – a deadly game of holier than thou. Whereas God inspired our Holy Book, theirs was written by Mars; whereas we preach brotherly love, they advocate violence; whereas we spread the faith by word and deed, they employ fire and sword and glory in its hellish use. We cannot coexist with this heretical creed for tolerance is anathema to them. No, they are a threat to the very foundation of our society, as great a threat as any we have faced ab urbe condita. That threat must be cleansed from the face of the earth.”
There were many in the inner circles of the government and in the upper echelons of the army that thought General Cardona had reached the end of his useful service life. No one doubted his bravery or questioned the brilliant actions that had proved decisive in the Battle of Ulpian ending the campaign that brought Cappadocia into the realm. Indeed as a young man he had been an innovative thinker in the realm of military strategy and tactics. The responsibility of senior command however had made him cautious and over the years this caution had ossified into by the book doctrine that brooked no deviation nor tolerated new ideas. General Armando Diaz, Chief of the General Staff, numbered among those who thought Cardona would better serve the Empire in retirement. Seizing the opening he spoke, “Sire, good sirs, perhaps there is a way to accommodate the concerns voiced by all parties and obtain our ultimate objective. There is a group, the Qardu, not tainted by the sacrilegious creed of this region, good fighters, who have chafed under the oppressive rule of the deviant majority for some time. If we were to support them with arms, materiel, rations, training and other supplies and equipment as necessary they would fight as our proxies. If they fight well perhaps they could eventually become foederati; if not, the loss is theirs not ours. We have done this many times in the past with border tribes turning potentially dangerous enemies into useful auxiliaries. Be that as it may, between the Qardu and a few thousand of our Arditi we could subdue the fanatics over time eliminating the threat Cardinale Emanuele so eloquently describes without the expense and entanglements Visconte Boselli rightfully fears. By our standards the war would be unconventional but with the right leadership and the support of the Empire it could be brought to a successful conclusion.
First Citizen Vittorio Leonida Alatheus was a man in his prime, young enough to bear the burdens of the throne, energetic enough to faithfully execute his obligations to the realm and wise enough to seek the counsel of trusted advisors. For the first time since the meeting had begun he spoke, “Gentlemen, I thank you for your service to me and to the Empire. I have pondered this problem for months now. Believe me when I say your sentenia are invaluable to me when it comes to matters of this import. General Diaz, are you the man who can provide the leadership required? If so you have my full support. We will not leave the mission incomplete. We will not leave the task for others. We will not postpone the inevitable for a future date. If our actions fan the flames of hatred so be it! Let them hate us, so long as they fear us. For those savages who commit acts of terror and then hide like cowards among women, for those vermin who raise their children on the bitter potion of hatred condemning the innocent to short, brutish lives of misery there can be only one outcome – pollice verso. No, this is a war like no other. It goes far beyond a clash of civilizations or a struggle for Empire. It is nothing less than a primal fight to the death between good and evil. As difficult as it may be, as long as it may take, what we have begun, we will finish.”
Ashgabaht, Medius Oriens
Somber. Somber indeed. As somber as any group of men who ever attended their sovereign at council. And with good reason. The holy land had been conquered, was now occupied by foreign invaders and it was the responsibility, no, the duty, of the Council of Elders to rectify that blasphemy, to set right that sacrilege, to correct that intolerable offense against God.
Abdullah Azzam, spiritual advisor to the sovereign, spoke first, “According to the righteous, those who live under the heel of the invader reside in dar al Kufur, the abode of the infidels. It is the duty of the pious to wage Harb Mukaddasah, holy war, against the infidel until our land is free again and all know the blessings of God.
An impatient man of action, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, political advisor to the emir, interrupted, “Yes. Yes! That is a given! On that we all agree! The question before us is how do we rid our holy places of these dogs? They are the most powerful foe we have ever faced. And their wealth…..their wealth is staggering, almost beyond comprehension. Our armies were no match for their legions and now we have no armies, only scattered stragglers who, at best, can only raid and flee. And like fleas on a botswana we irritate but do not kill.”
In stark contrast to the elegant robes festooned with ceremonial badges of office worn by Pakhtunkhwa, Assam wore the simple, unadorned robes of a scholar. Abdullah Azzam again spoke, “We shall issue a fatwa calling upon every true believer to resist the invaders by any means necessary and in so doing they shall lift the word of God and make his religion victorious.”
Colonel-General Bej Zogolli, hastily recalled from the field and still attired in battle dress uniform, interjected, “You are both right and you are both wrong. Yes, they are powerful but that power makes them arrogant, dismissive, careless and impatient. Yes, they are rich but that wealth, rather the potential loss of wealth is a weakness. Our army may be defeated but it is not destroyed. Our soldiers may be beaten but they are not broken. Our forces may be scattered but that can be turned to our advantage. Our remaining troops can form the cadre for a partisan army. The invader may control the cities but we still control the countryside. We could not defeat the infidel legions in open combat but we can ambush their patrols. We can harass their supply convoys. Using captured weapons against them we can make the cost of occupation prohibitive at little cost to ourselves. To conquer is one thing, to rule quite another.”
And again Khyber Pakhtunkhwa interrupted, “And when the infidels retaliate, when half our people cower in fear and the other half are seduced by the luxuries these dogs bring with them, of what use will your fatwa and your partisans be then?”
And so it went for hours until the supreme leader, al-Khidmat spoke, “Brothers, I thank you for your council. With the support of the faithful we shall indeed wage a holy war as Abdullah advises and with the blessings of God we shall rid the land of the infidel. Our strategy, as circumstances dictate and our wise general recommends will be to lure the invaders into a long war of attrition and bleed them white. If, at first, all we can deliver is pinpricks, so be it. The death of a thousand cuts is no less a death. Brutality shall be met with greater brutality and that shall include our own. Those who cower, as Khyber cautions, shall be purged. Those who are seduced by the wealth of the invaders shall be purged. In the end, we shall be stronger for it because those who are left will be pure in spirit. We shall become as a hydra – cut off one head and five more will appear. If it takes a thousand years; if it takes a million deaths; we shall be victorious. In the end the invader will leave our land carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and his dead with him, disgraced by God, the extent of their impotence and weakness very clear. Make no mistake brothers; this is a war like no other. It goes far beyond a clash of civilizations or a struggle for Empire. It is nothing less than a primal fight to the death between good and evil. As difficult as it may be, as long as it may take, what the infidels have begun, we will finish.”