Manhattan Project #7 (Jed Berman contemplates the Huns and the iron stirrup)

And I did think about it. I read up on the Huns, to see if I could figure out where he was going with all this stuff. Turns out they were a poor, hungry, bedraggled, emaciated bunch of nomads, dressed in animal skins and barefoot, straggling along, starving to death, basically homeless, trying to survive in the region west of China and east of Europe, around the fifth or sixth century. At some point, they left that area because the land gave out or someone pushed them off of it. When no one would help them out or even let them graze their animals, the Huns decided to help themselves to the stuff the other tribes had that they needed, like food, which, amazingly, they never learned to grow. In fact, long after they became a force to be reckoned with, they still refused to farm; they imported people they conquered and made them do it.

But they didn’t start building their reputation as fierce warriors until two things happened. One, real leaders arose, who pulled together the clans into an invading force. But the other thing, the one that really made a difference, was the iron stirrup. Okay, you’re thinking, what the hell does the stirrup have to do with it? Here’s the answer, and, to use my new friend’s term, I thought it was pretty cool. The Huns already had horses, and bows and arrows, and even a basic saddle, but that didn’t necessarily put them on the high road to success. It was the stirrup. Without it, they had trouble riding and shooting arrows as they charged into villages to pillage and plunder. But with the stirrup, “Ah,” as my friend on the bench might say, with his forefinger in the air, “that was another matter.”

With their feet firmly planted in the stirrup, the Huns could stand up, brace themselves, and take better aim. They got so good at it that they could gallop full speed, feet solidly dug into those stirrups, and deliver a rapid-fire stream of deadly arrows, like a horse-powered machine gun. The stirrup helped them invent what military historians like to call shock action. The tribes they attacked weren’t prepared for it. Just picture this herd of horsemen descending on a settlement at full tilt, their long hair flying, their beards split by the wind in their faces, standing bolt-upright, raining pinpoint arrows on everyone and everything, and wiping out the opposition before they knew what hit them.

With their feet in those stirrups, the Huns galloped across the land, capturing village after village, tribe after tribe, until they finally came face to face with troops guarding the northern edge of the Roman Empire. And the Huns damned near took them down, too. They were enough of a threat that a Roman princess even offered to marry Attila to get him on their side. When he tried to take her up on it, she wouldn’t do it, and the Roman army managed to drive Attila away, which pissed him off. He regrouped and was planning to charge back across the Alps, but he never got to do it. Instead, he got drunk the night before the invasion, had a major nosebleed, and died in his sleep. His sons took over, but they weren’t Attila, and the Huns sort of faded away.

So you’re thinking, what’s the point, right? Well, what stuck out for me was the stirrup. I mean, think about it. If no one had invented the stirrup, the Huns wouldn’t even be a footnote in history. They probably would have just starved to death, another illiterate tribe that lost the battle for survival. I had always blamed people for all the terrible things that happen to the rest of us. But, if the Huns are typical at all, you could argue that Attila and the rest of them would never have managed to make their violent rampage across Europe if some guy hadn’t figured out how to pound iron into a footrest.

So it’s the weapon, if you think of something like the stirrup as part of the Huns’ arsenal, that’s the problem, and, of course, the guy who invented it. Even before we think about stopping the killers, maybe what we need to stop is the weapons. If no one invented them, and no one manufactured them, and no one got their hands on them, maybe fewer people would die.

I thought I was onto something, but I wanted to run it by my enigmatic friend on the bench, see if I was heading in the direction he meant. I climbed in the car and inched along College Avenue in UMaine’s ridiculous twenty-five mile an hour zone, and finally got to the parking lot by the smoke shop, but the guy wasn’t there. Of course, that’s not the first time I headed someplace with great expectations and wound up disappointed.

One of the worst times was the road trip I decided to take to Boston, hoping I could somehow find the girl from the bus.


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