The Lion banner sways and falls in the horror-haunted gloom;
A scarlet Dragon rustles by, borne on winds of doom.
In heaps the shining horsemen lie, where the thrusting lances break,
And deep in the haunted mountains, the lost, black gods awake.
Dead hands grope in the shadows, the stars turn pale with fright,
For this is the Dragon’s Hour, the triumph of Fear and Night.
– Robert E. Howard
I became reacquainted with the works of Robert E. Howard around the time I had my first vote: around the time Britain went to war.
Today, I recall one of Howard’s greatest works, and one of his only novels: The Hour of the Dragon. It’s a tale markedly different from many other Conan tales beyond its length – it is imbued with mythic and folkloric meaning, from Arthur to the Fisher King and even Scottish history. It’s been theorised that Howard may have been tapping into those traditions to appeal to a new market, drawing more strongly on those elements than the frontier adventures, oriental escapes, desert songs and jungle legends that marked Conan’s usual climes. Whatever the case, it’s a tale that had a profound effect on me – politically as well as philosophically.
A wee summary on Howard and Conan for those readers on my blog not so well acquainted: Howard was a brilliant Texan author who wrote hundreds of short stories and thousands of poems – many of which were written over the course of a blazing 10-year period of intense activity – from the age of sixteen to his untimely death at thirty in 1936. His most famous literary creation is Conan, a barbarian adventurer who roamed the earth during the Hyborian Age – a prehistoric never-time pre-dating the dawn of modern humanity which gave rise to the myths and legends of our ancestors. Conan was a character of many contradictions: a democrat wearing a crown, a practical warrior who pondered philosophy, one day a liberator and the next a plunderer. This is most evident during his rule as king of Aquilonia, where the anti-authoritarian, borderline anarchic Conan takes on the responsibilities of kingship.
The Hour of the Dragon is the last Conan story. Our barbarian protagonist is in his fifties: his battles are of royal policy, courtly intrigue, and international relations. He yearns for the days where his enemy wielded a sword in plain sight, not wielding a dagger behind his back. Nonetheless, he overturns the old order: taxes are fair, the common people enjoy rights that are the envy of other nations, the nobility are kept in line. This, naturally, makes him an enemy of ambitious barons and foreign kings – particularly Tarascus of the neighbouring kingdom of Nemedia, and a disinherited prince from the corrupt Aquilonian royal family conquered by Conan:
Men said the gods were satisfied because the evil king and his spawn were slain, and when his young brother Tarascus was crowned in the great coronation hall, the populace cheered until the towers rocked, acclaiming the monarch on whom the gods smiled.
Such a wave of enthusiasm and rejoicing as swept the land is frequently the signal for a war of conquest. So no one was surprized when it was announced that King Tarascus had declared the truce made by the late king with their western neighbors void, and was gathering his hosts to invade Aquilonia. His reason was candid; his motives, loudly proclaimed, gilded his actions with something of the glamor of a crusade. He espoused the cause of Valerius, “rightful heir to the throne”; he came, he proclaimed, not as an enemy of Aquilonia, but as a friend, to free the people from the tyranny of a usurper and a foreigner.
If there were cynical smiles in certain quarters, and whispers concerning the king’s good friend Amalric, whose vast personal wealth seemed to be flowing into the rather depleted royal treasury, they were unheeded in the general wave of fervor and zeal of Tarascus’s popularity. If any shrewd individuals suspected that Amalric was the real ruler of Nemedia, behind the scenes, they were careful not to voice such heresy. And the war went forward with enthusiasm.
I first read The Hour of the Dragon when I was in college. I was a teenager. It was around the turn of the 21st Century: the new UK Government proved just another variation of the old one, weapons of mass destruction dominated our lives one way or another, and we entered the new days of a Scottish Parliameent. I’ll never forget recalling this passage on the 18th of March, 2003, as members of the UK Government played the role of Liberators of Iraq in a grand debate in the Commons:
When the northern Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Salih was asked about war and violence, he said that this was not an issue of war or no war. All 22 million people in Iraq live every day in fear of violence and an internal war against them, and we cannot walk away from that. We have the opportunity not only to deal with weapons of mass destructions and to make sure that resolutions that have been passed time and again are finally enforced but to do the right thing by the Kurds in the north, the Shi’a Arabs in the south and the Iraqi people who are opposed by that regime, and I say that as a democratic socialist.
– Caroline Flint, MP for Don Valley (still in office)
We are all driven by what we believe to be right and forced into choices that we do not want to make. I believe that we must act even though there may be consequences that we do not like, as the alternative is a world of worse consequences. Our soldiers must know tonight that this Parliament will give them our support to liberate Iraq from an evil tyrant, remove the threat of biochemical attack and show the world that we will not accept a future of fear of the mass carnage of biochemical terror. However difficult or uncomfortable, we will take action to protect our freedoms, children and people, liberate the people of Iraq and build a world of peace and security where trust can be rebuilt in a future that we all must share.
– Geraint Davies, MP for Croyden Central (still in office as MP for Swansea West)
Many of us have said that we hate the prospect of war and I am no different. I hate the thought of war and all its gory consequences, but I hate even more the thought of Saddam Hussein continuing in office. I hate the thought of chemical and biological weapons falling into the hands of suicidal terrorists and of the west once again showing weakness in the face of terror and threat when we should show strength. I have made my decision and I know where I stand: I will support the Government tonight and back the motion to use “all means necessary” to disarm this tyrant. At the same time, I respect strongly those who have reached a different conclusion, but I am convinced that that is the right way forward.
– Gary Streeter, MP for South West Devon (still in office)
This debate has highlighted the evil with which we are faced, and it has made it clear why that evil now needs to be removed. It has shown clearly that Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is a threat, that the threat is current and real, that Saddam will not disarm voluntarily, and that the people of Iraq have suffered under this tyrant for long enough. As my hon. Friend Mr. Johnson said, we can choose tonight to prolong the misery or bring it to an end.
– Michael Ancram, MP for Devizes & Shadow Secretary of State (still in office as member of the House of Lords)
The Foreign Secretary has just described Saddam Hussein as a tyrant, and I entirely agree. Throughout the debate, Members in all parts of the House have criticised Hussein’s regime as evil. Is it not appropriate tonight, therefore, to remember Burke’s famous dictum that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing? Should not hon. Members bear those words in mind as they prepare to go through the Lobby?
– Mark Francois, MP for Rayleigh & Opposition Whip (still in office as MP for Rayleigh & Wickford)
Saddam Hussein was no Conan, though he undoubtedly liked to style himself as a similarly heroic leader from humble origins – but it’s fiendishly difficult to see the likes of Blair, Straw, Hoon, Campbell, Scarlett, and the other conspirators as anything other than the cabal of kings, barons, princes, & nobles who sought to lead a sovereign state to war, and consigned hundreds of thousands to their deaths in the name of “liberation.”
Yet then, as now, there were voices who disagreed.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. It is my certain recollection that Hans Blix asked for more time to complete a very successful inspection and destruction mission, but that the United States and Britain refused that extension of time. Hence, we are going to war.
– Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington (still in office)
If the Prime Minister proceeds to take us to war in this coalition—not of the willing, but of the killing—I shall say clearly, “Not in my name. Not in the name of thousands of Labour party members up and down the country. Not in the name of the British people.” To our communities, we say, “Continue the campaign for peace, to shorten this war and to prevent the next.” To the British troops, we say, “Safe home.” To the Iraqi people—the parents—we say, “Hide your children deep in the shelters, but we wish you safety. We will stand by you when the bombing stops.” To the peoples of the world, we say very clearly, “We will not let this coalition destroy the United Nations as the arbiter of international order.” We must form a new coalition to build institutions of global governance capable of safeguarding the world from the new superpower that is globally dictating its policy to the rest of the world.
– John McDonnell, MP for Hayes & Harlington (still in office)
There are three people who are likely to use the situation in Iraq for their own ends and use the Palestinians to that end. One is Saddam Hussein, who will attempt to dupe the Palestinians into thinking that he is their saviour, and he is not. The second is Osama bin Laden, who will try to use the situation to create the idea of a general war between Islam, and Christianity and Judaism. The third is likely to be Ariel Sharon, who may well use the situation in Iraq to strengthen the occupation inside the west bank. If he attempts to do that, perhaps as the price of his non-participation in the war in Iraq, can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that that will be resisted absolutely?
– Richard Burden, MP for Birmingham Northfield (still in office)
If this war goes ahead, the minimum cost if it is quick war will be $100 billion, which is 30 times the annual budget of the United Nations for peacekeeping and 20 times its annual budget for development and humanitarian relief. Can the Foreign Secretary offer us any indication that there will be a change in those ratios?
– Alex Salmond, MP for Banff & Buchan (still in office as MP for Gordon)
Chilcott has spoken. It is clear, now, that whatever the justification for the invasion of Iraq, the Weapons of Mass Destruction were not there – and the chief instigators knew it.
The fact is this: Saddam will not disarm peacefully. We can take 12 more days, 12 more weeks, or 12 more years, but he will not disarm. We have no need to stare into the crystal ball for this. We know it from the book—from his record. So we are faced with a choice. Either we leave Saddam where he is, armed and emboldened, an even bigger threat to his country, his region and international peace and security, or we disarm him by force.
I impugn the motives of no one in the House. The different positions that we have taken all come from the best, not the worst, of intentions. But as elected Members of Parliament, we all know that we will be judged not only on our intentions, but on the results, the consequences of our decisions. The consequences of the amendment would be neither the containment nor the disarmament of Saddam’s regime, but an undermining of the authority of the United Nations, the rearmament of Iraq, a worsening of the regime’s tyranny, an end to the hopes of millions in Iraq, and a message to tyrants elsewhere that defiance pays.
Yes, of course there will be consequences if the House approves the Government’s motion. Our forces will almost certainly be involved in military action. Some may be killed; so, too, will innocent Iraqi civilians, but far fewer Iraqis in the future will be maimed, tortured or killed by the Saddam regime. The Iraqi people will begin to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that should be theirs. The world will become a safer place, and, above all, the essential authority of the United Nations will have been upheld. I urge the House to vote with the Government tonight.
– Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary
The Hour of the Dragon came and went, but memories are not so fleeting.