Fellow Auburn tigers: Tomorrow we begin our season in the wilderness.
Opinions vary widely as to how successful our team will be — anywhere from five to nine wins, no game a given — but what is certain is that six wins is an overall victory for the Plainsmen. This is the first season in recent memory that I do not fully expect Auburn to win at least eight games, the first in which we are not simply the underdog, but totally cornered. A new coaching staff, a third offense in three years and a frighteningly thin depth chart do not spell victory. The situation is dire.
Some see many different things to come with this season. I see shadows of the Punic Wars.
The jewel burnished by the brutality of the Second Punic War was Hannibal’s campaign in Italy. He was a brilliant tactician and a superb strategist, perhaps the finest general this world has ever seen. Not only was he able to cross the Alps with an army of 40,000 men. Not only did he repeatedly defeat the best that the Romans could send at him in a series of scintillating battles that are studied in military academies to this day. No, he did it for 15 years, on Roman soil, without reinforcements. He literally recruited Romans to fight the Romans and did it with no mention of mutiny or sedition. It is as if he took a hang-glider to Mars, recruited an army of Martians and damn near conquered the red planet. The man, quite simply, was a genius.
But even taking into account his genius, Hannibal’s journey was never easy, beginning with the journey from Hispania to Italy. His plan (originally, his brother Hasdrubal’s) was to form an army of Carthaginian cavalry and Gallic foot, march over the Italian Alps from what is now Spain into Italia and take the fight to the Romans on their home turf. The crossing of the Alps was so daring and so unexpected because it was a logistical catastrophe. In the mountains, he and his men would battle not only the unforgiving weather but also the native Gallic tribes, with no opportunity to reinforce or resupply their forces. According to Polybius, Hannibal emerged from this gauntlet with half of the troops that had entered the mountains in Hispania — but merely surviving those four months in the mountains was a tremendous feat. Immediately, Hannibal’s army was attacked by Roman legions and beat them. And so the long campaign began.
For 15 years, Hannibal fought his war of brilliance. His tactical victories at the Trebia, at Lake Trasimene, and at Cannae are considered visionary even today. His army composed of unparalleled Carthaginian cavalry and loyal Gallic/Italian foot was so consistently victorious — and so decisively — that the only successful strategy of defense was simply not to attack it at all but try to bleed its peripheral forces of fighting men through guerrilla tactics. The Roman general who devised this strategy was given the surname Cunctator, meaning “Delayer,” and reviled among the Roman public for this apparent display of cowardice. And yet, when given a pitched battle, Hannibal would annihilate entire armies, often killing multiple important and famed Roman leaders. He roamed the Italian peninsula an untouchable colossus.
What drove this man to his lonely post, deep in enemy territory and cut off from all resupply? Echoes of the First Punic War, during which his father Hamilcar Barca would fight a daring, pyrrhic war for control of Sicilia. Like his son, Hamilcar was eventually cut off from the support of his homeland and forced to surrender. However, he would never forget. Three of his four sons — Hannibal, Hasdrubal, and Mago — would inherit their father’s martial skill. Called “the Lion’s brood,” they fought on against Rome because they had sworn it to their father: I swear as soon as age will permit, I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome. By some accounts, Hannibal begged to go to war with his father, at which request Hamilcar took him to a sacrificial chamber and held him over a roaring fire while he swore to that binding hatred. Hannibal commanded his armies peerlessly. But perhaps more importantly, he carried through on his birthright.
and he said, “Here am I”
As you may surmise, I most identify our Plainsmen with the Carthaginians. Which, yes, is unfortunate given Hannibal’s use of elephants and, oh yeah, they were eventually annihilated.
But there are many things that ring true, most poignantly the ancient oath of undying hatred that Hamilcar Barca administered unto his sons. Our six years of dominating the Iron Bowl had some of our fans reminiscing, back to a time when the game was a true contest between two strong opponents. I did not understand it then, and I do not understand it now.
That Barcid oath is an oath my father raised me on. As long as I can remember I have been toted around in the orange and blue and I have hated the Crimson Tide. My father lived through a miraculous, scrappy victory in 1972 and through what followed, nine years of the Bear. He lived and was thoroughly steeped in the bitterness of a childhood and adolescence spent under the thumb of our hated enemy. The state of Alabama for an Auburn fan in the ’70s was never being allowed to forget the loss for 364 days, enduring another crushing defeat and enduring another long year of enforced memory. And this is the gift he gave me, this ferocious pride in our team and an inescapable moral directive. This is no weakly boorish inculcation. It is the yellowhammer’s chosen mode of competition ever since the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama first emerged victorious at Lakeview Park. It is important to note that the Iron Bowl was suspended by the colleges, and yet demanded by the populace so insistently that the state Legislature nearly acted to reinstate the game. This game is our terroir, and whether by God’s grace or by mere chance, it is the family into which we have been born and the past I have been given.
Thus, I would turn the ending of the story around. As was Carthage leveled, I’d enjoy leveling Bama and then leveling it again. And again. Just as Hannibal was spared the fire of his father’s sacrificial chamber by his oath of undying enmity, just as Abram was relieved to hear the angel’s voice and then the rustling of the brambles by the altar, I would like nothing more to see them trapped like the ram in the thorn bush. To be utterly transparent: If Alabama had received the NCAA “death penalty,” if their football program had been totally leveled, if they became so destitute as to drop completely out of Division I, I would still look forward to the game. If we won every game by a hundred points, never allowed a score or a first down, and played the second string all game long, I would still look forward to the game. To the ritual in the autumn, to iron forever sharpened by purposeful use.
As you may have gathered, I honestly don’t even enjoy watching Auburn play the Tide. Unlike other games (LSU, UGA, Florida) where loss is a moral option, there is a deep, inherent wrongness about losing to Alabama. No, not merely losing: every touchdown, every field goal, every first down, yard, foot, every inch is painful to surrender. On the day of the Iron Bowl, the game is no longer football. In football, you emerge the victor if you have simply scored more points than your opponent. “Winning” the Iron Bowl would mean holding them to negative yards. Zero completions. Twelve sacks is not enough. Or, notably, to win by such a slim margin that your enemy leaves the field frustrated, questioning, unfulfilled. It’s not enough to beat Bama. It’s never enough. What’s enough? As the old saying goes, “win by one point or a hundred,” crush them to fine powder or forever remain tantalizingly out of reach. Break their hearts.
Some were disappointed in the lack of competitiveness. Now, they again have it. Now, we hesitate and the ram untwists his horns. He flees down the mountain. Now, we are again alone — father, son and angel.
We do not yet see the plains of our enemy’s homeland. The mountains are long and deep, brimming with our enemies and climate that would soon halve our ranks. As long before and as the land demands, the sons must first feel the heat of the fire, the father must not wait for the angel. The last mountain will loom before us soon — what path will our Plainsmen take?
War Damn Eagle and Godspeed.