Fear on the Eve of War

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Mr. Fleming is the author of more than forty books including, The New Dealer's War. He is a member of the board of directors of History News Network.

Every American who opposes the president's decision to go to war with Iraq should read Stephen Vincent Benet's story, "By The Waters of Babylon." When he published it in 1937, Benet, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his narrative poem, "John Brown's Body," called it one of his "prophetic" stories. I read it a long time ago but have never forgotten it. Since September 11, 2001, it has acquired a terrible urgency in my mind.

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The story is told in the first person by the young priest of a hunting and gathering tribe who nerves himself to go to the Place of the Gods -- the great abandoned city called newyork on the river. He trembles at the prospect of encountering spirits and demons and the ashes of something his father, the high priest of his tribe, called "the Great Burning." But the son is driven by a recurring dream of this Great Dead Place. After traveling eight days, he reaches the river and builds a raft that carries him beneath ruined bridges to his destination.

How shall I tell what I saw? There should have been the wailings of spirits and the shrieks of demons but there were not. It was very silent and sunny where I landed.

The towers are not all broken -- here and there one still stands like a great tree in a forest, and the birds nest high. But the towers themselves look blind, for the gods are gone.

He walked through the ruined city, an arrow ready in his bow. He found a building with letters carved in it, making a word he did not understand: UBTREAS. He also found the shattered image of a god whose name was ASHING. Pursued by wild dogs, he took refuge in a building with bronze doors and ascended to the upper floors. He looked through great dustcovered windows at the ruins around him. He prowled the silent rooms, puzzling over the words "Hot" and "Cold" on metal spigots. Night was falling and he decided to sleep there.

In the middle of the night the young priest awoke and felt himself surrounded by "whisperings and voices." He tried to sleep again but he could feel the spirits "drawing my spirit out of my body as a fish is drawn on a line." Then he was out of his body -- he could see it lying on the cold floor and he was carried to the window to look out on the city.

It should have been dark for it was night but it was not dark. Everywhere there were lights -- lines of light -- circles and blurs of light -- ten thousand torches would not have been the same. The sky itself was alight. You could hardly see the stars for the glow in the sky. I knew I was seeing the city as it had been when the gods were alive

Everywhere there were gods, on foot and in chariots -- there were gods beyond number and counting and their chariots blocked the streets. They had turned night to day for their pleasure -- and they did not sleep with the sun. The noise of their going and coming was the noise of many waters.
I looked out another window -- the great vines of their bridges were mended and the god-roads went East and West. Restless, restless were the gods, always in motion. And always, as they labored and rested, as they feasted and made love, there was a drum in their ears -- the pulse of the great city, beating and beating like a man's heart.

Then I saw their fate come upon them and that was terrible past speech. It came upon them as they walked the streets of their city. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Great Destruction. They ran about like ants in the streets of their city -- poor gods, poor gods! Then the towers began to fall. The city had become a Dead Place, for many years the poison was still in the ground. I saw it happen. I saw the last of them die. It was darkness over the broken city and I wept.

In the morning, the young priest awoke, "perplexed and confused." Now he knew the reason for the Great Dead Place but he did not understand why it had happened. The gods seemed so strong, so powerful. He prowled the building, looking for an answer. In a room he had not entered before, he found a dead man sitting in a chair by the window. He was perfectly preserved in the hot dry room.

There was wisdom in his face and great sadness. You could see that he would not run away. He had sat at his window, watching his city die--then he himself had died. But it is better to lose one's life than to lose one's spirit -- and you could see from the face that the spirit had not been lost.

For the young priest, the man was a revelation. I knew then that they had been men, neither gods nor demons. It is a great knowledge, hard to tell and believe. They were men -- they went down a dark road, but they were men. I had no fear after that.

The young priest returned to his father and told him what he had seen. The father warned him not to tell the people for the time being. The truth of newyork's fate was so terrible, it would fill their hearts with horror and dread. "It was not idly that that our fathers forbade the Dead Places," the high priest said.
The young man accepted this paternal wisdom. But he resolved that when he became high priest he would lead his people to the Place of the Gods -- the place newyork. They would find the god ASHING and the other gods he had heard about from his father, who had read old books -- Licoln and Biltmore and Moses. They were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man's face. They were men who were here before us.

Can New York -- and the rest of America -- escape this fate? God helping us, we must try. We are not gods but we have courage and strength and the memory of dark roads we have survived, thanks to our commitment to freedom.

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Dion Kucera - 9/29/2005

I went over this story today with my 9th grade Literature teacher. We pulled from the story that it is at an undefined point in the future after a nuclear bomb hits us. The Great Burning would be a nuclear bomb. Einstein said that he knows not what weapons WWIII would be fought with, but he knows that WWIV would be fought with sticks and stones. This is saying that our next war could be so devastating that it would wipe out most of the world. In this story the hill people don't know about this, but they don't go there anyways. Ubtreas is a broken sign in the story for SUBTREASURY and ASHING is a broken sign of WASHINGTON. This story gets you thinking, because one day it may happen.

R. L. Fast - 9/29/2003

If you REALLY want to get chills, check out the epic of Gilgamesh. The young king is restless and wants to "make a name" by killing or conquering someone (Humbaba, who guards the forest). He goes before the city council to ask their blessing. They are reluctant, but realize that the king desperately needs some action, and give him their OK.
It probably depends on the translation, but in mine (Herbert Mason), his words to the council echo Bush's claims of the "evil enemy" who must be destroyed: "We must kill him/And end his evil power over us. . . . I am impatient and cannot wait long."
This is the first time I've visited your site. Interesting stuff!

John - 9/8/2003

"Subtreasury Building" in NYC

John - 9/3/2003

Does anyone know what this means in the story?

Steven Smith - 6/25/2003

In winter 1985 I read Stephen Vincent Benet's affecting tale "By the Waters of Babylon" in a collection of literary science fiction stories which had first seen print in the Saturday Evening Post. The late great Mister Benet's story is every thing Mister Fleming claims and more. I had been reading science fiction in 1 form or another since 1966 when I became instantly addicted to super hero comic books but this was among the most evocative things I had read since 1971 when I very clumsily plodded through Clifford Simak's fine collection City and 1973 when I essayed When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer.

Mister Fleming invokes the aid of a God in Whom I dis-believe in assuring America's avoidance of the fate suffered by New York City in Benet's haunting story. Long reference to Ayn Rand, Philip Wylie, William Graham Sumner, Herbert Spencer and HL Mencken convince me of the futility of asking a God to help men save western civilization when men alone were and are the creative as well as destructive agents of the west. Our immediate task must be restoration of the American republic as conceived by the more ideologically consistent and freedom focused of the founding fathers, specially Washington whose farewell address should be closely studied by any one claiming serious interest in domestic politics. Of course rejection of foreign war and all that may lead to it will be deemed imperative by the statesmen of such a republic. Mister Fleming covered this ground well in his recent book on the execrable new deal. That Stephen Vincent Benet at least tacitly understood the same things is borne by exposure to his other enjoyable prose and Mister Fleming rates high praise for drawing attention to 1 of the best efforts of a truly magnificent writer.