But if you really try, you can see the appeal yourself. I mean, take Custer. If he’d won, wiped out the Sioux at the Little Big Horn, would anybody remember him now? It’d be kind of a bummer, actually. Much cooler to die fighting, like those old paintings show him, hat off and hair flying in the wind, drawing scalp-hunters from all over the Plains.
If you think about how cool Custer’s defeat was, it’s easier to understand the Shia, who whip themselves every year to get into the spirit of Hussein’s all-time one-sided defeat at Karbala ("Anguish"), where he charged the Caliph’s entire army with 30 companions. Makes the charge of the Light Brigade look like a game of touch football at the Kennedy compound.
Nope, there’s no doubt about it: defeat is sweeter than victory any day, unless it actually happens to you. Once you’re safely under the sod and the battle is in the hands of the tribal bards, defeat is the best material around. Poets love defeat, which makes sense if you remember the kind of people who wrote poetry at school.
The Serbs were a major power in 14th-century Europe. People forget how much pure geographical luck, good or bad, makes or breaks countries. Without the good luck of having the English Channel for a front lawn, Britain would have been toast a dozen times over. And if the poor Hungarians hadn’t been stuck guarding Europe’s back door when the Mongols came calling, they might have ended up the dominant power on the Continent.
Serbia was another up-and-comer until it had the bad luck to run into the Turkish offensive line. The Serbs were always the best warriors in the Balkans, and under King Dusan the Great, they smashed their way down into Albania, Macedonia and Northern Greece. Belgrade, their capital today, was back then at the northern edge of Serbia. The real heartland of Serbia was--you guessed it--Kosovo.
The Turks were on a tear of their own. They still hadn’t taken Constantinople, and wouldn’t for another 60-odd years, but they’d long since bypassed it to establish a foothold in Europe, from which they pushed further, year by year, doing deals when it suited them, or just plain crushing anybody who wasn’t open to negotiating the Turkish way.
The battle of Kosovo was one of those classic match-ups: Serbs pushing south and east meet Turks pushing north and west.
The Turks were some of your more interesting conquerors: goofy, ruthless and sly. You never knew which kind of Turk you were going to meet on a given day, the kind who were totally willing to take in a Christian vassal state and offer a friendly exchange of harem boys to seal the deal, or the kind who liked to sit on big pillows and think of new ways to make infidels die more slowly and painfully than any have died before.
The Serb legends say that the Serbs’ King Lazar could have made a deal with the Turkish sultan Murad I, but Lazar had some wacko dream where the angels told him to take the kingdom in heaven over one on earth. Like a bad contestant on Let’s Make A Deal, the idiot chose the kingdom in heaven--at least, that’s the way the Serbs tell it. I just wish the angels would offer me a deal like that, just once. You’d see me sign on the dotted line for the earthly kingdom offered to me so fast you’d hardly have time to pack before my goon squads arrived to throw you in the dungeons. And my dungeons--let’s just say they’d be very special dungeons, dungeons I’ve been planning in my head since well before sophomore year.
Okay, enough daydreaming. Lazar probably wasn’t the brightest king on the block. He should have taken the deal. But if you look at the paintings of him he looks like one of these ruddy stocky type-A guys with high blood pressure who wake up angry and stay that way all day. Well, the Turks cured that blood pressure problem in one day.