Attila was not Osama was not Attila
Osama and Attila both terrorized the empires of their day.
To write an autobiography of Attila, I immersed myself in his history, both credible and mythic, his legends as well as whatever documentary evidence was left behind by others; he was illiterate, or as an Anthropologist would say: pre-literate--as were almost all the barbarian kings and nobility of that era--but he did have Roman scribes.
I imagined myself as the great Hun, from his early beginnings. One of the most striking stories (not documented, but told and retold) was that he was a hostage in the Roman Imperial Court. It made sense: the empire had a policy in the late fourth and early fifth centuries of hostage exchanges, royal princes for generals' sons--and Aetius, his contemporary--was hostage to his uncle, King Rugila. It makes sense that Attila was exchanged for him. The Romans saw their hostage program somewhat the way the US sees its training of foreign military at places like the School of the Americas; that they would civilize and groom likely heirs to leadership of important barbarian tribes, so that the next generation would be well disposed towards them, know Roman ways, and, hopefully, become supporters of the Empire. Ironic, isn't it?
American-trained Pakistanis trained Osama bin Laden, under CIA direction.
Aetius' career depended upon his hired Huns, even more heavily after Attila first became King, but it was Aetius who stopped him at Chalons.
Osama bin Laden was never a hostage, but he and his family were citizens of the world. And he, too, was a client of the empire, in this case American, and he must have known where the money, equipment and training was coming from when he and his men were fighting as the mujihadeen in Afghanistan. The support came through Pakistan's Inter Services Agency, their CIA, from ours. He fought on our side in the 1980's, helping to oust the USSR from Afghanistan, before he formed al Qa'ida to fight against us.
Osama never fought a conventional battle: it's where Attila excelled. But, they share(d) a hatred of the dominant civilization. Communist, Capitalist, or Imperialist, it was still western. One of the aspects of Attila, that reveals itself in his trajectory, is his hatred of cities. He demolished his share of them. Some, like Acquilea, were so thoroughly destroyed, that they never rose again. He came from a nomadic society; every settlement was abandoned after a season. His castle, built like a tent, was one of the first permanent buildings built by Huns--or for them. It didn't outlast him long, since it was built of wood.
Osama's hatred seemed to be not so much against cities, as it was a rejection of modernity--our global city. However, the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula--including Osama's family--were largely nomadic Bedouins until only a generation or two ago.
With both men, whatever they accomplished was never enough. Attila was determined to conquer the Roman Empire: he failed. Osama, supposedly, sponsored the 9-11 attacks and others before, in the Horn of Africa. Since 9-11 there have been attacks in Europe and Asia, claimed by Osama, although it's not clear whether he was really the sponsor, but he, too, failed to attack the empire in a way that would bring it down: his stated goal was the "restoration" of a universal "caliphate."
The Hunnish King was sometimes a risk, and sometimes an economic boon to the Roman Empire: he sold slaves cheap, to be brutal about it. And hired out better warriors than any others on the "market," terrifying warriors. The Empire was happy to recruit them.
But then he realized he could extract more of the stolen wealth of Empire directly, instead of through the mercenary business. He almost succeeded: twice. His real successor was the Ostrogoth, Odoacer, magister militem of the palatini, the field army that "protected" the Emperor in central Italy. Odoacer realized, like his predecessor, that he could enrich himself and his men much more directly if he was in charge. He decided to declare himself King of Italy (he controlled Italy militarily), instead of pleading with the Patrician, Orestes, for money or land grants. Because of the nature of their class, the compliant Senate sided with Odoacer, against Orestes and the boy Emperor.
Perhaps GW, or Dick Cheney, knowing Arabs, personal acquaintances of the bin Ladens, thought themselves the equivalent of General Aetius, who, through deft diplomacy, put together a last minute alliance of barbarians and Romans against the invading Huns. That's how Aetius stopped Attila near present-day Chalons.
When there was a confrontation in Afghanistan: the Taliban were routed; they fled. But here the parallel gets a little eerie. Aetius clearly let Attila escape from Gaul, his army bloodied but intact. And what did George W. Bush do, when Osama was in Tora Bora? It was Obama, almost ten years later, who finally got Osama.
It was lucky for Rome that Attila made only one more attempt at conquest--foiled probably by plague and famine--before dying of mysterious circumstances.
Attila's empire collapsed within days of his death, his generals and allies fighting the armies following his sons.
Attila was never seen as a martyr, but some still see him as the hero-king. Perhaps that's the difference between a conqueror who simply delights in destruction of an empire, and an insurgent, who believes that his God is leading him and his followers to Heaven. It's the difference between a pre-literate warrior society superior in war-fighting capability, but with no particular, compelling idea, just the dream of looted riches, versus the literate reactionary movement--not yet a society--that has an idea to sustain it, even after its leader is gone. Looted riches may be necessary for sustaining the movement, but not for high living--at least where anyone can see you. Reputedly, the Taliban leaders live very well.
When Attila died, it made a world of difference, although the Empire only survived in the West for 23 more years. When Osama was killed, his movement survived and maybe metastasized into groups like Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.
What Osama offered was an obscurantist vision of Islam and the world, a reactionary-revolutionary vision; an ideology, not just heroic power, like Attila, but he never presided over a state, or even the Tribal area in Pakistan. He was more like the leader of a confederation of gang leaders, like the king of the Mafia. But his mafia was driven by an idea: Perfect Islam. Even the drug trade was acceptable to him as a means to an end: to help bring about a society defined by Perfect Islam.
It's not clear what Attila wanted, except for more and more power, riches and renown. His greatest unfulfilled ambition was to humble Rome. But his only known inscription was hastily created in Mediolanum (modern-day Milan), according to a chronicle: it did not survive his withdrawal. It simply taunted the Romans for their helplessness against his magnificent army and temporarily righted the record about who were the conquerors and who were the conquered.
All Attila left behind were tales of his legendary prowess, generosity, and violence. Even his people, the Huns, disappeared from history within two or three generations. But he did weaken the Roman Empire, helping to set it up for Odoacer's takeover 23 years later.
What will Osama bin Laden leave behind?
Sale! Attila for $2.99
Attila as Told to His Scribes is available here.