Thursday, March 19, 2009

Did He Mean Valhalla or Utopia? You Decide.

Today we have a very interesting blog post from Nichole, a staffer here at the Sons of Norway HQ. I thought it was very timely and educational. Enjoy!

To those familiar with Old Norse and Norwegian / Icelandic mythology, Valhalla is not only a place, but a construct of character. Sure, sure, it’s where the chief god, Odin, welcomes the shadowy souls of men slain on the battlefield, but moreover, it represents honor and duty. As Valhalla is eternal, so too should be the memory of sacrifice.

Recently (late January), Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the following comment incorporating Valhalla, which jolted me out of my mindless commute:

“This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan," he said. "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money," Gates testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The quote comes from the Washington Post, but you can also hear audio of the statement at NPR.

This left me wondering what Gates meant to invoke with that word? Did he really mean Valhalla? My colleague, most respected blogger, Norwegian cultural emissary and general visionary Colin Thomsen, suggests that he may have merely intended “viking heaven.” This, as Colin pointed out, is how many people unfamiliar with Old Norse / Icelandic mythology personally define the word (I had never, even before studying the sagas of that long past epoch, defined Valhalla in that manner. I would be interested, though, to hear comments from readers about their definition of Valhalla and how they’ve encountered it in popular culture).

If what Colin suggested was true, it’s worrisome that Mr. Gates could be so careless with our dear language! While one might guess that his aim was most certainly to imbue the phrase with a notion of a Utopian end--not only to the violence in that region, but also the U.S.’s involvement--a notion of a “central Asian Valhalla” could also be read (though likely not Gates’ intent) as a reference to martyrdom.

And for those of you who need a primer on Valhalla:
In the sagas and eddas, Valhalla is the Odin’s grand hall, adorned with golden shields. Soldiers that die in battle are borne here by the valkyries, who also serve the fallen mead, kind beings they are. Odin greets the slain warriors, and they prepare each day for Ragnarok, an apocalyptic battle that is prophesied to destroy the entire world. Hardly the most appealing reference to make on the future of Afghanistan.

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