The televised images of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia have, as in the Challenger disaster and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, become seared into the collective American consciousness. Unlike the other tragedies, however, Columbia's, which comes perhaps only weeks before the U.S. commits its troops to war, has an additional, ominous dimension.
Cicero said, "I know of no people, however civilized, however undeveloped, which does not recognize the existence of omens and also of some individuals capable of understanding these signs and making predictions based on them." This is certainly true even of modern soldiers, especially when they are about to engage in combat.
This connection between omens and soldiers has been noted through the ages. Sun Tzu urged military leaders to "prohibit omens, eliminate doubt so that they [soldiers] will die without other thoughts." Greeks and Romans feared portentous omens and would attempt to divine the future through the flights of birds and by examining the entrails of sacrificed animals.
Throughout history, leaders would take great care to attempt to "spin" ominous events in their favor. When Julius Caesar landed in Africa, he is reported to have fallen as soon as he set foot on shore. With great presence of mind, he scooped up a piece of soil, rose and declared, "Africa, I take possession of thee." It was an act that would be repeated centuries later by William the Conqueror, when he stumbled on the beach at Pevensey before defeating the English at the Battle of Hastings.
A belief in omens seemed to subside with the Age of Reason and the rise of technology and learning. Machiavelli noted that omens were something that the "commanders of armies in former times" had to struggle with and "from which our generals are at present in a great measure exempt."
But Machiavelli's belief that faith in science would replace superstition has proved over-optimistic. On the Internet, sites referred to the shuttle accident as an omen of an apocalypse of biblical proportions, predicting such catastrophes as nuclear war, the collapse of the U.S. and the destruction of Israel. Even to more rational minds, however, it is disturbing when the failure of technology and science produces tragic events, as with the Columbia accident. Technology and science, as represented by precision-guided munitions, also are being heralded as the keys to a swift victory against Iraq.
Some omens before battles have undoubtedly been positive. Constantine's victory at the Milvian Bridge in the year 312 was famously foreshadowed by the supposed appearance in the sky of Christ's cross and the words In hoc signo vinces ("By this sign you conquer"). An angelic apparition, the "Angel of Mons," was reputed to have appeared in the skies, safeguarding the British retreat from Mons, Belgium, in 1914.
Yet nothing in the tragic events of Saturday morning could be interpreted as positive. The filmed images of the Columbia spacecraft streaking across the skies of Texas resembled nothing if not a man-made comet. And for most of history, comets have been a harbinger of doom, such as pestilence, war and the downfall of leaders. Interestingly, this belief seems to have originated in ancient Babylon -- modern-day Iraq.
As an omen of a war with Iraq, the Columbia disaster is accentuated by two facts. First, the space shuttle's destruction occurred over Texas, President Bush's home state. Second, the crew included an Israeli air force pilot, Col. Ilan Ramon, who had fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the 1982 war in Lebanon and was one of the pilots who had destroyed the unfinished Iraqi nuclear power plant at Osirik in 1981.
On the other hand, perhaps we would be wise to listen to the words of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, who wrote: "There is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that."