Men and War

Men and War October 16, 2013


As I’ve written here before, I have a bit of a fascination with war. It began my freshman year in college, when I took a seminar called, “The Iliad and Memories of War,” with the intoxicating and quirky professor, James Tatum. Tatum later turned that seminar into a book.

The first week of my freshman year in college, Tatum assigned me and my ten classmates to read The Iliad, the 16,000-line epic poem by Homer. It was a daunting task. Yet read it, I did. Upon completing it, I was both buoyed by the accomplishment, and hooked on memoirs of war. We went on to read a dozen more books, from ancient times to modern, about men at war.

Last night, Tanner (13) and I attended An Iliad at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. It’s a breathtaking one-man play, in which actor Stephen Yoakum plays the poet, but also at times incarnates other characters in the drama. When the play was on Broadway in 2010, the NY Times wrote,

“It’s a good story,” says our narrator, a battered-looking fellow carrying a suitcase who confides that he has been singing this story through the ages: in Mycenae, in Babylon, in Gaul. A cracking good yarn it certainly is. The fierce trash-talking between the Greek leader Agamemnon and the great warrior Achilles; the death in battle of Achilles’ great friend Patroclus; the culminating combat between a raging, mournful Achilles and the Trojan hero Hector: these are tales that captivate in any form and continue to provide meaty fodder for popular culture.

Indeed, The Iliad is a timeless story of rivalries and pride and bloodlust. It does not glorify war, as so many claim it does. Instead, I think, it both shows the allure of war to imperfect men, and shows war’s ultimate folly.

The most breathtaking part of the show come near the end, when the Poet recites a litany of wars since that archetypal war over Troy. It’s a list that takes five minutes to complete, and is spoken in rapid but flat tones. To hear them all listed like that, back to back to back, provoked in me a feeling of helplessness, even as I guessed the last one in the list: “Syria.” Because, of course, when An Iliad is staged next year, or when Tanner is taking a child of his own, that list will be even longer.

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  • Like so many works of literature, I’ve always found the Iliad fascinating because its story is both so foreign, and so close.

    As a Christian it is instructive to enter into a world which hasn’t yet dreamed of the Hebrew or Christian revelation. The heroic values are untainted with any influence from the Beatitudes, or a notion that God is love (there is, of course, a goddess of love, with an entirely different set of priorities). A world where glory is paramount, where mercy is not highly valued, where friendship is fierce and truth has little intrinsic worth–that is certainly a world a Christian should spend some time in, and not because it’s so awful, but because it’s so attractive, such a temptation.

    Because, on the other hand, the heroic values were never entirely superceded, and we still refuse to put away the sword. And yet our commonality with the tale isn’t limited to what our faith tells us to shun. The whole turns on the wrath of Achilles, the terrible wrath that takes a terrible toll, because he was dishonored, and, even when he rejoins the fray, his wrath continues, re-directed, but again all out of proportion as he dishonors the body of Hector.

    Then we get to the end, where Priam comes, under divine protection, to beg for the body of his son from his son’s killer, and Achilles sees in the old man the image of his own father, and they both weep together, and his wrath is released. It is not what a Christian would call forgiveness, but it is a moment of common humanity and sympathy that creates a small space that we can call love between the two adversaries. And there is nothing else in all literature like that moment.

    • I agree. The connection the forms between Achilles and Priam at the end it so beautiful, especially because of everything that has preceded it.

      • As it happens, I have also been re-reading the first book of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponesian War, and one of the things that strikes me most about it is its dissimilarity to Homer. If Homer shows the passion of war–the rape of Helen, the wrath of Achilles, the vainglory of Agamemnon–Thucydides portrays war as an exercise in cold reason–the embassies, the appeals to self-interest, the councils, the alliances–and only after long dicussion are the hoplites dispatched or the ships launched. It’s the other side of war, much closer, I think, to our sending forces out to Iraq or Syria, and much less human.