The ‘Glory' of War


Since the dawn of Western literature, going all the way back to Homer and his sanguinary epics of men in battle, war has captivated poets. And yet the Iliad and the Odyssey, though they cover traditional heroic materials, are strangely ambivalent regarding their central heroic subject: the striving for glory through warfare. Homer’s poems, to be sure, recreate the melodrama and gory details of ancient battle-fear and courage, loyalty, treachery, trickery and daring. But beyond their skillful plotting and vivid depictions of ancient life, they transcend mere entertainment to achieve the nuance and complexity that mark any sensitive understanding of the human condition. They become resonant with our deepest human sensibilities. They become art.

One important dimension of this resonant ambivalence in Homer lies in his refusal to affirm, unequivocally, the conventional equation of glory with skill and courage in battle. Many centuries later, a Prussian general would remark that men are never so noble as when risking death in the heat of combat. Homer’s attitude is considerably more complicated. Meeting the ghost of Achilles in the underworld, and expecting the famed warrior to relish his posthumous glory, Odysseus tells him, “we Argives / honored you as a god, and now down here, I see, / you lord it over the dead in all your power.” The hero’s response surprises him with its dismissal of temporal glory in war: “No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! / By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man- / some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive- / than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

Even today we glorify the warrior and, despite our modern protestations to the contrary, war itself-its excitement and daring, and (alas) the fascination with horror and the unspeakable that it arouses. Something of this mixed attitude to battle resonates throughout Homer. The philosopher-mystic Simone Weil argued that “the true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad, is FORCE. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh sinks away.” Weil strongly implies that Homer is anything but neutral regarding the resort to force in the resolution of human problems: “In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.”

A careful reading of Homer lends weight to Weil’s thesis. In describing the thrill and terror of battle, Homer employs ironic metaphors from peaceful and domestic contexts: the housewife’s woolen dyes to describe Menelaus’s bleeding wound; the threshing of life-giving wheat to depict the slaughter of men in battle formation; the softly falling snow to catch the near-hypnotic descent of countless lethal arrows. Even where less domestic comparisons are used, as when Achilles’ slaughter of Trojans converts the river Xanthus to blood, the similes imply how inhuman the violent hero becomes. He is described in his vengeance as a lion, a tree, a rock-terms that indicate a descent from the human to the nonhuman. Nature itself, in the suddenly rearing waters, proclaims the un-naturalness of Achilles’ inhuman rage. Consider too the profoundly somber and moving ending of the Iliad: no triumphal celebration here, no redemptive peace, but rather the horrific scene of old king Priam commiserating over mutual and irretrievable losses with Achilles, the man who killed his sons.

In some ways, the Odyssey, with its constant juxtaposing of civilized manners against the brutality of barbaric societies, provides the idealized antidote to the violence that war always involves. The repulsive cannibalism of the Lystragonians, the brutish incivility of the Cyclops, the bleak sensuality of Circe’s pig-men, and the drug-dazed Lotus-eaters are cultural foils to the refined society of Odysseus’ rescuers, the Phaiacians, with their gracious manners, religious rituals, meticulous arts, oral literature, sophisticated agronomy, craftsmanship, and, especially, their hospitality (in the large and ancient sense of that term). When we read the bard’s battle epics in the light of these contrasts, we are moved to ask, “What kind of war poems are these anyway? What kind of war poet is Homer?”

One wonders what Homer would have made of our pres¬ent messy ventures in the Middle East, yet another tragedy of violence embraced in the name of honor and duty. With what strange mixture of irony and sadness might he have treated the arrant cockiness of “Mission Accomplished”-that staged celebration that played out as if war were a New Year’s bowl game and not the awful mandate we give young men and women to deal out death and to risk it themselves? Would Homer catch the complex emotions of the returning vet glorified by his townfolk even as he represses memories of other townfolk, half a world away, whom he may have killed with a tossed grenade? For such a soldier, will the rites of patriotism exorcise the dark demons that hover just beyond the trumpets? Or will the repressed and almost forgotten terror arise periodically in the form of difficult relationships, inexplicable anger, nagging guilt?

If he did attempt to make poetry out of a war like the one in Iraq, Homer would have to engage a very different set of realities from those of Achilles and Odysseus. In their world, warriors encountered their foes face to face, even exchanging private genealogies in a strange ritual that mixed respect and hostility. Their blood literally mingled in conflict, and Homer tinged their conventional boasting with an enormous sadness-two men who may have been rivals or teammates in Olympic games, now tearing at one another. For all its horror and animal rage, such an encounter casts a human light of mutual recognition upon the violence. In contrast, modern warfare is often remote and impersonal, its technology dealing death at a distance, obscuring the common humanity of the enemy. There is no blood to wash off one’s hands.

Imagining myself a young soldier returning from duty, I do not think I would want the parade, the grand marches, the speeches, the bunting-not because I do not love my country, but because I am beginning to think such exercises tend to glorify what, by its very nature, must call for rituals of grief and regret. It strikes me that we have lost something in the change from ancient to modern warfare. The Jesuit ethicist John Kavanaugh, author of Who Counts as Persons: Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing, characterizes violence as a failure of the imagination. By imagination, he surely means not the escapist fantasizing which Coleridge called “fancy,” but rather a disciplined and formal contemplation of reality, a transcendence of conventional perceptions in order to perceive the true forms of things-and so to understand their natures, their limits, cautions, and possibilities. In such studies of violence as Homer’s epic poems, what we discover is not the glory but the terrible sadness of war; and we do so even as we recognize the strange lure of violence: the excitement, the tests of the self, and the daring that war makes possible.

Homer, composing for a tribal and pretechnological culture, did not have to deal with either the abstractions of the nation-state or the impersonality of modern long-range weaponry, and so he could focus on the simple immediacy of heroic encounter. Is it possible that, in our own day, under the cool efficiencies of technology and the aegis of a nearly religious patriotism, we find ourselves deprived of Homer’s imaginative advantages?

It is true that the immediacy of ancient battle did little to reduce the violence of war. The ancient world had no concept of the universal human family, no doctrines of forgiveness and love that might extend beyond tribal loyalties. But can we say that our own enlightened age, which possesses these ideas, measures up better? Has modern culture renounced violence in any committed way? We moderns are marvels of technological resourcefulness, relentlessly transforming the world around us. But what about our ethical resourcefulness? Have we begun to imagine alternatives to violence the way we imagine alternative fuels, say, or new advances in medicine or in communications?

If imagination, in matters of war and peace, entails a disciplined contemplation of all that is “other”-other values, other beliefs, other fears, expectations, histories, and myths-then we must ask: Do modern societies, when facing the option of war, strive to imagine their counterparts? Do we attempt to contemplate the sources of our opponents’ strengths, the roots of their resentments and anger, the measure and meaning of their aspirations? The Dominican priest Gerald Vann wrote that in true love, the lover “becomes” the beloved. What about those we deem enemies? Do we in any sense need to become them? Recently I met a citizen who, invited to attend a lecture on Islam, responded, “I don’t need that stuff!” Homer’s antagonists, meeting face-to-face, got to know one another intimately. Are we to deal with other peoples and cultures through the single lens of our own preconceptions, needs, and aspirations? And if so, what are the consequences? If we insist on a world ordered on our very limited terms, do we fail the obligations of true imagining by reducing reality to what we want it to be?

The American poet Wallace Stevens once wisely said that “we have imagination because we do not have enough without it.” I agree with Stevens, but I would also affirm the necessity of divine grace in our search for world order-grace working through a just imagination. The alternatives are discouraging. Empowered as we are with near-inconceivable destructive potential, we cannot continue to live by the old myth of redemptive violence, no matter how noble our goals. We must indeed honor the courage and generosity of our soldiers, must reward and care for them generously upon their return. But we cannot continue to glamorize battle and glorify the warrior in a nuclear world where the odds of Armageddon grow greater with every escalation in hostilities.

An old farm tale recommends using an ash club to get the mule’s attention. But people and societies, even when their behavior is mulish, are not mules. The club fails to address the root sources of human violence. Scientific and technological efficiency is not only inadequate for the resolution of human conflict but likely to exacerbate it, arming us with ever deadlier versions of the ash club. We already fight well enough. Now we must put down the club and imagine better.

Published in the 2007-01-26 issue: 

John Savant, professor emeritus at Dominican University of California, lives in San Rafael, California.

Also by this author
The Saving Grace of Sport

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