Monday, May 9, 2011

The Iliad, bin Laden, and a Mother's Day Proclamation

I've been quiet about the assassination/murder/execution of bin Laden, in part because the blogosphere has been full of opinions, but mostly because of feeling there are many other Important Matters to ponder. But I have finally decided that there is one important thing to articulate about the headlines of this week besides the question of whether anyone really believes the death of this one individual is going to diminish terrorist activities around the globe. (Which, after all, was the ostensible motive for killing him.)

It is this: that conservative estimates of the number of people killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the U.S. coalition attacks began is nearly 1 million. That's more than 300 times the number of people killed on September 11, 2001. According to U.S. State Department data, that's also 130 times more people than were killed in all terrorist attacks around the world from 1993-2004. (Numbers after 2004 remain classified, since they suggested that the U.S. wars were actually fomenting terrorist attacks, rather than striking terror into the terrorists' hearts.) The cost of these wars has plunged us into an economic whirlpool of debt, with ever-widening currents sucking jobs and public services into the deep. Talk about Pyrrhic victories.

The most recent issue of Harper's Magazine contains a lengthy essay by Nicholson Baker, "Why I'm a Pacifist: The Dangerous Myth of the Good War." He examines the circumstances surrounding the US entry into World War II and the result, concluding, along with a number of historians, that this act actually fueled Hitler's rush to exterminate the Jews. I am not a WWII historian, but it's a provocative argument.

I've also been reminded of Simone Weil's beautiful, exceptionally moving essay, "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force," published initially in 1940 after the fall of France. It opens thus:
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 shrinks away. 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. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.
To define force—it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us....
The rest of the essay's 24 pages are equally potent; I recommend reading it as a perspective-altering, almost transcendental experience. And it is very much relevant to us today, when our society is riven by internecine strife between people who cannot communicate because they have forgotten the extent to which circumstance and necessity impinge upon the human soul. Again, Weil's words:
... nothing is so rare as to see misfortune fairly portrayed; the tendency is either to treat the unfortunate person as though catastrophe were his natural vocation, or to ignore the effects of misfortune on the soul, to assume, that is, that the soul can suffer and remain unmarked by it, can fail, in fact, to be recast in misfortune's image. [...]
Both the Romans and the Hebrews believed themselves to be exempt from the misery that is the common human lot. The Romans saw their country as the nation chosen by destiny to be mistress of the world; with the Hebrews, it was their God who exalted them and they retained their superior position just as long as they obeyed Him. Strangers, enemies, conquered peoples, subjects, slaves, were objects of contempt to the Romans; and the Romans had no epics, no tragedies. In Rome gladiatorial fights took the place of tragedy. With the Hebrews, misfortune was a sure indication of sin and hence a legitimate object of contempt; to them a vanquished enemy was abhorrent to God himself and condemned to expiate all sorts of crimes—this is a view that makes cruelty permissible and indeed indispensable....Throughout twenty centuries of Christianity, the Romans and the Hebrews have been admired, read, imitated, both in deed and word; their masterpieces have yielded an appropriate quotation every time anybody had a crime he wanted to justify.
Americans, too, lack a tradition of tragedy—treacle doesn't count—and American exceptionalism is everywhere in evidence, from political speeches to economic debates to the unwillingness of many to face our environmental crisis. Is it any wonder that we spawned Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Are they our gladiatorial rings?

In honor of Mother's Day, let me also share a portion of Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation, written in 1870 in reaction to the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War:

We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

Their vision, of an international council of women, was simplistic, but the sentiment, I think, was right.


  1. Thank you so much. I am going to go straight to the Nicholson Baker piece. I'm not sure he is correct, but it would take a real WWII historian to sort this out. On this note, though tangential, have you read Hare with Amber Eyes? Stunning, particularly on Vienna at outset of war, and rampant anti-Semitism.

    Will also go to Simone Weil.

    Your larger point, that we are in a bloodbath that is draining our national treasure--lives of young men and women--is so true. And where has it gotten us? All the money we are spending on Oil Wars, which is really what these are--I mean, Iraq? what did that have to do with bin Laden? --we should have been spending on the deployment of solar arrays....

  2. You are so right about what good the fortunes spent on the war could have done if directed to reducing our reliance on oil instead of shoring it up. So often it seems our actions aim at incompatible goals...or that our talk and our actions are just crazily dissociated.

    I share your reservations about embracing Nicholson Baker's argument, but I have to say reading Paul Fussell years ago made me much more chary about the concept of "moral war". That, plus my inordinate fondness for all the great British WW I poets ("dulce et decorum est...")

    I have not read Hare with Amber Eyes, but it looks fantastic -- I shall check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

    I realize you probably visited here to find out about drug shortages; I am hoping to begin posting on that topic Thursday (it's taking rather a long time to fact-check, and the story keeps getting more alarming the further I dig into the pharmaceutical industry).

  3. Dear Dominique,
    Blogger was down yesterday, and erased not only my reply to you but my first post in the pharmaceutical series.

    I will be very interested to learn what you think of the Simone Weil paper, which I first read about twenty years ago. That, and reading a lot of Paul Fussell on the first world war (plus my inordinate fondness for British poetry from that period) really made me chary about the notion of a "moral war." At the same time, I understand the sentiment that some people (or rather, the rest of us) would be better off dead...

    You are so right about the oil-motivated bloodbath, and how much good all that money could have done if directed toward greening our infrastructure. And now the Right continues their mission to shrink the federal government, eating away at medicaid, education, etc. How do they sleep at night?