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War and sacrifice

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, November 4, 2004

Marathon was a city long before it was a sporting event. It was at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. that 10,000 Athenians, aided by 1,000 Plataeans, faced the forces of the Persian emperor Darius. Despite being severely outnumbered, the Greeks won a decisive victory and sustained remarkably few casualties.

Legend has it that after the battle the messenger Philippides ran the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens bearing the news. Upon arrival he exclaimed “Rejoice, we conquer,” before collapsing dead from exhaustion. Since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 athletes have run a similar distance to commemorate Philippides’ achievement, which has always seemed to me to rather miss the point of the story.

Along with the battle of Salamis, the victory at Marathon saved Greece, the cradle of Western Civilization, from Persian conquest. Those who fought in the battle took great pride in their achievement. Aeschylus was the greatest of tragedians and yet his epitaph, which he wrote himself, does not mention his plays but instead identifies him as a veteran of Marathon.

To understand the Greek view of war one must begin at the beginning, with Homer. Thomas Paine called Homer a warmonger, but actually he was something more complex. He celebrated heroism and martial prowess, but he was also acutely aware of the extent of the suffering that war produces.

Salvador Dali once offered the distinctly sub-Wildean aphorism, “Wars have never hurt anybody except the people who die.” Homer knew better. The Iliad is suffused not only with death but with bereavement. Homer has Diomedes say, “Ill-fated are those whose sons oppose my strength.” A lesser poet would have written “Ill-fated are those who oppose my strength.” The poem ends, not with the sacking of Troy, but with the funeral rites of Hector, the Trojan hero. The scene in which Hector’s wife, Andromache, laments that without his father her son will not reach manhood is as moving as any in Western literature.

It would be a misunderstanding to describe Homer’s attitude to war as balanced. War was inevitable – although some particular conflicts might be avoidable – and hence not the kind of thing that one could be for or against. And yet, alive to both the glory and the devastation of war, the blind bard of Ionia seems to have achieved a more stereoscopic view of war than most of the artists of the last century who took it as their theme. With some exceptions, the consensus of the creative class seems to have formed around what we might call the Apocalypse Now position: War is hell, next question.

The controversy surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a catalyst for questions about military recruitment. In the run-up to the election the national Rock the Vote campaign, along with other groups and campaigners, warned of the impending reintroduction of the draft. That many of those who made this warning felt no compunction about berating the Bush Administration for creating a “climate of fear” was of course hypocritical, but hardly surprising.

There will not be a military draft in the United States in our lifetime. The bill to reintroduce the draft (which was defeated in the House of Representatives by 402 votes to 2) was sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat concerned about the fact that the military disproportionately recruits from the poor and underprivileged, the attractiveness of a military career will naturally vary according to the other options that are available to you.

A further problem arises when, as has been the case since the Vietnam era, the most privileged demographic in the United States, the graduates of the country’s elite colleges, are the most likely to oppose the projection of American military power abroad. Members of that elite may be reluctant to enlist knowing that there is a high chance that they will be asked to risk their lives in military actions which a substantial amount of their peers will regard as unjust.

I cannot see any good solution to this problem. For that matter I cannot see any reason to believe that for every problem there must exist a good solution.

Next Thursday is Remembrance Day in England, Veterans Day in the United States. Nov. 11 is the anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War, which was often called “the war to end all wars” – a phrase Homer would have dismissed as naïve, and rightly so.

At the center of the village in which I grew up there is a memorial to the soldiers who lost their lives in the two world wars. As a member of the local Scout troop, each year I was required to attend the memorial service, which mostly involved standing outside in the rain. The solemnity of the occasion was not entirely lost on me, but I would be lying if I said that I was filled with pious sentiments towards those who fought and fell defending their country. But now I am grateful that I was made to attend those services. “Allez à la messe,” said Pascal, “et la foi vous viendra.” Go to mass and faith will come.

There is much to be said for going through the motions. The gratitude I now feel for those who gave what Lincoln called the “last full measure of devotion” is, I suspect, made possible by those November days in which we stood in silence outside in the rain.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.