An op-ed piece by Bob Russ, assistant professor of English, was published in the May 12 edition of the Greensboro News & Record.
The text appears below:
Our heroes are fighting in a distant land. It promises to be a long war. Our heroes fight bravely, but some behave disgracefully, humiliating and abusing the enemy.
American soldiers in Iraq?
No. Greek warriors in Troy.
The long-awaited Wolfgang Peterson film “Troy,” starring Brad Pitt, opens nationwide Friday. While it promises to be an exciting summer spectacle, perhaps “Troy” will send modern readers back to the story that inspired the film, Homer’s “Iliad,” to explore that epic’s treatment of the complexities of men at war.
It is an old, old story, and it has been repeatedly reinterpreted, in film, in theater, in novels, in poetry, in paintings. Chaucer and Shakespeare focused on the doomed love affair between Troilus and Cressida, set within the walls of Troy. And Hollywood has romanticized the love affair between Paris, a prince of Troy, and Helen, the wife of Menelaus. And the Greek tragic playwright Euripedes wrote his great anti-war play “The Trojan Women” as a commentary on Athenian conduct on the island of Melos, where Athenians killed men and enslaved women and children when Melos remained neutral and would not join Athens in the war against Sparta.
Much of the lasting appeal of the “Iliad” is based on the legendary love affairs, or the legendary beauty of the woman whose “face launched a thousand ships,” or the courage of the warriors who are fated to die, but in the end, it is a powerful anti-war statement depicting the horrors sufferings of the innocent victims—mothers, fathers, wives, children—and the shameful conduct of the warriors themselves.
And like Euripedes, we may look back on the “Iliad” to help us reflect on our own conduct.
As we watch the new “Troy,” it will be good to remember that Homer’s tale covered a very small period in the ten-year war, when Achilles and Agamemnon argue over a captured woman and Achilles withdraws from the fighting for a while.
During their argument, one lone voice of propriety condemns their conduct. Nestor, the old man from Pylos, says, “Oh, for shame. Great sorrow comes on the land of Achaia (meaning the land of the Greeks).”
That is: it is a disgrace to all of the people when the commander and his greatest warrior argue between themselves. All the Trojans will be happy to see that kind of behavior in the Greek leadership.
But worse conduct comes later, when Achilles reenters the battle to kill Hektor, the great warrior of Troy, in revenge for his killing Achilles’ own best friend.
It is not killing the enemy, though, that is so bad. But Achilles is not satisfied with killing Hektor. With his dying breath, Hektor begs for his corpse to be returned for proper rituals. But no. Achilles verbally abuses him as he dies, the other Greeks stab and mutilate the body, and Achilles fastens the corpse to his chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy, as Hektor’s father and mother and wife look down and wail in grief.
It is a pathetic scene. It would be good for us to look back at this part of the story and to be reminded of the humanity of the enemy. It would also be good to be reminded of the morality of this kind of conduct.
The gods on Olympus are conspicuously missing from Peterson’s new “Troy,” but Homer tells us that the gods often meddle in human affairs, and they are very concerned about making sure that human beings conduct themselves properly. While Achilles continues his abuse of Hektor’s corpse, Apollo stands up among the others and protests: “Achilleus has destroyed pity, and there in not in him any shame; which does much harm to men but profits them also.”
Let’s get this straight: People profit from shame?
Not immediately, from shame for something they’ve done. But they may have, or develop, a sense of shame that restrains them, and makes them unwilling to behave shamefully, to disgrace themselves, their uniform, their fellow citizens, their nation.
Today, America is facing its own shameful conduct in the shocking photos of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. It’s been called reprehensible. And un-American. President Bush has apologized on Arab television. Defense secretary Rumsfeld has apologized, and has accepted responsibility.
Yet those apologies seem more like damage control than sincere regret for shameful behavior. And according to Rumsfeld, there is worse, much worse, yet to come.
From the beginning of the war in Iraq, many Americans protested: “Not in our name.” Since then, doubts about the reasons for going to war, doubts about the evidence, doubts about the process leading up to the war—all of these have escalated. The French philosopher and activist Simone Weil called the Homer’s epic “the poem of Force.” She saw the human power to enslave others, to brutalize them, to strip them of their humanity as the true “hero” of the “Iliad.” It is a “hero” that is alive and well among us still. And while the system of military justice deals with the individual soldiers who performed specific acts, it would be well to remember that they are part of a military force acting on our behalf.
Robert Russ is an assistant professor of English at Elon University, where he will be teaching a course this fall on The Trojan War in Legend, Literature and Film. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org