Achilles and the War on Terror


Last Saturday’s Guardian had a good piece by Charlotte Higgins on the contemporary relevance of The Iliad.  Although it is interesting, the article makes some comparisons that are overly simplistic and should instead have concentrated more on looking at the emotional and psychological effects of ancient and modern war, rather than trying to highlight any political similarities.

Homer’s account of the mythical Trojan War does hold some modern relevance and is, for good reason, required reading for students at West Point military academy.  Although, as Higgins notes, Homer’s descriptions of combat are ‘frequently implausible’ (The Iliad has few references to the inevitable mass of injured and dying on the battlefield for example) and there is little to be gleaned by way of battlefield tactics, his masterful illustration of the pathos of war and the emotional trauma that can often come with it is timeless.   

One of the main themes of the poem is the ‘Wrath of Achilles’:  it is what leads to both the near defeat of the Achaeans and to their eventual victory.  We are first introduced to this wrath when the leader of the Greek coalition, Agamemnon, decides to take Achilles’ captive Trojan woman, Briseis.  Scorned, Achilles vows never to lift a sword again in the name of Agamemnon’s war.   However, as Higgins notes, it is Achilles’ final show of wrath that is more relevant to modern war.  Referring to Jonathan Shay’s study of Vietnam War veterans, she notes similarities with Achilles’ reaction to the death of his companion, Patroclus:

When Antilochus brings Achilles the news of Patroclus’s death in book 18,

“A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles

Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth,

he poured it over his head, fouled his handsome face

and black ashes settled on to his fresh clean war-shirt,

Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust,

Achilles lay there, fallen . . .

tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands . . .”

Shay records one of his patients recalling his own fury: “I really loved fucking killing, couldn’t get enough. For every one of them I killed I felt better. Made some of the hurt went away [sic]. Every time you lost a friend it seemed like a part of you was gone. Get one of them to compensate what they had done to me. I got very hard, cold, merciless. I lost all my mercy.”

Achilles also gets hard, cold, merciless. Even by the standards of The Iliad, his killing spree is grotesque. He cannot sleep or eat; he thinks only of killing: “what I really crave / is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men”. He slakes his bloodthirst by felling men, by filling the waters of the Scamander so full of bodies and gore that the river deity himself rises up from the depths in anger. It is “all day permanent red”, to borrow the memorable title of one of ­Christopher Logue’s ­poetic reimaginings of The Iliad.

Achilles captures 12 Trojan men whom he will sacrifice on Patroclus’s pyre – again, even by the standards of The Iliad, a horrific act; today, we would call it a war crime.

After the death of Patroclus, Achilles loses what little military discipline he had, and in some instances kills opponents where before he would have spared them.  For example, Higgins notes that although Achilles spared the Trojan prince Lycaon when he took him captive after their first meeting, he does not hesitate in dispatching him after Patroclus is killed, despite his pleas for mercy.  In modern war, this loss of discipline by soldiers acting out of revenge has been well documented and the University of Lancaster’s Professor Peter Rowe noted in the Journal of Conflict and Security Law last year that that the desire to avenge the death of a comrade ‘can have the same effect as if soldiers had become intoxicated with alcohol or drugs.’   This is certainly the effect that the death of Patroclus had on Achilles.

Unlike many elements of the human psyche, politics has changed quite a bit since Homer’s time, and this is where Higgins’ analysis falls short.  Quoting from Achilles’ verbal attack on Agamemnon after the king took Briseis, she makes a rather weak comparison with the present conflict in Iraq:

During his outburst to Agamemnon in book one, Achilles says:

The Trojans never did me damage, not in the least,

they never stole my cattle or my horses, never

in Phthia where the rich soil breeds strong men

did they lay water my crops. How could they?

Look at the endless miles that lie between us . . .

shadowy mountain ranges, seas that surge and thunder.

No, you, colossal, shameless – we all followed you,

to please you, to fight for you, to win your honour

back from the Trojans.

“This war is stupid and pointless. It’s not our country and it’s not our fight,” is a view typical of those recorded by Guardian photographer and film-­maker Sean Smith when he was embedded among US troops in Iraq.

Comparing Agamemnon’s siege of Troy to the coalition invasion of Iraq is, for obvious reasons, shockingly facile.  This space could have been better utilised if, for example, Higgins looked instead at the role of fate in The Iliad, and how Homer tried to deal with the terrifying randomness of death: a subject that is relevant to any war, both ancient and modern.

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