Virtues of War – Theater

We have completed our discussion of the classical virtues, spanning from early Greece of Homer and classical Greece of Aristotle to the Roman Republic and Empire and on into the Medieval times of Thomas Aquinas and the emergence of a Chivalric ideal. We’ve even taken a quick look at a candidate for martial virtue, with Gen. Martin Dempsey, in our discussion of Patriotism.

In each era, I’ve highlighted both an abstract, propositional kind of knowledge as well as a creative, literary mode of thinking: Homer’s epic poems paralleled Aristotle’s practical moral philosophy; Cicero’s rhetorical genius was paralleled with Virgil’s imperial creation song; Aquinas’ exhaustive summary of theology was paralleled with Dante’s comedic theological poetry. This has been deliberate and reflects the importance of perspective and agenda. I have suggested that some authors, like Virgil, should be treated with suspicion by modern liberal readers with any animus against imperialism, for the Aeneid seems like it might be reinforcing the status quo rather than challenging it. Stories, like histories, are never value neutral, so we have to be selective about whose interpretation upon which we will rely. But who do we trust?

Interpretation is not an exact science, and yet if we follow the claims of MacIntyre and Lindemann about stories and narrative, then interpretation underwrites literally everything; our entire existence is dependent upon properly interpreting our world, the communities we belong to, even our own self-identity. Hell, who knows if we can trust ourselves?!

This makes it hard to talk about what is “real” because reality is, for modern Emotivist cultures like ours, self-determined – you decide what is real, or at least what you’re willing to call “reality” (just like certain political figures decide what “facts” are or are not). Don’t like a part of your story? Insist it isn’t true! Then just keep denying it until it sounds true. If honor is a zero-sum game, then take what you can and run. If your national identity relies upon false claims about simple, agrarian origins, rewrite history and propagate it to the masses and execute those who disagree. Even poetic license can be abused if our biases are buried deeply enough and we have the power propagate the narrative we create.

This is the danger of the dramatic arts, which we will discuss this week and the next. At its best, according to Meagher, the theatron, the seeing place, “more than any civic temple, was the house of truth.” (4) But words are dangerous, they can warp truth into myriad other things, like entertainment, commerce, or propaganda. This distortion is more likely when story telling is trusted primarily to those without practical knowledge of a given subject like war or military service. Speculative knowledge is restricted to the abstract if it is not partnered with practical experience. We’ll talk about this next homily, when we get into Aristotle’s account of the intellectual virtues, especially the distinction between episteme and techne. Today, however, we will be discussing how Meagher helps bridge the millennia between Greek theater and modern cinema.

I met Bob Meagher in March 2010, when I testified at the Truth Commission on Conscience and War, in which he served as a commissioner. His work is rather far reaching, and he is a respected as a translator of Greek dramas, including Herakles Furens, which I have assigned as today’s reading. Of particular importance for our class are his interpretive essays, linking Herakles, whom we may know as Hercules, with modern military veterans and combat stress. Before we get there, let’s explore the story of the play itself.

euripides-001Euripides is known as the last of three major Greek dramatists, following Aeschylus and Sophocles (in that order). His surviving plays outnumber those of both his predecessors combined, a testament to the persistence of his popularity. Compared to them, he is also seen as a progressive trailblazer, a man before his time, who supposedly exiled himself toward the end of his life and who had very few friends in his home city-state of Athens. What made him stand out was the internal depth of character he gave his subjects, the attention he gave to motive and intention. Aristotle called Euripides “the most tragic of poets” and who modern scholar Bernard Knox said “pushes to the limits what an audience can stand; some of his scenes are almost unbearable.”[1]

As an able-bodied man, he also deployed to combat whenever it was required, including the early battles of the Peloponnesian War. Meagher notes that Herakles Furens is reliably dated to just about the time at which we would have retired from the military at age 60, in the late 420’s BCE. Knox suggests the play falls within a period of Euripidean “disillusionment at the senselessness of war” at the height of what he would have seen as a total war between world powers.[2] If dated properly, it was written during the failed Peace of Nicias, before fighting between Athens and Sparta resumed in 415, the year after the Herakles was first performed. The war that Meagher describes as “the most bitter and brutal the Greek states had ever experienced” (xi) would end with Athens utter defeat in 404, two years after Euripides’ death in exile.

polsci-497-8-theater-001But what of his subject? Herakles was a fabled warrior whose life is described in innumerable narrative fragments and is a popular persona to dissect, even to this day. A more helpful question may be “what made Euripides’ character any different than the rest?” Euripides loved to philosophize in his plays, and his intellect was frequently compared to the Greek philosophers. His “characters and plots were eikones (icons), challenging and inspiring their viewers to eikasia (imagination), the act of seeing one thing in another, the same act by which the mind ascends toward ‘the Good’ or ‘Being itself’ in Plato’s Republic.” (Meagher, 4) The theme of ascent is common in literature by veterans, and indeed, the Herakles opens with its hero in Hades, or hell. If Civil War General Sherman is right, that war is hell, then the setting may intend to evoke the closing moments of Euripides service in the first battle of his world war. Meagher certainly wants us to think so, citing James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War (2004, 32-33) who insists ““The return from the killing fields is more than a debriefing; it is a slow ascent from hell.” Letting a bit of his battlefield experience bleed into his creative endeavors is understandable, and author identifying with their main character isn’t without precedent.

If this is true, then Herakles is also Euripides working out his own slow ascent from the hell of war. As a performance observed by other veterans, their families, and young recruits, the Herakles is also a public ritual of purification. Meagher notes the importance of the ritual, for “the process of healing from trauma lies fundamentally in communalizing it.” (x) Most of the community in attendance would have been returning from the war with their neighbors, fellow city-state Sparta. The Greeks would not have seen the men returning from battle as autonomous individuals reducible to the category “damaged”; they would have seen it in collective terms, for the individual is merely an extension of the community. If soldiers incurred moral pollution, that meant they all had.

This assumption, that the individual represents something of the whole and the whole is somehow responsible, survived through the Greek World War. Tragedy as a genre was fundamentally about a community, not an individual. In his Poetics, Aristotle names the function of tragedy as “the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such.” (Poetics VI.9-11, trans. Meagher) Catharsis purges moral pollution by re-presenting it communally, before the entire polis by which soldiers are sent, for “it was by phulai [tribe] that Athenian citizens voted for or against war in ekklesia (assembly).” (24) Tragedy, in particular, is “collective therapy” something which “brings both individual and shared healing to a traumatized, polluted community.” (20)

Herakles works especially well in our own context, where soldiers can be either venerated as heroes of vilified as psychologically damaged or morally compromised. In Vietnam, Americans had unprecedented access to images and sounds of a war they did not support. When veterans returned they were received with hostility, as though they were to blame both for the atrocities and for their defeat. Guilt by association was and often remains, the name of the game in perceptions of our military, and Vietnam veterans were made to be less than human. Fast forward a generation, and the guilt for that treatment has been reversed, with “Thank You for Your Service” being parroted ad nauseum, as though by public obsessive compulsion, until the words lose all meaning and then some. To be blindly venerated makes my generation of veterans something more than human. Herakles knew this feeling well; as the son of Zeus to a mortal mother, he was not quite divine and not quite human. To humans he appeared more than, but to the gods, he never quite measured up, just as soldiers get pushed up on pedestals by some and blamed into oblivion by others.

But there is one other way that Herakles symbolizes soldiers, and it hits close to home for me, and not just because he seems to represent enlisted soldiers in particular. Herakles is commanded over and over, but never commands; in Euripides’ play, Alkestis, Herakles says “fighting is my job, my burden… My orders? To do battle.” (43, cf. 39 – “he pursues another’s agenda. He does as he must, as he is told.”). The play’s climax describes Herakles’ return from hell only to murder his wife and children in a fit of madness. In the summer of 2002, I was a young paratrooper at Fort Bragg, just an hour and a half south. Over the span of six weeks, four wives were killed by their Special Forces husbands, each of them enlisted personnel; Sgt. 1st Class Rigoberto Nieves, Master Sgt. William Wright, Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Floyd, and Army Sgt. Cedric Ramon Griffin. Special Forces are an elite unit, known for specialized training and revered throughout the US armed forces. Their prestige mirrors a bit of how the Greeks likely perceived Herakles, but not the way Euripides depicts him, home from hell but still on the warpath. His ‘madness’ is all to familiar to military communities…

When Herakles comes to his senses, he is tied to a pillar, like Odysseus before the sirens and Samson before the Philistines. His adopted mortal father, Theban General Amphitryon, and the battle buddy he saved from hell, Theseus, talk him down from suicide. He denies the gods, describing them as the invention of poets, and determines that suicide would be cowardly. The play ends with him leaning upon Theseus, forbidden to attend his family’s funeral, leaving for… another adventure? Euripides doesn’t tell us, and the curtain closes as they limp off together, arm in arm. Herakles’ parting words to the only father he’s known testify to the ravaging of war upon one’s psyche, or soul;

I leave my home a shambles, drenched in shame – all my doing.

Sail down and full of holes, like a wrecked boat in tow,

I remain afloat in Theseus’ wake

Watching from the seats of the theatron, the house of truth, few observers would leave with their preconceived impressions of Herakles intact. If they were veterans like Euripides, coming home from hell as Herakles had may have also struck close to home. Pollution has a way of spreading, but drama re-presented moral trauma and provided a means of interpretation to which a community could adhere. Through characters like Herakles, the polis could commit (or recommit) to certain values and shared meaning. Doing so as a public was for the good of the individual as well as for the community.

Meagher contrasts “communalizing” with “publicizing.” The former forces all in attendance to “feel each other’s presence and see each other’s pain.” (x) The latter is not described in detail, but I imagine it has everything to do with individuated anonymity of the Emotivist age, in which we can change the channel and remain blissfully ignorant of our collective responsibility in the political actions of our union. Soldiers in a representative democracy, or even a senatorial empire, do not go to war alone. Perhaps the deepest tragedy modern American veterans face is that our polis does not even know it is polluted, ‘experts’ assume moral responsibility or guilt is an individual problem requiring an individuated solution. This is MacIntyrean emotivism on full display.

In a world where there are more intersex people than there are people serving in the armed forces,[3] the availability of credible voices presents the first problem, and leads to perhaps another larger problem – a minority of a minority becomes referent objects in a conversation that avoids any and all critical attention to the embodied reality of military service. Civilians talk amongst themselves, creating a false reality that is almost entirely self-referential; panels “about war” without veterans proceed without question, conferences are planned about how to “Provide Support to Veterans” without any veterans involved, academic centers are created and funded without employing any veterans, and self styled “elite” research universities have almost completely privated themselves of undergraduate student veterans.

But I’m just a disgruntled veteran right? I just want the attention for myself, and I’m taking the path of least resistance in a world of identity politics. As a veteran, I have a dog in the fight, maybe I want easy money by claiming a financial stake in the success of others. I’m sure Jeffrey Sarver heard objections not unlike all these. If we are to be at all rational and objective, though, we need to ask if objections like that are valid, and what interests are served by the status quo, of nonveterans telling other nonveterans (and even veterans) what it means to be a veteran or what needs and desires veterans have. Should we trust nonveterans to oversee the narrative identity of  military communities, and if not, then what to do with the proliferation of nonveteran narrated war films, novels, etc.?

We’ll ask the 2nd question later, when we compare and contrast autobiographies against feature film adaptations. For the first question, I do want to leave some bread crumbs that Meagher gives us before we return to Aristotle next time.

Meagher uses a very helpful metaphor for trying to name and critique what may be going on in terms of the matrix of tensions between narration, embodiment, truth, and reality. Early in his essay, he talks about myth, which he reminds us is meant strictly as the plot of a Greek play. Let’s call it the analogy of the butterfly. He accuses other classicists as being abstracted from their research subject, that they lose sight of the appeal of drama when plays become referent objects, mere artefacts to be studied. This orientation to drama robs it of its social power, what it can and should and did do, which was to move audiences toward Eudaimonia, strengthening the social bonds of an integral community. Wars, and other morally polluting events, require collective catharsis, they require narrative purging that benefits both the polis as a whole as well as the individual person. But “a butterfly,” or a play, or a soldier’s experience, “pinned to a board is no longer a butterfly.” (5) Pinning is itself almost impossible for the subject in question, but almost always by a foreign entity, a nonmember of the social group, for to be pinned is to be made a referent object, a morally neutral and impotent artefact to be studied, not loved, appreciated, or cared for. Pinning occurs when a polis has fundamentally lost touch with members of its union, when a part of it becomes an object rather than an organism, and it is almost never a conscious act. I’d wager it is even an act of charity, however ill-fated and destructive, for to affix the butterfly to a board is to plunge a needle through its heart.

Who pins the butterfly to a board? Those with a desire to gaze upon, not gaze with, those who see a problem to solve, rather than a person to embrace. These well-intentioned members of our own polis are the guardians of a gap between soldier and civilian, who have lost access to the house of truth, the seeing place, not because their membership has been revoked but because they have been led astray by false myths and corrupt plots. Anyone who, for the last 28 centuries or more who heard the name Achilles or Ulysses and has spoiled for the thrill of battle has been misled, for “The Iliad and the Odyssey represent two of the most fierce and eloquent critiques of war and the warrior code in all of world literature.” (7)  Those who have spun appeal from atrocity “learned of war from books. [Their] dreams of combat, if [they have] them are second hand, far from the nightmares of veterans.” (10)

The deepest tragic irony is that these same enthusiasts have effectively marginalized soldiers and made them liminal even to their own narrative world. The master narratives of war push actual soldiers and their embodied experiences to “the edge of the human circle.” (44) Liminal is a buzzword these days, at play throughout the battle over identity politics I mentioned earlier. Meagher used it to describe soldiers a decade ago when this book was published. Liminal derives from the Latin limen, or “threshold.” Meagher retells what every soldier since Homer has known, that war can make you a beast or a hero, both of which exist exclusively at “the boundaries of the human.” (17) What Euripides’ depiction of the half-blood Herakles “makes clear… is that what bestiality and divinity share is… inhumanity. Transcendence, at the end of the day, is only a euphemism for transgression.” (17)

In the event I haven’t convinced you, perhaps you’ll trust Homer, writing at least 2800 years ago. In Book VIII of his Odyssey, a bard, like Homer, is singing the tale of the Trojan War to a rapt audience, listening intently to every morbid detail. As the song reaches the climax, telling of Odysseus’ prowess in battle and his crowning achievement, “While the audience thrills to the tale, we are told that Odysseus for his part hides his tears.” (22)

That was the song the famous harper sang 

but Odysseus, clutching his flaring sea-blue cape

in both powerful hands, drew it over his head

and buried his handsome face,

ashamed his hosts might see him shedding tears.

as soon as the bard would start again, impelled to sing

By Phauacia’s lords, who reveled in his tale,

again Odysseus hid his face and wept[4]

“Hero” is not a self-determined title here, nor is it ever. When it is truly earned, only a polis can acclaim someone a hero. But in this case, it is particularly dissonant with the main character’s self-perception. He buries his handsome face, ashamed. Those enchanted by the songs of Ilium, or Odysseus, or Aeneas have succumbed to a soothing siren song, calling men and, now, women to their moral and mortal end. The bright lights of popular myth shine upon masks, and only masks. Real soldiers, as Homer knew, often hide from luminosity; Medal of Honor recipients and war criminals alike have hidden behind the excuse “I was just doing my job.” The lumen, or light, doesn’t shine on the limen, the margins. If and when it does, the truth of war’s experience is rarely enchanting, and the light doesn’t stay for long.


[1] Bernard Knox, “Euripides,” in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Cambridge University Press (1985)

[2] Knox, 316

[3] Health Research Funding estimates about 1.7% of Americans are “affected in some way by ambiguous genitalia”; http://healthresearchfunding.org/15-notable-ambiguous-genitalia-statistics. Personnel in the United States armed forces constitute .5% of the population; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/27/opinion/americans-and-their-military-drifting-apart.html

[4] Meagher cites another section of the Odyssey, in which the hero also weeps. That this fact is repeated seems to suggest the author’s desire for the audience to ‘get it.’

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