Like Achilles, we are good at the war cry. Our righteous anger smolders and bursts into flame with each new affront from the enemy. Our Trojans, the Islamic State, have gone even further than the originals, to the point of abdicating any claim to humanity. They are animals, we say, meaning the ultimate insult, meaning they are ours to kill or torture at will. Meaning we share this one thing with them.
I make no apologies for ISIS; they live in a delusional medieval world and have raised the worst aspects of earlier times to holy rite. Until recent times, warfare was total. If an enemy dared to defy your superiority, they deserved not only to die, but to have their kind obliterated. Thus the killing of all occupants of a delinquent city, and the razing of its houses, even, in the case of Rome at Carthage, the salting of its fields to prevent the growing of crops. Something similar has continued all through history: the destruction of Calais, the burning of Atlanta, the firebombing of Dresden. Nowadays we have rules of engagement, and we try to limit atrocity, although perhaps we have succeeded most in separating ourselves from direct participation.
Because, unlike Achilles, we prefer to pay someone else to salvage our honor. Then we heap accolades on them, thank them profusely and endlessly for their service. Meaning how nice it is of them to spare us the discomfort of direct vengeance. When the rules of warfare are overstepped, the accolades turn to scorn with the ease of changing hats. We have no understanding of any depth of what is going on, of who it is we alternately love and hate, depending on circumstances.
All the same, we continue to raise high the standard of heroism, of gallantry in warfare, of the sheer nobility of it all.
Which brings me back to Achilles. It has always mystified me why Achilles is a hero. Here is someone who, by all accounts, is the most perfect warrior on the Greek side, a son of Thetis and Peleus with unmatched courage. Yet he sits and pouts, refusing to fight, his pride wounded because Agamemnon, who was after all the leader of the expedition, has taken a slave girl from him, a girl who Achilles abducted while savagely pillaging a city on the way to Troy. So much for valor. So much for chivalry.
He only rejoins the battle after his friend and protégé, Patroclus, is killed while wearing his armor in an attempt to inspire the Greeks. You might think this was because Achilles was overcome by grief and guilt, since it was his petulance that led Patroclus to take his fateful action, but it wasn’t. It was simply because his friend had been killed, and, since it was Hector, son of the Trojan king Priam, who had done it, it was Hector who would bear his wrath, never mind that the killing occurred in the blur of battle. Self-preservation, let alone the defense of one’s own city under siege, was apparently no excuse. As petty as it sounds, this epitomizes a timeless truth about battle: soldiers fight only for each other, no matter how noble the original cause. For those who voluntarily return to the battle again and again, it’s often for the sheer love of it, no matter how draped in the banner of patriotism, or at least moral necessity.
But there is another timeless truth epitomized by Achilles, this time after he is dead. When Odysseus sees him in the underworld, he seems despondent. Odysseus tries to rally him.
But, you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you –
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.
But to no avail. Achilles’ answer is clear and succinct.
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.
And there lies all the glory of war.