Dead Achilles

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.


John Coyote has written a raw and powerful poem, Killer on the Road, about being a soldier.  The style is terse, the language rough.  The odd grammatical lapses, whether from art or habit, lend the poem a particular ragged urgency, like the sharp edge of a rusty piece of scrap metal.  This comes just in time for the latest debate, about whether or not to bomb something, anything, in Syria.

We suffer no shortage of moral pronouncements from either side, each more strident than the last; Coyote gives us something more precious, and far more useful: a portrait of a human being caught in the crosshairs.  In fact, it’s two human beings, caught in each other’s crosshairs, colliding, willy-nilly, in a reality of neither’s choosing.  For once in our most recent polemics, we see the enemy,  a suicide bomber, in his full humanity:

They killed his brothers.
They came to his country and torn it down to rubble.

He believed in a eye for a eye.
He will be in paradise soon.
Tears fall from his eyes as he think of his wife sleeping alone.

Suddenly, the suicide bomber is no longer a symbol, a cause, but an ordinary man, steeling himself to do what he believes he has to do, however delusional that may be.  Coyote makes no excuses here, pushes no particular agenda.  He simply points us to a reality we routinely choose to ignore: beneath the bomb filled jacket beats the heart of Homo Sapiens, one of us.  It doesn’t mean he’s justified in his actions.  It’s a mirror, pure and simple.  This is not a particularly new insight; battlefield correspondence from soldiers down through the ages reveals the same.  What’s new here and now is the permission to see it while we are still engaged in the conflict.  The soldier who, reacting instinctively to a threat, kills this man, ends up looking into this mirror, too long, perhaps, for his own good:

He hold pictures of a man’s wife  with two children.
He wonder why he has to kill this man?

He should of been home tossing a football with his brother or something.

He cries for the Iraqi he killed.
Old Sargent said he was a hero.

At this point, it’s too late for redemption:

He would do his duty and go home.
He don’t talk of God or Jesus anymore.
He just wishes for the blood to leave his hands.

There is no happy ending here, no satisfying resolution.  Scales drop from the eyes, but a lot that’s good in human values drops with them.

It’s a picture we need to hold onto while we’re making decisions that can kill not just bodies, but human spirits as well.  Coyote is clear about where he stands: stay home, no more killing.  Others might come to a different conclusion; there is the matter of precedent concerning chemical warfare to consider.  Either way.  Just let’s go into it with eyes wide open.