The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Lessons of Poetry: Part Two - The "Good War"

War is a basic reality of human existence. Individual human beings cannot live together without generating friction that sometimes bursts out in disagreements, disputes, and fights and the same is also true of human societies. When societies clash in war destruction is generated on a much larger scale then when individuals clash and it has long been a dream of many that one day man would lay down his arms forever and war would be no more. The Christian Scriptures speak of such a day but they place it in the world-to-come, beyond the end of history and the Return of Christ. Only those with a naïve and foolish faith in the ability of human ingenuity to overcome each and every limitation placed upon us by the realities of our nature – we call such people “progressives” – envision the abolition of war as a human accomplishment to be achieved inside of history. The schemes they propose to achieve this end generally strike those of us who are not progressives as being unduly optimistic at best, pathways to evils greater than war at worst, and for better or for worse, inevitably doomed to fail.

Once we accept that war is a basic reality of our existence that we cannot, however much we may wish it to be otherwise, do away with forever we are forced to consider how we will deal with this reality. Two questions stand out as being of utmost importance. The first is what limits or boundaries, if any, we may place on war so as to lessen and minimize its destructive potential. The second is how we can best prepare our countries so as to be ready for war when it comes. This second question has two quite different facets depending upon what we have in mind when we think of preparation for war. We might think of such preparation in terms of fortifications, arsenals and military training of a strategic and technical nature. Or we might think of it in terms of the cultivation of the virtues, the habits of character, of the warrior. Since the virtues that serve a man on the battlefield serve him elsewhere as well the second would seem to be clearly the more important of these two perspectives and it is a powerful indictment of the modern mind and the education that forms and feeds it that it thinks of military preparation almost exclusively in terms of the first.

These two questions, of how we may limit war so as to lessen its destructiveness and how we may cultivate the virtues of the warrior so as to prepare our country for war are the subjects of two long-standing traditional discussions in the civilizations of the Western world and it is a further indictment of modern education that it has, to a large extent, cut the modern mind off from these discussions and the traditions which contain them. The first question is what philosophers and theologians traditionally sought to answer in their discussion of justice in war – for what causes may we justly go to war and how, once we have gone to war, we may conduct it in a just manner. The second question is the subject of an older and longer discussion that goes back at least as far as Homer in the eighth century BC, a discussion carried out in the language of poetry.

It was poetry that took the Greek word for a man of war – hero – and exalted it into a term of adoration and praise. Although poetic language is not exactly noted for its realism, poetic licence being a byword for exaggeration, hyperbole, and the dressing up of the facts, the inescapable realities of human existence – life, death, joy, suffering, love and yes, war – are its subject matter. Of the themes that recur throughout the poetry of the Great Tradition when war is the subject, it is that of the hero and his mighty deeds which stands out. It is a theme which the modern mind, formed by utilitarian education and fed by comic books, video games, fantasy novels, television, and cinematic film easily misunderstands and in such a mind the concept of the hero is inevitably reduced to that of the “good guy”.

The good guy is the person you are supposed to cheer for because he is on the side of Light opposed to Darkness. The hero is not so one-dimensional a character. He is good in a sense, for otherwise he would not be the object of praise, but his goodness does not consist of his being on the side of Light or even of his being a particularly moral person. It consists of his possessing, as evidenced through his actions, the qualities that befit a warrior. While these include such natural traits as physical strength (Achilles, Heracles) and crafty intelligence (Odysseus) it is traits of character, foremost of which is that of courage or valour, that are awarded the highest praise. Indeed, gallantry is held to be of such importance that it is worthy of glory regardless of whether it ends in victory or defeat, or even if, as is the case in Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, it is wasted due to some grotesque mistake.

This immortalisation in verse and song was justly due the warrior for risking or even laying down his life in duty and service to his country and it fell to the poet to pay this due on his country’s behalf. It also served a pedagogical purpose. To hold up examples of courage and other martial virtues for adulation is to also hold them up for emulation, particularly when the learning of these verses by heart played so important a role in the training of young minds.

In one of the earliest known discussions of educational theory, that which takes place between Socrates and his friends in Plato’s Republic, the pedagogical aspect of poetry is a major concern and it is famously proposed that lines from Homer that might teach the wrong lessons be bowdlerized. It is a repugnant proposal, of course, but the concern behind it is one the poet may very well have shared, as there are varying degrees to which heroes are worthy of adulation and emulation and even the best of them possessed less desirable or even undesirable traits and qualities in addition to the heroic virtues. With this in mind, consider how Homer presented his heroes.

The main hero of the Iliad is Achilles, king of the Myrmidons. The epic begins with the poet evoking the Muse and asking her to sing of the wrath of Achilles and is structured around that wrath as first, in anger against Agamemnon, Achilles withdraws himself and his men from the siege of Troy causing the tide of the war to swing against the Achaeans then later, in sorrowful anger over the death of Patroclus he returns to battle to slay Hector, crown prince of Troy. Yet the poem ends by honouring the latter in a funeral that is made possible by divine intervention. This intervention is necessary because Achilles in his wrath is determined to defile the body of Hector by dragging it behind his chariot and leaving it to be devoured by dogs, thus incurring the anger of the gods.

It is Hector, not Achilles, nor any of the other Greeks for that matter, who comes across as the noblest, the most worthy of emulation of Homer’s heroes. It is significant that while it takes Achilles, Greece’s bravest and strongest warrior, to slay Hector, Achilles’ own death, which takes place outside of the time-frame of the Iliad but is prophetically alluded to, is at the hands of Paris, Hector’s weak and cowardly brother.

Achilles is portrayed as the embodiment of the follies of youth. He is arrogant and impetuous, easily swayed by passions, and overly concerned with his own glory. Indeed, the latter seems to be his only real purpose for going to war for, while he hints, when he reminds Agamemnon in their dispute that he has no personal quarrel with the Trojans (1), at the mercenary motivation that had shocked and offended Plato, he and his mother make frequent reference to his having been presented with a choice by fate – he could stay at home and live a long but unsung life or he could go to Troy where he would die before its gates but win a name that would live in song forever. He chooses the latter and accordingly is remembered as the greatest of the Greek heroes, with the possible exception of Heracles, but in the discontent of the words of his shade in the eleventh book of the Odyssey, expressing a preference for the lowest station on earth over the highest in the underworld, the message comes across that there can be no satisfaction in glory sought for its own sake.

It is Hector, by contrast, who fights for worthy reasons. Hector, “tamer of horses”, fights not for his personal glory but out of a sense of duty to his father and mother, his wife and son, and to their city. He fights for family and home and is all the more noble in doing so because he is aware that it will ultimately be to no avail, that he will die, the house of Priam will fall, Ilium will be destroyed, and his wife taken away into captivity. To fight and die for these things is what the poets have honoured heroes for down through the centuries from Homer to Horace to Thomas Babbington Macauley.

This view of war and the warrior, of what is worth fighting and dying for, and of the standard by which the warrior is judged worthy of praise or shame, is worlds removed from an image that has pervaded the popular consciousness in recent decades. This image began as a way of looking at and explaining the Second World War but it has grown into a paradigm by which all new conflicts are to be parsed and which has even been superimposed upon previous wars including the First World War and the war the American states fought between themselves in the 1860s. The image is the “Good War” narrative which has supplanted both the poetic idea of the heroic warrior, winning praise and renown for his gallantry as he lays down his life for family, friends, home, and country and the traditional discussion about what constitutes justice in war.

It is in keeping with the older traditions to say that the Allies were justified in going to war with Nazi Germany. By the fall of 1939 Hitler had proven himself to be thirsting for war, a threat to his neighbours, and a pathological liar who could not be trusted to keep his word given in negotiations. He had given Britain and France more than enough of a casus belli to justify their declarations of war. For countries like my own, Canada, and Australia, it was loyalty which moved us to enter the war and stand by our king and mother country in their hour of need. What could be more in keeping with the older traditions than this?

The Good War narrative goes far beyond any of this. It declares the war itself to have been good because the character of the two sides was such that it was a microcosm of the great struggle between Good and Evil. The Allies were the Forces of Light, embodying all that is pure and good, and the Axis were the very Forces of Darkness. What need is there to find a just cause for such a war? It is its own just cause. Who dare speak of limitations on how war can be justly conducted when the enemy is the avatar of Evil?

This narrative embraces a cosmology that is considered heretical by the standards of traditional, orthodox, Christianity. Dualism, the idea that the cosmos is eternally engaged in a battle between the matched forces of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, is part of the mainstream of several Eastern philosophies and religions but within the Christian West was a doctrine of Gnosticism, historically the heretical rival of orthodox, Apostolic, Christianity. The growth of the Good War narrative is, therefore, yet another evidence, as if more was needed, that the period after the Second World War is a post-Christian as well as a post-modern age.

Both of the traditions which the Good War narrative has supplanted have been accused of being instruments in the hands of hawks and warmongers. Not infrequently those who make these accusations on the one hand embrace the Good War interpretation of World War II on the other. Yet today, whenever a politician wants to bomb or invade some country it is to the rhetoric of Winston Churchill of which he can provide a poor imitation at best rather than the arguments of Cicero, St. Augustine, or St. Thomas Aquinas that he turns to make his case. The leaders of the country he wishes to attack are inevitably new Hitlers and those who oppose his plans for war are inevitably compared to Neville Chamberlain. Not to be outdone, the radicals who pour contempt on the poetic ideal of the hero and heroism and traditional just war theory and who automatically condemn any and every military action taken by their own country – or any Western country, especially the United States – regardless of the particulars, make use of the Good War narrative as well, except that in their rhetoric it is the Western leaders who are Hitler.

However did this image of the Good War arise? It could hardly be said to have been born out of the facts of the Second World War. The most repugnant and repulsive characteristics of the Third Reich – its tyrannical dictatorship, secret police, network of prison camps, and repressive totalitarian state which held the lives of its people extremely cheap - were shared by the Soviet Union. The war began with an alliance between these two powers that included a secret deal to divide the spoils between themselves. After this alliance was broken by Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union the Stalinist regime joined the Allies and one of the most obvious results of the war was a significant expansion of that regime’s territory. At least as strong of a case can be made that Stalin and his Bolshevik regime were the greater of the two evils as can be made that Hitler and his Nazi regime were. More people died in this war than in any other and well over half of these were civilian deaths. Those who were the Forces of Light, according to the Good War theory, invented weapons whose destructive potential was exponentially greater than any the world had known before and brought the war to an end by dropping two of these weapons on heavily populated cities. Then, when the war was over, the Forces of Light put the leaders of the Forces of Darkness on trial before a court that operated in accordance with a concept of “justice” far closer to that of Stalin than that which is traditional to the English-speaking world. No, the facts of the Second World War do not support the Good War narrative at all.

It is surely no coincidence that this narrative arose in a period in which the old tradition of celebrating heroes and their deeds in verse and inspiring through such verse the cultivation of virtues such as courage, loyalty, and dutifulness to home, family, and country was all but dead. It had been alive and well in the Victorian era but seemed to sing its swan song in the first World War, which saw a plethora of soldier-poets, some of whom, writing in the old tradition, produced the poems that remain part of our annual ceremonies of remembrance to this day, while others concentrated on the horrors of the war and expressed cynicism towards the old tradition and the heroic virtues. War has always been horrible, of course, but poets from Homer to Housman had managed to lament the cruel reality of war with its waste of so many lives struck down prematurely while at the same time praising the patriotic valour of the warrior. This became more difficult as modern technology changed the nature of warfare. It is easy to see the gallantry of light cavalrymen charging with sword in hand against a battery of artillery at the end of a valley with enemy guns on all sides. Where can it be possibly found in the dropping of bombs that kill civilians by the thousands from aircraft miles above?

It is not just that poets have found it difficult to maintain the old tradition in the face of new, modern, technological, warfare. It is also that poetry itself has come to be supplanted, first by other forms of literature such as the novel, then later by media such as film and television that have supplanted the written word altogether. It is films and television, novels and comic books, which form and feed the modern mind. These are the genres that have reduced the complex hero to the simple good guy and it is in the minds fed by such junk food that the image of the Good War was born.

(1) Achilles was the only one of the Greek kings who could say this. Paris, prince of Troy, after enjoying the hospitality of Menelaus, king of Sparta, had absconded with his wife, Helen. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and Menelaus’ brother had organized the retaliatory expedition against Troy. In doing so, according to the myth, he had reminded all of the other kings that when, in their youth, they had been rivals for Helen’s hand, the contest had been resolved when they swore an oath to support and uphold whomever Helen had chosen, which was Menelaus. Achilles, being much younger than the others, had no part in either the contest or the oath.

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