In search of the pro-war novel:
    We have a winner!

For Whom the Bell Tolls, of course.

My reader’s innocent question about whether there was a pro-war novel of obviously high literary quality written since 1700 produced lots of interesting (to me, at least) definitional discussion and a wealth of interpretative material, but no unambiguous counterexample (i.e., a well known document that a literature professor wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen reading, not fantasy or SF, not “historical” as in the Aubrey/Maturin series, not pure genre fiction of the Tom Clancy variety).

Until now, that is. Two readers finally had the blinding flash of the obvious we had all been missing: For Whom the Bell Tolls. (One of them also mentioned Islands in the Stream.) You don’t have to like Hemingway’s prose, but it’s hard to deny For Whom the Bell Tolls canonical status. And it’s undeniably as “pro-war” in tone as Homer is: not a polemic in favor of warfare in the abstract, but a presentation of the acts of war as worthy of critical appreciation.

In search of a pro-war novel

In search of novelist as pro-war as Homer.

Apropos the Odysseus question, a reader reports that his son’s 8th grade English teacher approved Catch 22 as the topic of a required book report on a “classic.” That leads him to ask a question:

Are there any modern (say post 1700) novels of high literary merit that can reasonably be characterized as pro-war? Or, at least as pro-war as the Iliad?

That depends, of course, on what constitutes “high literary merit.” If it means something that an MLA member wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen reading, the answer might well be “No.” But if it just means something that serious people think about seriously, then Starship Troopers certainly qualifies.

But on the question as posed, assuming that “high literary merit” gets defined by professors of literature, I don’t know the answer. I can’t think of such a novel, but that doesn’t prove much.

So I’m hereby using a lifeline: What’s the best “high art” pro-war novel?

The translation problem

Yes, English has a word to translate the Greek poine (“money for blood spilt”): it’s “weregeld.”

Lowry Heussler, in her defense of Ajax, commented that the Greek word poine was hard to translate. She now reports that Liddel and Scott translate it as “money for blood spilt,” which seems right.

Another reader points out that English (or at least Middle English) has a perfectly good word to translate poine: “weregeld.”

To which Lowry replies, “Nonsense! Weregeld is what you pay to neuter your werewolf. Everybody knows that.”

Deception and deceit

Deception in war is sometimes admirable. Deceit, never.

Lee Scoresby of the Republic of Heaven thinks I’m being unfair to Odysseus:

Odysseus’ Trojan Horse maneuver … shouldn’t be grounds for rejecting Odysseus … unless we’re going to condemn the architects of D-Day for tricking the Germans into believing the landing was going to take place at Calais.

This, I must say with all possible respoect for Scoresby, whose blog title I greatly admire, is WRONG. Deception is sometimes admirable; deceit, never.

The difference is that deception occurs in a situation where the party deceived has no right to expect forthrightness from the party performing the deception, while deceit is a betrayal of trust. One of our contemporary problems is that the practitioners of deceit often try to pass it off as admirable deception.

As to the Normandy/Calais trick, with the marvellous story of the “Man Who Never Was”: We were at war with Germany, and tricked the Germans. Good for us! As Hobbes writes, “In war, force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues.”

But a fake surrender is a different matter entirely. The Achaeans pretended to make peace with the Trojans, and then slaughtered them. Then and now, that was deeply dishonorable behavior, and deeply socially destructive as well because as a practice it makes ending wars harder.

The Trojan Horse involved impiety as well as treachery: the horse was presented as an offering to Poseidon. That doesn’t bother most of us much, since we figure that if Poseidon doesn’t exist he probably doesn’t care, either. (There’s a marvellously funny scene in the movie of The Man Who Would Be King — I don’t know whether it’s in Kipling — where the two adventurers discuss whether it’s blasphemous for Daniel to pretend to be a god, and agree that it isn’t because he’s not pretending to be the real, Christian God.) But in terms of Odysseus’s own world, impiety was serious business.

Yes, the Odysseus of the Odyssey is a much better person, apparently having learned from his sufferings. But you can’t claim the sufferings weren’t merited. By the standards of his own time as well as ours, the Odysseus of the Trojan War was a pretty considerable scoundrel.

He does not lack for spititual decendents, some of them in positions of power.

In defense of Ajax

A correction from an expert.

A reader learned in the ancient tongues reproaches me for listing Ajax in the same breath with Achilles, Odysseus, Diomedes, and the other conduct-disorder victims who led the Achaean Viking-raid on Troy. I stand corrected.

In Book VII, Ajax participates in the lottery to see who will fight Hector in the symbolic one-on-one, and he is glad to be the designated fighter– he accepts his lot.

He fights nobly, and, significantly, when darkness is falling and it appears that the two warriors may be an equal match, he is the one who accepts Hector’s offer of a truce, and the two exchange gifts.

In Book IX, it is Ajax who reminds Achilles, bluntly and without flattery, that the warrior is charged not to think too much. His message is essentially “it’s not about you.” He says, you have to play by the rules. Even if your brother is killed and you want revenge, if the killer’s family pays the appropriate amends/fine (hard word to translate) you have to accept it instead of killing in revenge. It’s not about YOU. Think about that.

The battle described in Book XI shows Ajax doing his job, and there is something important in his battle position. I usually went to sleep mentally when the battle symbolism was discussed in class, but I recall that Homer often drew the battle scenes so that the staging was significant. As I recall, there was something in Ajax’s holding down his end of things. But I can’t remember exactly. This book also has a really interesting moment– Zeus, that bastard, puts fear in Ajax’s heart. He allows Ajax to be all alone, overwhelmed with Trojans. But Ajax continues to fight and finally his companions come to rescue him.

I always liked this part because Ajax is shown to be a man. If the male idea of teamwork has any meaning, this is where it is illustrated. Ajax cannot succeed without his comrades, which is exactly what he told Achilles. This also happens in Book XIII when Ajax becomes so fatigued he cannot hold his own shield. Others hold it for him while he fights hand-to-hand. Ajax is a man among men.

And that is really it for Ajax’s role in the Iliad. That he does not die in the war matters, I think. Unlike death penalty proponents, Homer understood that there is glory in death by violence. Ajax is not a battle martyr. To me, Ajax always stood for something important; without the Ajaxes of this world there can be no Odysseuses.

It’s the Hufflepuff thing, you know. You’ve got those Gryffindors with all their courage, and the Ravenclaws brilliantly writing and painting and being literate and intelligent, but it’s the Hufflepuffs who carry the water and use their brains and their courage in displays of loyalty that make all things possible. Never forget the Ajaxes of this world.

Where would we be if the entire population were thinking great thoughts and making daring raids? Someone has to hold down the fort.

I trained a horse when I was a teenager. He was an enormous white animal mottled with gray, not a beauty by any means. He looked like a plowhorse. When I first tried him over fences, he ran straight through them. Smash. Splinters everywhere. That was when I named him Ajax.

I finally showed him what I wanted by having him step over rails on the ground, and raising them inch by inch until he got the idea that it was less painful to jump over fences. Once he figured out what you wanted, he just did it. It was impossible to make him mad. He had this attitude that life was going to happen anyway, so why make a big deal out of it? When I was done training him, the stable sold him to a banker who rode him in foxhunts for years. The man used to say Ajax was a horse with an automatic transmission. Waiting for the hunt to begin, with hounds howling and all the other horses going nuts, Ajax would stand calmly at the side of the field waiting for everyone to get his act together and then when the field began to move, he broke into a slow, steady canter, never even subjecting his rider to a bouncy trot.

He eased into a spot and then did his job. Over fences, through mud, whoops, don’t step on that hound, move aside when some thoroughbred comes raging through. When it’s all over, we get a rubdown and dinner. Fine. Life is good.

Odysseus and Wile E. Coyote

Compared to Homer and Vergil, the Saturday morning cartoons are healthy-minded.

In colloquy with Brad DeLong, I expressed doubt that Odysseus was a fit hero for moderal liberals. My friend Philip offers a different viewpoint on Odysseus and his fellow marauders considered as literary characters to be presented to the young.

Wile E. Coyote

Wile E. Coyote –


western Daedalus or Icarus,

Prometheus or Tantalus unchained,

tortured less by the bird

than his own desire –

has been edited

from his cartoon hell

of dry river beds,

boulders, and anvils,

treacherous hand-grenades

and fickle physical laws,

into a worse purgatory,

(not spared the mid-air


that he has run too far,

the shock that the Sisyphean stone

is rolling back to him)

where he must fall,

pursued by half a cliff,

but never crash,

be crushed and crawl away,

impossibly alive and hungry

to try again,

by some who’d rather children read

of the slaughter of the Trojan War,

of Pyrrhus’s words to Priam,

of Odysseus’s hall spattered

with blood and the twitching

feet of his sluttish servants

hanged like doves in the garden.

The wily Yglesias defends the wily Odysseus

Poisoning arrows probably deserved to be a war crime under the conditions of Bronze Age warfare. But whether it deserved to be or not, it was, by the conventions of the age. Breaking such conventions is socially noxious, even if they’re mere conventions.

Matt Yglesias asks, reasonably, why poisoned arrows (or bullets) are inherently worse than non-poisoned ones. (He’s replying to my post of yesterday commenting on Brad DeLong’s assessment of the contemporary relevance of some of the Homeric heroes.)

I think there’s actually a technical answer to Matt’s question. An arrow wound, poisoned or not, would usually have put the victim hors de combat; the additional risk of death or permanent disability created by the poison served no real military purpose other than terrifying the enemy. Thus the total severity-weighted casualty count would have been lower in a no-poison-arrows battle than in a battle where both sides used poison.

If that’s right, “nobody using poison” might have been Pareto-superior to “everybody using poison,” but there was a Prisoner’s Dilemma insofar as either side could get an advantage by using poison when its enemies didn’t. That’s the sort of situation where a strong convention might arise and be (imperfectly) observed and enforced.

But put that analysis to one side; assume that “not using poison” was a purely arbitrary convention with no substantive value. Even then, if “no poison” was the convention, then using poison was tantamount to what we now call “war crime.”

There is, it seems to me, an undeniable value in having war regarded as an activity defined in part by its limits; until that idea is in place, the task of defining the right limits is pointless. Homer’s Odysseus was doing what in him lay to make war even nastier than it had to be. So while I feel, as Brad DeLong does, that Odysseus is a much more comprehensible and sympathetic character than Achilles, Diomedes, Great Ajax, the rest of the homicidal maniacs who besieged Troy, and that Odysseus’s wiliness is more like your thinking and mine than, say, Hector’s somewhat ponderous nobility, I can’t take him, even provisionally, as a hero.

Against Odysseus

Wiliness needs to be confined within limits.

Brad DeLong reflects thoughtfully on the differences between classical Greeks and modern liberals in their views about war. Given the choice among the honorable but unstrategic Hector, the skilled but slaughter-mad Achilles, and the wily Odysseus, Brad opts for Odysseus, though with reservations.

I see his point: Odysseus is committed to what Sheldon Wolin (writing about Machiavelli) called “the economy of violence”: i.e., shedding as little blood as possible given the situation. That’s an improvement compared to Achilles, or Agamemnon for that matter.

Still, as a hero for liberals Odysseus just won’t do.

The Odysseus who fights before Troy isn’t nearly as nice as the charming hero of the Odyssey, courageous in the face of long suffering and devoted to the wife and child he hasn’t seen for twenty years. Odysseus in the Odyssey is resourceful, but he keeps his resourcefulness within decent limits: he’d rather starve than eat the cattle of Helios (Odyssey, V). He seems to have learned, somewhere in the course of his wanderings, that there are some things you just can’t get away with.

The Trojan War Odysseus knows no such limits. Having unsuccessfully feigned madness to duck out of his commitment to fight, he:

— uses poisoned arrows (or so Athena tells Telemachus in Odyssey I, 350);

— promises to spare the captive Dolon in return for information, stands by while his confederate Diomedes kills the prisoner, and then piously dedicates some of what he and Diomedes loot from the corpse as an offering to Athena (Iliad X, 330-405);

— and, of course, comes up with the idea of the Trojan Horse, combining treachery (a false peace agreement) and blasphemy (the horse is sacred to Poseidon, and the wooden horse was presented as an sacrificial offering).

So the wily Odysseus is both a coward and a war criminal.

Yes, different cultures have different standards, and the Homeric ethos admired successful deceit more than we moderns do. But Odysseus isn’t just a scoundrel by our standards; he’s a scoundrel by those of his own time. As Athena says to Telemachus, the first person Odysseus went to for the arrow poison wouldn’t give it to him, “because he feared the gods.” (On one interpretation, Odysseuss’s sufferings in the Odyssey represent the expiation of his earlier wrongdoing and can be seen as the cause of his moral regeneration.)

So liberals can’t justly lay claim to Odysseus: he is the lawful property of the terrorists and the scoundrels who write memos justifying torture.

Philip Hart: The Swan and Leda

In connection with the controversy over heroism mentioned below, my friend Philip Hart sends a marvellous sonnet he wrote, and which I publish with his permission.

The Swan and Leda

The god swoops down upon her from behind.

It was that or waddle to the attack.

The bright wings batter her down on her back.

He does what she’s not done with her own kind:

Swans have, unlike most birds, external genitals.

He spreads, with webbed reptilian feet, her thighs,

Upon her senseless lips his senseless beak,

His neck snaked round her neck. His eyes

Are elsewhere – they foresee perhaps the roles

The girls who soon will hatch will play:

Adultery justifying murder and war crimes

By barbarians considered heroes to this day –

Having more imagination than those of our times,

And an above-average publicist in their pay.

Che Guevara as Achilles

W.H. Auden on Che.

Paul Berman used the occasion of the release of a movie about the young Che Guevara to unload both on the cute, privileged Stalinist violence-worshipper personally and on those who admire him for getting himself, and a bunch of other people, killed without making any actual improvement in the lives of the poor Latin Americans he professed to serve.

Matt Yglesias pointed out that a political tract isn’t the same thing as a movie review.

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber agreed with Matt, and said further that the right way to portray Guevara was as a hero in the classical sense: Achilles was flawed, and Achilles was cruel, and Achilles failed, but we still respond to him.

Brad DeLong denied that Achilles was a hero. As far as I’m concerned, we “respond” to Achilles–we may even pity him–but we do not admire him. None of us would wish to have the character of Achilles.

Henry Farrell responded that a classical “hero” wasn’t like the hero of a Western: didn’t wear the white hat, wasn’t the “good guy,” but rather embodied a certain kind of human excellence, admirable on its own terms even if destructive. He doesn’t note, though he might, that Homer himself twice compares Achilles, streaking across the field of battle in his shining armor, to Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest of stars but a bringer of death to mortals.

See, for example, Book XXII, 31-37:

On this, with fell intent

    he made towards the city,

and as the winning horse

    in a chariot race

strains every nerve

    when he is flying over the plain,

even so fast and furiously

    did the limbs of Achilles

bear him onwards.

    King Priam was first to note him

as he scoured the plain,

    all radiant as the star

which men call Orion’s Hound,

    and whose beams blaze forth

in time of harvest

    more brilliantly than those

of any other that shines by night;

    brightest of them all though he be,

he yet bodes ill for mortals,

    for he brings fire and fever

in his train.

    Even so did Achilles’ armour

gleam on his breast

    as he sped onwards.

Brad replies that admiring that sort of stuff has really bad social outcomes; it’s a mark of, and a prerequisite for, progress that our heroes (in the “good guy”) sense, have names like Guillaume d’Orange, Coke, Hampden, Godolphin, Walpole, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Lincoln, de Tocqueville, Juares, Clemenceau, Roosevelt–not Lenin and Guevara.

The Armed Liberal agrees: imagining that heroic revolutionary virtue substitutes for real political action he sees as the root of much evil.

Brad continues what he calls the virtual seminar, replying to another piece by Matt.

It seems to me that the point of diminishing marginal returns is somewhere behind us now.

But I would like to give Auden the final word. (Update: or at least the penultimate one: Philip Hart weighs in with an exquisite sonnet.)

Auden’s service with the International Brigades in Spain gave him a glimpse of what Machiavelli calls “the effectual truth” of revolutionary hero-worship:

The Shield of Achilles

She looked over his shoulder

For vines and olive trees,

Marble well-governed cities

And ships upon untamed seas,

But there on the shining metal

His hands had put instead

An artificial wilderness

And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,

No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,

Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,

Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood

An unintelligible multitude,

A million eyes, a million boots in line,

Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face

Proved by statistics that some cause was just

In tones as dry and level as the place:

No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;

Column by column in a cloud of dust

They marched away enduring a belief

Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder

For ritual pieties,

White flower-garlanded heifers,

Libation and sacrifice,

But there on the shining metal

Where the altar should have been,

She saw by his flickering forge-light

Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot

Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)

And sentries sweated for the day was hot:

A crowd of ordinary decent folk

Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke

As three pale figures were led forth and bound

To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all

That carries weight and always weighs the same

Lay in the hands of others; they were small

And could not hope for help and no help came:

What their foes like to do was done, their shame

Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride

And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder

For athletes at their games,

Men and women in a dance

Moving their sweet limbs

Quick, quick, to music,

But there on the shining shield

His hands had set no dancing-floor

But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,

Loitered about that vacancy; a bird

Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,

Were axioms to him, who’d never heard

Of any world where promises were kept,

Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,

Hephaestos, hobbled away,

Thetis of the shining breasts

Cried out in dismay

At what the god had wrought

To please her son, the strong

Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles

Who would not live long.