American Achilles in the War on Terror

by | Dec 27, 2023 | Opinion

University students use her work, and it draws leisure readers as well. Beginning with her translation of the Odyssey in 2018 and continuing with the Iliad earlier this year, Wilson has presented as fresh and vivid material that is, admittedly, old and foreign.

For years, the English translations of poets Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald were responsible for passing Homer’s stories into the dreams and imaginations of modern Americans. So successful were the two Roberts that many readers reserved no space on their bookshelves for another scholar’s reading. Wilson’s new translation is worthy, though, and less for her words or ‘blank verse’ than her feel: for the players and their motivations certainly, but more so for their experience of the phenomenon of battle. Her work plumbs how it feels to fight and kill, what warriors seek to achieve through combat, and what a family stands to lose when a husband dons the helmet and marches off to war. Heroism nearly, but not quite, redeems the carnage.

Those who have seen war or studied it know how combat produces a cycle of loss and compensation, and fate deals out the portions of life in unfair and unexpected ways. This is one of the themes of the Iliad – how even the greatest warriors in Western civilization fail to reclaim what they lose. “Attempts to repair one loss lead only to more losses,” Wilson writes in her introduction. “Loss can never be recouped.”

The arc of history demonstrates the activity of warfare is always changing; weapons, technology, and troop formations are constantly in flux. But the condition of war, how people experience combat, remains largely unchanged. Rather than discuss the new text in isolation, I asked Professor Wilson to apply her knowledge of the Homeric poems and her own ideas to my observations of people participating in the drama of modern war. What follows is part one of our two-part conversation.

One evening in 2009, Alphonso told a story over beers at Pusser’s in Annapolis. There had been a Taliban ambush on a Marine logistics convoy. Someone he knew was involved. “I hope they jump me,” he said. “I want my share.” What comes to mind, hearing this vignette?

This makes me think of Iliad Book 10. This ambush episode is very unusual in the poem, because most of the fighting in The Iliad takes place during the daylight hours, where warriors confront each other face-to-face. This is fighting at night. Odysseus and Diomedes volunteer to set an ambush of Trojan forces. The sequence shows the importance not just of cleverness and strategy, but also about the kinds of extra glory people can get in special missions. If something unexpected happens and you react just right in the moment, then you get a special kind of glory, as compared to what can be gained in the main campaign. I love Book 10 because it shakes up your ideas about the kinds of terrain where war takes place. The poem as a whole is interested in all different types of warfare, different types of landscape and how the norms of military encounters change in different arenas. Diomedes and Odysseus promise not to harm the Trojan spy, Dolon, then mercilessly kill him and hang up the bloody spoils, the weapons stripped from his body, to honor the goddess Athena, who loves spoils.

Speaking of Alphonso’s “share” … I’m thinking of what Aristotle said about the “banquet of life.” Would Homer have contemplated this idea when he composed the Iliad?

Absolutely. Many of the words that are often translated as fortune or fate literally suggest portion or share—these Greek words literally mean a “part,” as if a portion or share of life. It’s as if there is a whole side of beef that is a quantity of human life and each of us gets a particular portion of it, both how long we get to be alive and also our portion of honor and glory. I think the whole story of Achilles in the Iliad focuses on his disappointment about his tiny portion of life, as the son of a goddess who knows for sure that he will die if he stays to fight at Troy. He wants a portion of honor that compensates him for his small portion of life. The public humiliation he suffers from Agamemnon, when the Greek king takes from Achilles the concubine Briseis, means Achilles has been dishonored, so his already small portion of life is no longer balanced by a large share of glory.

In 2010, the Officer in Charge intoned to his students at the Infantry Officer Course about their reputations. “Your reputation begins right now,” he said. The thought planted among young Marine lieutenants that one’s reputation (as an officer, a Marine) has incalculable value in the military, much more so than in business or private life. Can you trace that idea back to the Iliad?

Well, that is certainly a theme that runs all through the poem. The Greek term most closely analogous to “reputation” is kleos, which suggests what other people hear about you. For warriors, that goal of achieving undying kleos is definitional, and gives mortal heroes the chance to live on after death. You can be known for your physical characteristics, but also in the stories of who you are and how you have performed. Stories people tell can add up to kleos or they can lead you to shame. Great warriors in the Iliad, like Hector and Achilles, are deeply concerned with preserving their kleos, which entails being known as the greatest warrior among their people. Even when his family members and other Greek leaders are telling him to stop fighting and pull back, Hector has to keep going because he wants to secure the greatest kleos, both for his lifetime and after his death.

You rely on your sergeants and corporals in combat. You rely on anybody who has “done it before.” Having “done it before” is more valuable than all the education, weaponry and preparation—it’s certainly more valuable than personal connections or credentials. Why?

Because if you don’t have experience on the ground, then there is no way you know how to judge events when they are changing fast. This question relates to the representation of different generations of warriors. Start with Nestor, the elder warrior. He has so many speeches about “back in my day” and so forth, which may seem like tedious digressions – but that character is crucial for reminding the listener that this is not the first war.  The battles Nestor has participated in, with the Lapiths and Centaurs, are just one mythical precursor, along with the earlier war of Heracles against Troy, and the Theban War, all of which are precursors to the Trojan War in the world of myth. The poem draws attention to the many cities around Troy that Achilles has already sacked, and to the experience of Diomedes who succeeded in sacking Thebes. These allusions remind us that the Greek army has been sacking and campaigning for a long time. When these named warriors convene in their council meetings, discussions center on what kinds of advice matter: from those who have fought the most; or, from those who have theoretical ideas without having tested them? I think The Iliad reminds us that experience matters, but also shows you that you do not win one war by fighting the last one. Nestor’s advice always hinges on “this is how it happened back then, but things are totally different nowadays.” Experience matters but there are still so many unknowns. The poem shows you that how fast things change on the battlefield.

The film Zero Dark Thirty consecrated the killing of bin Laden. The uniforms worn by Navy SEALs who participated in that raid hang in the 9/11 museum at Ground Zero. There have been so many movies about special operators. It seems the poets of our age sing of spec ops derring-do, over and over again. Why? 

There’s just something so inspiring for people who have (and have never) served in combat to see people so clearly willing to risk their lives for the sake of a mission. I find it inspiring. I have so much admiration for people who put their whole being out there, to have complete skin in the game. That was the case in antiquity as well. Not every war is presented in simple valorizing or heroizing terms. The Iliad digs into the whole of the human spectrum about people but there is a deeper awareness of courage and how it really does matter.  Courage makes people more like the gods, who never die, or perhaps humans are sometimes imagined as even greater than gods. The warriors are always conscious that they could be killed, which makes their courage and sacrifice special.

For the foot soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, though, there were endless patrols, missions and objectives. Tragedies and miracles forgotten or never known. For the foot soldiers, there are no tales of triumph, no heroes in single combat, no majestic treatments from Hollywood or in literature. Why is it disappointing for your exploits to be forgotten?

To have been involved in something that involves so much pain and wounding and not even have the glory of being remembered as a character in the story is terrible. Part of what drives Achilles’ rage is that he wants to be the main character … all the time. The poem primarily focuses on the warrior-leaders and officer class, to use an anachronistic term, but we also have a sense of the common troops who are driven into battle, the kinds of pressure that is put on people who are not the named ones. We know the leading male characters but each of those leading figures brings along nameless men who will not be remembered but are taking just as much risk and fighting the same battles. The poem gives you some tools to understand that single combat between named protagonists is not exactly what war is. We have episodes where we get the name of a character, then, a line or two later, he is dead.

Part of the story of how The Iliad represents the forgotten people is how it represents the women and old people who experience war as pure loss. Women and older people don’t have anything that they can win. The queen of Troy, Hecuba, does have an idea that there is something she could win if her son Hector can ward off the Greek armies, that she stands to win more if Hector succeeds. But for most people in the world of this poem, there’s very little to hope for, and even the most minimal hopes, like the hope of survival or freedom, are repeatedly not fulfilled.  It’s not that you’re a fool to have any kind of hope but most of the time when people have hope in this poem, it doesn’t work out.

John J. Waters is the author of the postwar novel River City One (Simon and Schuster), and a former deputy assistant secretary of homeland security.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.
AMP America

Get Amp’d in your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter to get videos, articles, and more sent right to your inbox daily. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This