I wrote earlier this month about the “final class” of Marine Corps Scout Snipers. The Marine Corps is in process of discontinuing its infantry Scout Sniper platoons in favor of something called “scout platoons.” Undoubtedly, many meetings and opinions went into the final decision, including consideration of an incident that occurred in Afghanistan in 2011, when a few Scout Snipers from Third Battalion, Second Marines (3/2) were videotaped urinating on Taliban corpses in Helmand Province. The Marines identified in that video were swiftly condemned, punished and made outcasts by the press, politicians and senior military officers. Among the foot soldiers, however, those same Marines were highly regarded for courage demonstrated on many, many combat missions. I pick up my conversation about the Iliad with classicist Emily Wilson on this particular episode from the War on Terror. You can find part one of our conversation here.
After the video became public, one of the Marines who participated was questioned about why he did it. “[Because] killing these assholes was not enough,” he said. Can you situate this story of the 3/2 Scout Snipers into an ancient context?
There is a focus on honoring the dead. It’s a clear line that is constantly crossed even in the first lines of the poem, when we find that, after their death, men become food for dogs and birds, and are eaten off the battlefield. Later, Hector begs Achilles that if he is killed, Hector’s body will at least be returned to his parents, but Achilles says “no,” that Hector is an idiot to think he will return the body. Achilles wants only to punish Hector more and more and even more. I can see how you can be in that mindset, how you want not to treat the enemy as human and not allow for these rituals or humane treatments across boundaries. What happens at the end of The Iliad, when Priam crosses over to the camp of Achilles and both men grieve, is that we recognize we need the common rituals, that we all lose something in war.
Those Scout Snipers believed they had killed Taliban fighters who laid IEDs against their brothers. They sought vengeance, in other words. Once, in the months and years after 9/11, we all had sought vengeance. A combat veteran who won the Medal of Honor told me “Nothing flips a man’s dial back to ready like telling him, ‘This one took our boy.’” Why do we need vengeance?
Vengeance, in a way, is proof that people love each other. People love each other so much that they become so close, like second selves, and when your person dies, it’s understandable to want payback for that terrible loss. We see that kind of intimate love most obviously between Achilles and Patroclus. They’ve been fighting together for almost 10 years. Achilles refuses to fight, when his honor is violated by Agamemnon, but all that changes when Hector takes Achilles’ boy, so to speak. That flips his switch. Achilles mutates and no longer cares about his grievance against Agamemnon; he cares only about obliterating Hector and obliterating the whole city because he has infinite rage and grief. The most special person in the world has been killed.
Michael Monsoor was killed in Ramadi in 2006. He was given the Medal of Honor for sacrificing himself when he smothered a grenade and saved the lives of his teammates. His father wanted only the truth about his death. He wanted to know the facts. Many parents want to know if we killed the one who did it to their boy. Michael’s father only wanted to know the truth. Can you reconcile those interests?
That’s such a difficult story. I don’t know exactly where to go in The Iliad. It’s making me think about particular characters who want to be the subject of song, the subject of a song by a person who sings about glory and heroics. Is The Iliad focused on telling everything that happened or just the heroic things that happened? Clearly, it’s not a literal telling. And yet it is focused on telling you more than just Achilles was great and this is why he was great.
When Hector is dead, we have three different laments. One comes from his mother, Hecuba. She wants that version of him that many people want, which is how glorious Hector had been. She wants people to tell her the story about how her son never flinched in combat, even though the reader of the poem knows that’s not true and in fact, he ran from Achilles. Her grief inspires her need to idealize her son in death. Hector’s wife, Andromache, thinks of his courage but also his rashness, how his decision to leave the city has caused her son to be killed. She sees his sacrifice as debatable. Finally, there is Helen. She gives a narrative about how Hector was a kind man when nobody else was kind to her. The poem gives us all these alternative ways of grieving and remembering.
I have read Homer’s poems at different points in my life, and my reading has raised a personal question that I explore in a novel called River City One. The question is whether a soldier ever comes home from war. What do you think?
Yes, whether the nostos (home-coming journey) is ever fully complete. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey show soldiers coming home from war. Odysseus comes home geographically but is he home just because he is in that same physical space? No — that happens halfway through the poem and the story isn’t over. Is he home once he reestablishes relationships with Telemachus and Penelope? Many people including in antiquity thought the story should end right there in Book 23, after he kills the suitors and makes love to his wife – but the poem continues, and the story actually ends when Odysseus keeps slaughtering people before he is stopped by Athena. So, has he really come home? The poem seems to show that he has several selves and several homes to come back to – and one of them, paradoxically, is the battlefield, and the warrior self that he might seem to have left behind. In The Iliad, Hector feels compelled to leave home. Family members are repeatedly begging him not to leave the city, but he leaves and comes home only when he’s dead, to be wept over by the women. We know Achilles will never go home geographically; he knows he’ll die if he stays to fight at Troy, so once he rejoins the battle, we know that’s a choice not to go home again. One can say there is a kind of homecoming in the moment he has with Priam at the end of the poem, such that there is a moment to mourn and eat and not perform in his role as killer and avenger. Is that a kind of temporary “home”? I don’t know. Both of the Homeric poems wrestle with the question, whether warriors ever go home again. The answer is uncertain.
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.