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What Lessons of War Can Be Learned from Literature? - 2003-04-08

War and literature. Wars have inspired great literary works from Homer to Shakespeare to contemporary times. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports that media reporters and commentators today often use this literature and sometimes misuse it to make comparisons to the war in Iraq.

Movers and Shakespeares is a husband and wife team that draws on Shakespeare to try to teach business and political skills relevant today. At a recent session at the American Enterprise Institute, a research organization in Washington, Carol and Ken Adelman, used video clips from Kenneth Branagh 1989 movie hit Henry V, to launch a discussion of problems that face leaders today. Ken Adelman finds many similarities between the 15th century British king and the current President of the United States.

“This is the story of a young leader whose father ruled the land, and he had a youth that was wayward and then he became president, or the ruler, in a very questionable kind of way,” Mr. Adelman says. “People were suspicious about him, and before long he was in a war and proved a very good leader and a gallant leader and a very forceful leader. So I think there is a lot of analogy between Henry V and George W. Bush.”

Ken Adelman is not the only one connecting Shakespeare's play Henry V to the war in Iraq. Veteran ABC News anchor Ted Koppel opened his coverage of war in Iraq with King Henry’s line before the Battle of Agincourt: “Wreak havoc and unleash the dogs of war.”

The New York Times newspaper’s book reviewer Judith Shulevitz says the comparison is not altogether complimentary. A newly crowned king’s claim to the throne was subject to grave constitutional question. Henry V needed to win his people’s trust, she says, and he also wanted to make them forget his wayward youth. He did that by prosecuting a war against France, just as his father told him to do: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.”

Forget Henry V, says Alexei Bayer, New York editor for web magazine The Globalist, President Bush more resembles the lead character in Dostoevsky’s classic The Gambler who started playing roulette to make money which would enable him to marry his love, but then gets addicted to gambling.

“George Bush has been acting on what seems to be an impulse at several crucial junctions of his political his career,” Mr. Bayer says. “And his moves paid off. For example, he took on Al Gore, a sitting vice-president in a prosperous economy and won, even though it was an uncertain victory. And when he came to power as a sort of weak president who lost popular vote, he was expected to move rather cautiously and going toward the center and to be a weak president.”

Instead, says Alexei Bayer, President Bush has taken the extreme gamble of going to war, more of a nature of betting than strategy. Alexei Bayer also notes the stakes are getting higher all the time. President Bush is not the only gambler. “We can only hope,” he writes in The Globalist, that North Korea, headed by a full-blown gambler King Jong Il, will not choose to double the ante by opening a second front.”

Graham Greene, Homer, Machiavelli and Stendhal are other prominent authors quoted by the media covering the war in Iraq. For example, columnist Jim Hoagland in The Washington Post newspaper writes “Today’s television viewer is an electronically empowered Fabrizio, the hero of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. Fabrizio wonders about the battlefield of Waterloo seeing puffs of smoke and hearing bullets whiz by without knowing anything of the course of the battle or of Napoleon’s impending final loss of empire.”

In the same way, contends Jim Hoagland, television images of shooting, explosions, deaths and suffering civilians do not provide an adequate view of the overall action.

Professor Alan Ford Farrell, a literary critic and Vietnam War veteran, doubts the value of many of these literary allusions.

“I would be less inclined to believe that your average journalist is citing Henry V, the play by that guy Shakespeare, than quoting one of the film versions that’s appeared, notably the latest one with Kenneth Branagh,” he says.

Professor Farrell says quotations culled from movies and other digested forms of the original works amount to recycling of popular culture. In his opinion they vulgarize a complex issue. Indeed, movies about Henry V, the hero of Agincourt, do not show the scene from Shakespeare’s play in which the king orders slaughtering of the prisoners of war. His lines “We’ll cut the throats of those we have,/ And not a man of them that we shall take/ Shall taste our mercy” have been left out in popular descriptions of the English king.

Alan Farrell says during combat in the Vietnam War, he carried a pocket edition of Homer in his fatigues. The vicious battle scenes and duels, descriptions of dead bodies, severed limbs and other cruel scenes from The Iliad prepared him for the horrors of war. “The line from Homer that I remember the most -- well, first I remember that Achilles didn’t enjoy being dead. But I remember a line to the effect that the old men talk a lot about war, but they don’t go,” the professor says.

When Odysseus, the hero of the Trojan War, returns home after 20 years, hardly anyone recognizes him. He has to fight for his rightful place in his home and in his society. Alan Farrell says while Homer’s Iliad prepared him for the battle front, The Odyssey prepared him for the return home.

“The soldier comes back soiled. He comes back with blood on his hands. And in some form or another, he bears that stain all his life no matter how hard he tries to re-integrate himself into society,” Professor Farrell says. “No matter how he dresses himself up afterward or grooms himself afterward, no matter how he speaks afterward, he still a man who’s seen dark things and who bears those dark secrets and who may at some point react to that.”

Alan Ford Farrell has written an essay about the lessons of war that can be learned from Homer. In it he says: “What had bored me at school saved me now.”

Michael Drout, professor of English at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, specializes in Medieval English literature and the late 20th century writer J.R.R. Tolkien. He says from Homer to Shakespeare to contemporary authors, many lessons of war can be garnered from classical literature.

For example, Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, which has been made into popular movies, deals with the complex issue of fighting against ever re-emerging evil. Tolkien’s heroes ask some of the same questions that many Americans ask in connection with Iraq: Should we prevent a possible attack or wait for it to happen? Why should we fight one particular evil when there are many more around?

“In The Return of the King, which is the third book, that’s the one that the movie hasn’t been released yet, there’s a debate about what to do and whether you should go out and directly confront the evil or to stay back home and wait home for it,” Professor Drout says.

Tolkien’s heroes know that even if they defeat the powerful evil emperor Sauron, other evil forces will follow. So they question the purpose of going to the battle against him.

“And Gandalf the wizard says: ‘other evils there are that may come, for Sauron himself is but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set uprooting the evil in the fields that we know. So that those who live after may have clean earth to till,’” the professor says.

When The Return of the King movie is released this winter, perhaps we’ll hear this quotation from Tolkien a little more often.