THE TROJAN WAR
Helen and the Weapons of Mass Destruction
As this year of 2004 progresses we seem to have an increasing interest in ancient Troy and the history which goes with the Greek invasion and destruction of that city-state. From Hollywood we have a Troy which has little to do with Homer's Iliad, the only serious account of what went on in the 13th century B.C., but a lot to do with a gross portrayal of imaginary warfare and the ever-present Hollywood criterion of making a lot of money. You can get a quick view of the professional Classicist's reaction to the movie from a discussion recently aired on NPR, while at almost the same time a well articulated documentary about Troy from Providence Pictures in RI with the archaeological evidence appeared as an evening TV show. In this same year there is also a growing interest in reading the Iliad in Greek, either in college courses, or with aid from one of the on-line tutorials, or for a number of people simply learning Greek on their own. This seems a good time to contrast and compare the various images of Troy which are current in our entertainment world, and at the same time try to make historical sense out of the most famous military expedition of the ancient Western world.
The Hollywood version is a visually brilliant .... potboiler. It has little sense of history and no sense at all of what war is like. There are still myths floating around our society which project WAR as a glorious enterpreise in technicolor , done up with striking actors and a musical score designed to cast a sound of glory over the scene. It seems ill-timed for the United States to be viewing Troy as the scene of a war with the good guys finally winning out in a blaze of glorious action, at a time when we are engaged in a shocking and dirty war in Iraq only a few hundred miles from the hills at Hissarlik. Was this film produced to try to cover our guilt about a supposedly righteous West trying to subjugate a Middle Eastern state with religion, history and ethics different from our own? Was this movie a modernized recap of the Crusades?
Aeschylos who had fought in the 5th century B.C. Persian wars spoke of the reality of War, the spears broken in the first onset, knees grinding in the dust, blood and mire everywhere. My father who was a decorated Marine in WW I and saw action through the major battles across France, never spoke of anything but the inglorious futility of life in the trenches under the artillery fire of the enemy. Didn't we learn anything from the crippled mind and bodies which came back from Vietnam? In the name of National Duty we all do our part when called upon, some of us on one side of the battlefield or some on the other. The recent documentaries from WW II with surviving soldiers and actual film footage paint a grim and desperate canvas in which nobody had much to think about beyond mere survival. Nobody thought of glorious warfare then or now. Over-painting a war-tired US soldier in Iraq with a technicolored Brad Pitt in a victorious army overturning ancient Troy seems out of kilter with what is going on today. At this point in our tragic theater of operations, it seems tasteless.
On the other hand the documentary from Providence Pictures is clear, informative and appealing to those of us who think of the shards and stones from a past era as part of a cultural tradition from which our roots stem. It is most interesting to see overlaid levels of cities of the ancient world as evidence of rebuilding after disaster upon disaster. And there is much important information which can be gathered from seeds and spores; for those of us who like detail and laborious cataloging of fragments, archaeology is a fascinating process always in progress. What still fascinates most of us is the foot-high wall of a city, reminders of a past which is remote enough and dry enough to be un-threatening today. I find the ancient archaeological record interesting as a serious message about the end of great powers, recalling Ozymandias saying "Look on my works ye mighty ... and despair". As a mighty power, we might well think about that warning from time to time.
But coming back to the war at Troy, there are other chapters still to be written. A historical economist will be quick to note that Troy was not only a citadel but a large and thriving city at a critical point in the Mediternnanean trade routes, controling the way to the Euxine Sea and the northern land routes back to the territories of the old Hittite Empire. For Western "Mycenean type" feudal states expansion eastward meant Crete, Cyprus and the islands and Troy was clearly in the way. This is sufficient primary reason for the basis of a Trojan Expedition. But very few things are spelled out in purely economic terms, and before a war is declared there will always be insults, outrages and a generous supply of Excuses where Greek word is "prophasis". The "Rape of Helen" which of course was no rape in any sense, is one of those secondary excuses for going to war.
There is in Hellenic antiquity a well known tradition that Helen left her ugly husband Menelaus and went to Egypt, probably the Greek trading port at a place which later became Naucratis. She was never at Troy at all. Many sources in the Hellenistic world speak of this, and the play "Hlelena" of Euripides is based on a variant to this ancient tradition. Of course Homer did very well artistically in his portrayal of Helen at Troy with the wonderful familial scenes with Hector at the Wall, high points in the Iliad as a literary masterpiece. But the great 5th century historian Herodotus pointedly notes variations in the Helen story, and offers a detailed commentary on the role of Helen in the Trojan war scene. I would like first to quote his exact words and his interesting interpretation of the facts from the Histories, II 119 ff.
After the abduction of Helen there came a large army of various Greeks to help Menelaos, and when the army had come out of the ships to land and had pitched its camp there, they sent messengers to Troy, with whom went also Menelaos himself. And when these entered within the wall they demanded back Helen and the wealth which Alexander had stolen from Menelaos and they demanded satisfaction for the wrongs done. The Trojans told the same tale then and afterwards, both with oath and without oath, namely that in deed and in truth they had not Helen nor the wealth for which demand was made, but that both were in Egypt, and that they could not justly be compelled to give satisfaction for that which Proteus the king of Egypt had. The Greeks however thought that they were being mocked by them and besieged the city, until at last they took it. When they had taken the wall and did not find Helen, but heard the same story as before, then they believed the former tale and sent Menelaos himself on to Egypt.
My opinions is this: Priam assuredly was not so mad, nor yet the others of his house, that they were desirous to run risk of ruin for themselves and their children and their city, in order that Alexander might have Helen as his wife. And even supposing that at first they had been so inclined, yet when many of the Trojans were losing their lives as often as they fought with the Greeks, and several of the sons of Priam himself were slain when a battle took place (if one may trust at all to the Epic poets), ----- when, I say, things were coming thus to pass, I consider that even if Priam himself had had Helen as his own wife, he would have given her back to the Greeks, if at least by so doing he might be freed from the evils which oppressed him.
In truth however they lacked the power to give Helen back; and the Greeks did not believe them, though they spoke the truth. I declare my opinion, that the Divine Power was purposing to cause them utterly to perish, and so make it evident to men that for great wrongs great also are the calamities which come from the gods. And thus have I delivered my opinion concerning these matters.
When the United States sent an army to overturn the state of Iraq, two of the basic criteria I mentioned above for the campaign against Troy were present. First there was a clear economic consideration, since Near Eastern oil is vital to our national operation on every level. There seemed good economic reasons for the destabilization of Iraq and replacement with a government which would be amicable to US interests. And if Iraq were to provide a model for a friendly "democratic" style government throughout the Near East, our trade and even control of the oil producing area would be made much more secure and powerful.
But such a military action needs an excuse, a specific point which the government can use to assure the people that military action was now not only necessary, but actually unavoidable. The 9/11 tragedy connected with Al Quaeda in Afghanistan not Iraq, so a clearer excuse was devised with the now tritely famous words "Weapons of Mass Destruction". Saddam Hussein denied having such weapons, and none have ever been discovered, so we can confidently classify the WMD Argument as an example of the "Compelling Excuse" argument..
Since we have here examples two of the above mentioned criteria for starting a war, I would like to go back to the test of Herodotus analysis of Helen as excuse for the Trojan War, and substitute just a few words from our time in the matrix of Herodotus' historical analysis of Troy.
After the calamity of 9/11 there came a large group of politicians to help the President's "coalition" , and when the army had come out of the ships to land and had placed planes in attack locations, they sent messages to Saddam Hussein, with whom went also representatives of the Military Command itself. And when these contacted Saddam Hussein they demanded the " Weapons of Mass Destruction" and the biological warfare factories, which Saddam had got from the international black market, and they demanded satisfaction for his many wrongs done. The Iraqis told the same tale then and afterwards, both with oath and without oath, namely that in deed and in truth they had not WMD nor the rest for which demand was made, but that both might be in another country, and that they could not justly be compelled to give satisfaction for that which another government had. The Americans however thought that they were being mocked by them and besieged the country, until at last they took it. When they had taken the defenses and did not find WMD, but heard the same story as before, then they believed the former tale and sent the CIA to search elsewhere........
My opinion is this: Saddam assuredly was not so mad nor yet the others of his house, that they were desirous to run risk of ruin for themselves and their children and their country, in order to retain weapons which did not actually exist. And even supposing that at first they had been so inclined, yet when many of the Iraqis were losing their lives as often as they fought with the Americans, and several of the sons of Saddam himself were slain when an attack took place (if one may trust the reports of the Media), ----- when, I say, things were coming thus to pass, I consider that even if Saddam himself had had some secret weapons stored underground, he would have given them back to the Coalition, if at least by so doing he might be freed from the evils which oppressed him.
In truth however he lacked the power to give them back. And the Bush Administration did not believe him, although he spoke the truth. I declare my opinion: that the spread of global Empire was operating to cause the Iraqis utterly to perish, and this makes it evident to men that for great plans for global expansion, there are also great calamities which come from the idea of greed and expansion of Empire. And thus have I delivered my opinion concerning these matters.
When one examines an ancient text from over two millennia distance, it is often necessary to add footnotes for details and a general commentary to make the sense of the cited material . But in this case I think no comment is required, since the situation speaks for itself. It seems clear that we have not learned much from past events, either because our leaders are not academically educated readers of important documents, or because they believe that they can do what they want as executive branch of the last standing superpower of the present world. Despite our continual professions of learning from History, it seems that we have not learned much from past ages and are not likely to learn more as the centuries continue to unroll pages from the scroll of time.