By Gaither Stewart
The World goes round and round and human beings say and do the same things again and again, so that it seems there is truly nothing new under the sun. The perplexing unchangingness of man’s behavior and the ways of the world have again led me back to the ancient Greeks. And what do I find there? I find the same warmongers and pacifists of today, identical war parties and peace parties, arms industries and anti-war writers, the generals who predictably “just love war,” and, as one might expect, the same identical massacre of women and children as everyday in Iraq, now conveniently called “collateral damages.”
We are used to that military euphemism dating from the Vietnam War. We nearly skip over those terrible words.
Someday collateral damage might be called by its real name: “Crime against humanity.”
For this reason I have begun examining Greek classics for confirmation that human beings are not as innovative as we like to think. A recent look at Greek ideas on Power subsequently led me step by step to considerations of how Power in the time of the Greeks of 2500 years ago led inevitably to war, as it does today.
The Trojan Women
Euripides’ tragedy of 415 B.C. is considered the greatest anti-war play ever written. That conclusion is truly astounding, considering the number of major wars fought in the world’s major civilizations since those times. But, wait! Before going further I should situate this literary work in its proper framework: First of all, it took place in “peacetime”, in the aftermath of the fall of Troy to the victorious Athenians. Moreover, centralizing Athens had just brutally sacked the island state of Melos to force it into the Greek Federation, a military action that had shaken the people of Athens itself much as each new slaughter of civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan stuns some of us today: as was customary in those times all male citizens of Melos were massacred and women and children enslaved. At the same time the peacetime Greeks were preparing an unprovoked war against Sicily (read Iran for today), which in the long run did not work out well at all.
Such was the international atmosphere when playwright Euripides staged his protest.
Euripides’ tragedy is set in Troy in the period between the fall of the city-state of Troy and the departure of the Greek fleet for home. The same thing had happened there as in Melos: again the innocent civilians suffered most. Oh yes, the Trojan men were slaughtered, or somehow escaped, while the Trojan women were distributed among the victors. But as happens time and time again throughout history, the villains, the hated Athenian Odysseus, pretty Helen over whom the war was fought, and her former husband Menelaus, survived.
The focus in Euripides’ masterpiece is on the defeated Trojans. For a change the warlike Greeks are the bad guys. Men of both sides fought the war and suffered, but, as usual, the defeated suffered the most. Hecuba, the former Trojan queen, goes to Odysseus. The prophetess, Cassandra, Hecuba’s daughter, is given to Agamemnon. Andromache, wife of slain Trojan hero, Hector, goes to Achilles’ son, Neoptolemos. Helen, wife of Paris, is returned to her former husband, Menelaus. And so fearful were the Athenians of reprisals for their terror that they killed also the infant son of Hector.
First element: the hopelessness of war. One sees the hopeless despair of the women survivors in Troy, their fates as slaves and concubines of the victors. In our times we recall the despondent Mothers of Mayo in Argentina, the Iraqi mothers and wives and daughters, and the wives and mothers of American soldiers killed and maimed in Vietnam and Iraq.
Second element: the inhumanity of war. The lack of compassion on the part of the Greek warriors recalls the same degeneration of humanity as seen in Abu Ghraib and Guant