Warfare in Epic Poetry (2023)

A culture that fails to represent, or that misrepresents its wars in all their glory, gravity, and tragedy, is a weaker polity. Epic poetry, with its stark recording of the facts and feelings of war, can give cultures and communities access to the reality of warfare and inscribe its memory on the collective consciousness and conscience of the people.

On Monday morning, January 22nd, 2018, a young man named Alejandro Romero was in a KC-130 aircraft 7,500 feet over the desert in Arizona. The 22-year-old Alejandro was a corporal in the Marine Corps who served as a scout with 3rd Reconnaissance Bn. Married just a few weeks before, Alejandro was now with his unit in Arizona conducting parachute-training. He made a clean exit from the aircraft for a double-bag, static-line jump. A few seconds later he realized that his main chute had failed to open all the way. Witnesses say that he could be seen pulling out his knife and attempting to cut away the primary parachute in order to clear the way to deploy his backup. Plummeting through the air he deployed his secondary chute—but it snared in the trailing remains of his first chute and became ineffective. He started spinning rapidly in near free fall… and he died when he hit the ground.

What must the rest of that fall have been like… We might imagine reaching for the knife, sawing at the cords with a surging feeling of desperation. Can we imagine the moments after his secondary chute deployed—when it snared in the first chute and he realized there was no other backup? What were his thoughts? Was there anything recognizable as a thought? Perhaps if you have been under fire with a certain confidence in your imminent death, or if you’ve been in a crashing helicopter watching the ground or ocean rush at you, you might know an approximation of what he thought or felt. It is, however, in my mind a standing question as to whether any two people encounter the certainty of death with the same thoughts and feelings. Then again, if you’re reading this, you survived, with the result that there is a gulf between us and that young man Alejandro Romero. The final moment of descent… when the impacting rounds shifted or the helicopter stabilized and you pulled up—at thatmoment Alejandro kept going… he continued beyond our grasp with appalling finality. May he rest in peace and eternal light shine upon him.

There is a gulf between us and Alejandro—a knowledge of death that separates us. In some ways we ought not want to diminish that gulf until it is our time to do so, and our own mortality intervenes. But those in the military, and our veterans, have lived in a certain constant proximity to, or context of, death—a living that for better or for worse often instills in them certain priorities or habits that can alienate and inhibit them from participation in the polity, or at very least present a challenge in representing one’s experience to others. (My own transition from active duty has been full of reminders about how strange it is that for the last decade, my purpose was to participate in an existential defense against mortal threats—a defense that consists in many cases of hunting for and taking human life. It seems impossible for that experience not to change how I view human life.) This possibility of alienation, I think, is some part of the reason for Americans to celebrate Veterans Day: to welcome its veterans into its polity; to place in the public’s imagination the reality of war, not to provoke pity or some retroactive slap on the back that says “attaboy,” or “attagirl,” but actually to begin the work of constructing a representation of that experience… since shared experience is so important to, and constitutive of, this apparently fragile thing we all nevertheless need: a polity.

I do not mean to suggest that without veteran appreciation events there is no polity, but I do propose that a culture that fails to represent, or that misrepresents its wars in all their glory, gravity, and tragedy, is a weaker polity. I had a professor once who described plagiarism and all acts of cheating as acts that sadden the polity. I think that’s right. Misrepresentations of all kinds sadden the polity—misrepresentation weakens the civic bonds. Cultural failure to sustain an appropriate shared representation of warfare and the inevitable death that accompanies it constitutes a certain form of ignorance, an ignorance sustained at the level of the polity.

I’m not prepared to offer a judgement on where we stand in this matter as a culture, but propose rather to reflect on the depth, richness, and maturity of the classical epics in offeringrepresentations of warfare and death. Homer’s Iliadfor example, features scene after scene of graphic combat between the Achean forces led by the warlord king Agamemnon and the Trojans lead by their beloved commander Hector. In each of these encounters there is bloodshed and loss of life. Almost never is there anonymity. The blood that is shed in Homer, however graphically, is blood that belonged to a person, a family, a history, a heritage. Readers of the epic will find that most of the combat occurs in discrete episodes featuring a few key players in the midst of a greater battle raging around them. The combatants inevitably introduce themselves or are introduced to us by Homer; the poet recounts the death-dealing blow in anatomical detail; he describes the killing weapon; and he makes clear the human and political cost of the encounter… Who is left behind by this death? What child is fatherless, what father childless, whom widowed, what kingdom left ungoverned, what inheritance lost?* Let me offer an example from The Iliad: here the Achean hero Diomedes encounters several sets of Trojan soldiers:

There [Diomedes] killed Astynous, then Hyperion, frontline captain.

One he stabbed with a bronze lance above the nipple,

The other his heavy sword hacked at the collarbone,

Right on the shoulder, cleaving the whole shoulder

Clear of neck and back. And he left them there,

Dead, and he made a rush at Avas and Polyidus,

Sons of Eurydamas, an aged reader of dreams,

But the old prophet read no dreams for them

When they set out for Troy—Diomedes laid them low

Then swung to attack the two sons of Phaenops,

Hardy Xanthus and Thoon, both men grown tall

As their father shrank away with wasting age…

He’d never breed more sons to leave his riches to.

The son of Tydeus killed the two of them on the spot,

He ripped the dear life out of both and left their father

Tears and wrenching grief. Now he’d never welcome

His two sons home from war, alive in the flesh,

And distant kin would carve apart their birthright. (trans. Fagles Bk 5, 160-177)

In each contact we learn with anatomical precision exactly how these men die: one is speared above the nipple; one’s collar bone is severed. Juxtaposed to the bodies’ fragility are the weapons’ apparent invulnerability: This is a heavy sword and this a bronze lance. Like the bodies they destroy, Homer gives us weapons with specific characteristics rather than anonymous instruments of death. Avas and Polyidus leave behind an aged father—a prophet who failed to foresee their deaths; Xanthas and Thoon leave their father an heirless king doomed to diffuse his wealth and kingdom among bickering relatives. We might glory in Diomedes’ strength, but Homer won’t allow us to do so divorced from the consequences of his actions.

Homer is not moralizing here, nor, I hope, am I. Rather, he records with unblinking simplicity the universal human reality of suffering and death in war. But Homer also records that terrible, beautiful, easy to criticize, and difficult to describe feeling of strength and wholeness that exults in the imminent threat and challenge of mortal peril. As the Trojans are crushing the Achean forces against the hulls of their own ships, their only hope of escape, the Achean Ajax exclaims to his brothers in arms:

I can feel it too now, the hands on my spear,
Invincible hands quivering tense for the battle, look—
The power rising within me, feet beneath me rushing me on!
I even long to meet this Hector in single combat,
Blaze as he does nonstop for bloody war.”
So they roused each other, exulting in the fire.
The joy of battle the god excited in their hearts. (13.93-99)

The joy of battle might be one of the most foreign Homeric concepts to a modern audience. Especially in pseudo- or erstwhile Christian countries it can seem as if combatants are supposed to pursue the violent death of other combatants, all the while broadcasting a severe case of pious regret at the spiritually distasteful act of killing. This perhaps admirable sentiment is unreal and unhelpful.

When my students read in the Iliadabout the battle for Patroclus’ body, we enact the struggle with a full class devoted to ground-fighting. The class splits into two sides, Achean and Trojan; we select a Patroclus; establish rules; then turn to combat in an effort to drag Patroclus’ body back to each team’s respective side. Until we engage in this reenactment, for most of us, the “joy of battle” is the palest abstraction in Homer. But after fighting—with controls in place of course, but really fighting—the young men have experienced some of the feeling that Ajax knows a god excited in his heart. There is a power and joy that kindles in the chest when strength is confronted with the challenge. When we returned to the classroom, one of the young men in my class said “I think I know what he means by the joy of battle now.” There is something raw and beautiful in a young combatant with his blood up for a fight—raw and beautiful like a mountain range or a storm at sea… it will kill you in a heartbeat if you’re not careful.

Homer’s war consists of neither hysterical hand-wringing nor crude machismo. He simply shows us the experience of war with a poet’s eye habituated to see beyond the ken of typical vision. Each of the epics begins with what is called an epic invocation: the poet calls on the muses to inspire him—to use him as a mouthpiece in presenting the story. I think this convention demonstrates one of the central claims of poetry throughout time, and one that is particularly relevant as we seek to remember and represent the experience of the veterans in our own polity: Poetry speaks with a knowledge beyond the bounds of what we should know as humans. Hence the need to call on a muse, a goddess daughter of memory, to make the material of the poem available.

In book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus crosses a line into the afterlife when he descends into hell, or rather, summons the souls of the dead to himself, seeking prophetic knowledge. Death represents a limit or threshold for all of us—beyond it is a frontier from which naturally speaking, no one returns. For Homer explicitly to serve as a mouthpiece to the divine muse, then to narrate for us this perspective from beyond the grave, is to make for poetry one of its most important claims: the ability to speak what must otherwise be silent. As Odysseus reels in the tremendous rush of dead souls that surround him he recognizes his old comrade Agamemnon whom he did not yet know was dead. Upon his return home Agamemnon had been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus who had moved in while Agamemnon was off at the war. In the lines that follow Agamemnon narrates for Odysseus the experience of his death, not just how he died, but what it felt like as he died, and his final thoughts as he approached the threshold of death and crossed that frontier to the afterlife.

Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, mastermind of war,
I was not wrecked in the ships when lord Poseidon
Roused some punishing blast of stormwinds, gust on gust,
Nor did ranks of enemies mow me down on land—
Aegisthus hatched my doom and my destruction,
Hekilled me, he with my own accursed wife…
He invited me to his palace, sat me down to feast
Then cut me down as a man cuts down some ox at the trough!
So I died—a wretched, ignominious death—and round me
All my comrades killed, no mercy, one after another,
Just like white-tusked boars
Butchered in some rich lord of power’s halls
For a wedding, banquet or groaning public feast.
You in your day have witnessed hundreds slaughtered,
Killed in single combat or killed in pitched battle, true,
But if you’d laid eyes on this it would have wrenched your heart—
How we sprawled by the mixing-bowl and loaded tables there,
Throughout the palace, the whole floor awash with blood.
But the death-cry of Cassandra, Priam’s daughter—
The most pitiful thing I heard! My treacherous queen,
Clytemnestra, killed her over my body, yes, and I,
Lifting my fists, beat them down on the ground,
Dying, dying, writhing around the sword.
But she, that whore, she turned her back on me,
Well on my way to Death—she even lacked the heart
To seal my eyes with her hand or close my jaws. (11.458-483)

In life, Agamemnon was the leader of the Achaean army, a commander of troops and himself a tremendously powerful fighter, and yet here he is too weak to do anything other than beat his fists on the ground. His repetition of “dying, dying” leads directly to the picture of his strangely sentient corpse with its mouth gaping and eyes open, but powerless to close either. What is shocking here is the fact that this corpse is able to narrate his own trajectory into death. Is it fanciful? Perhaps. But it is nevertheless as earnest a record of the problem of human sufferingand relative weakness in the face of our mortality that exists.

It is the record of suffering and fragility in tension with human greatness and strength that poetry is uniquely capable of preserving and communicating, whether or not you believe it is inspired by the muses. Poetry, especially epic poetry, with its stark recording of the facts and feelings of war, can give—and throughout history has given—cultures and communities access to the reality of warfare and inscribe its memory on the collective consciousness and conscience of the people. We don’t know much about that young Marine Alejandro’s final moments, and we don’t need to know everything, but it is important for the integrity of our polity that we be capable of respecting him and the many like him. Without a shared representation of our wars and our warriors, they threaten to remain the barest of abstractions, rather than the richly rendered fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters we find in Homer. And for humans simply to be abstractions is dangerous.

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*This death convention is decisively identified in Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain.

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