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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

“Go Tell the Spartans...”

by Don Webb

Simonides' original

“Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

— the epitaph of Thermopylae,
by Simonides of Ceos as quoted by Herodotus
— tr. by William Lisle Bowles

Simonides’ words are simple yet eloquent, because they remind everyone — both Greek and foreigner — of the nature and purpose of sacrifice.

James Graham’s review article of 100 Poets Against the War is also eloquent and yet somewhat partial. Why might that be?

Granted, war is a self-evident crime against humanity. Benjamin Franklin was right: “There has never been a good war or a bad peace.” Is war a crime against nature? Yes, of course it is, but incidentally.

Old, romantic notions sought to find human exceptionalism in various ways. Mankind was supposedly the only tool-making species, but now we know of other animals who use and even make tools. Or, perhaps, mankind was the only species that had language. We are less sure about that now than we used to be.

Or, perhaps, mankind was the only species that made war. But we now know that warfare is endemic in the animal kingdom, and our new-found knowledge may make us look a little nervously at plant life, as well.

Animals and plants struggle for territory. Human beings have expanded the motive historically to — pardon the alliteration — land, ladies and loot. Piracy is a way of life, and when human beings practice it, they differ only in degree from any other life form, including insects.

Was the American Civil War waged for territory, as Mr. Graham claims?

The American Civil War had comprehensible purposes and outcomes; even if the abolition of slavery was not the first priority, the prevention of what we would now call the balkanisation of North America certainly was. In this sense it was a war to end wars.

No, it wasn’t. Europe has always been “balkanized”; why should anyone care if North America were? As Lincoln says in his Second Inaugural, the Civil War was fought over irreconcilable moral principles: “Both sides prayed to the same God; the prayers of both could not be answered.” Ever since Thomas Jefferson presciently warned that slavery was “a fire bell in the night” the war was always about slavery.

Secular rationalists have struggled to liberate themselves from religion and, in doing so, have spurned the Judeo-Christian concept of original sin. And yet they keep having to reinvent it, because, as the term is meant to imply, sin originates in man, not in nature.

In other words, we ought to know better. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword” is fraught with the double meaning of death as both physical and moral. The saying is of a piece with “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” What can we conclude but that, given sane alternatives, war is psychopathology, i.e. just plain crazy?

Hermann Goering proves the point: when demagogues instill fear, insanity becomes contagious:

Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? [...] But after all it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is a simple matter to drag the people along [...]. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

The classic example is, of course, Alexander the Great — more appropriately “Alexander the Egregious” — who set out literally to conquer the world. His ambition is a bad joke today, but he has had his imitators, who, like him, failed to recognize and conquer their own inner demons.

Who fired first in the American Civil War? Who was the aggressor at Thermopylae? Albert Camus’ L’Étranger ironically depicts the meaning and value of life and is alone worthy of a Nobel Prize for literature. And yet in his lesser known Lettres à un ami allemand, Camus explains why he cannot be a pacifist. Like the Greeks at Thermopylae, the British at Dunkirk, and the Americans at Antietam and Corregidor, some have had to pay the price for others’ insanity lest the world suffer for it.

War is invariably a tragedy for every individual it touches. However, it is sometimes easier to cure the body than the soul, and the sane often have only war as a means of fighting fire with fire, to keep insanity from spreading. And yet beware hubris: fire cares not whom it burns.

Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb

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