To Appease the Gods

So the last Americans pulled out of Iraq, eight and a half years later, leaving an uncertain nation with an even more uncertain future.

As I watched the video of the last trucks crossing the Kuwait border, all I could see were the black hulls of the Greek ships sailing away, gray smoke still hanging in the ruined walls of Troy.

Not that Iraq is currently in ruins, but the Trojan war has been on my mind for the last decade, since George W. Bush, like Agamemnon before him, began gathering reluctant allies for a headstrong military adventure that brought grief to nearly everyone associated with it.

To appease the gods for sending a military force to make war on a society in which non-combatants on only one side would be at risk, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia.  (His wife would later kill him for having done that.)  Mr. Bush made no such sacrifice, nor did he ask the majority of his countrymen to make any sacrifice on behalf of the soldiers he commanded.

Popular political psychology has it that one of Mr. Bush, fils authentic motivations for the Iraq invasion was revenge on an enemy of his father’s (or perhaps to show himself stronger than his father).  Both roles are reflected in the character of Neoptolemus, Achilles’s son, who avenges his father’s death before the walls of Troy, by killing King Priam as the city is sacked.  This “revenge” is the punitive act of a bully, putting the sword into an old man who can no longer defend himself.

As Achilles dishonored Hector’s body, dragging it through the dust of the Dardanian Plain, so the residents of Falluja desecrated the bodies of four Blackwater contractors in 2004, so American troops desecrated the bodies of living and dead Iraqis for “trophy photos,” so – bizarrely – did our military of our nation desecrate the bodies of our own troops by disposing of them in landfills.

“Troy falls at last after ten years of futile, indecisive, noble, mean, tricky, bitter, jealous and only occasionally heroic battle,” writes Barbara Tuchman.  As for the Greeks’ Trojan Horse ploy, she said it exemplifies, “policy pursued contrary to self-interest – in the face or urgent warning and a feasible alternative.  Occurring in this earliest chronicle of Western man, it suggests that such pursuit is an old and inherent human habit.”

(So, wait, am I comparing the US to the Greeks or the Trojans?  Both, actually.  It would seek a foolish consistency to only learn from one side and somehow we have maniacally managed to repeat the worst mistakes of each.)

A more recent and equally depressing analog in the history of arms is the nine-plus years the Soviets spent trying to bring a friendly government to Afghanistan.  That invasion/war/occupation began on a Christmas Eve in 1979 and ended with the trucks and tanks rolling over the border for the cameras on a winter day in 1989.  Like us, the Soviets didn’t try to portray their withdrawal as a victory march, but like us; there was a feeling of relief that comes from setting down a heavy load.  For Islamic militants, the Soviet withdrawal was seen as a tiny force, blessed by Allah driving our a superpower.  How will they see the US withdrawal from Iraq?

I don’t know how things went for the Soviet soldiers, but Western literature says those who fought at Troy brought their war home with them in ways eerily familiar.  Odysseus famously wandered for a decade, as did Aeneas of Troy and his followers.  Neoptolemus was killed by Agamemnon’s son Orestes (who also killed his mother Clytemnestra, who killed Agamemnon).  Our troops return to a devastated economy years of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I suppose it’s appropriate the end of this long, foolish war comes at the end of a year, the end of the 9/11 decade.  Here’s to hoping we can all feel as though we are putting a burden down and prepare to take up new and better burdens in the year ahead.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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