Pericles: Afghan Edition

Ever since President Biden committed himself to fulfill President Trump’s unkept promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan (August 21, 2017; October 8, 2020; October 20, 2020), I have not been able to stop myself from thinking about two classical works: Homer’s Iliad and Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. Two passages from Thucydides come to mind: first, when General Pericles admits that although his nation-building efforts have utterly failed, it would be unwise for Athens to withdraw; second, when, in the face of mounting casualties Pericles has the audacity to urge mothers to bear more sons to avenge the deaths of their fathers, uncles, brothers, and grandfathers. The passage from the Iliad is no less relevant. It is from the close of the epic poem, where a chorus of women weep and chide the men of Troy and Athens for their supreme folly in believing that war was the answer. The resounding conclusion of the Iliad, announced by the women in chorus is that war is not the answer.

“O my husband . . .” cries Andromache, “cut off from life so young! You leave me a widow, lost in the royal halls — and the boy only a baby, the son we bore together, you and I so doomed. . . . You’ve brought your parents accursed tears and grief but to me most of all you’ve left the horror, the heartbreak!” Then Hecuba leads them in lament. “Hector, dearest to me by far of all my sons . . . whom Apollo, lord of the silver bow, has approached and shot to death with gentle shafts.” Then it is Helen’s turn. “There is no one left in the wide realm of Troy, no friend to treat me kindly — all the countrymen cringe from me in loathing!”

From the eighth century to the fourth, for nearly four centuries, Greeks sang and chanted this story, publicly, often, with feeling. And for nearly four centuries they assiduously avoided war. But then up stepped Pericles, not content to share power with other oligarchs; Pericles, of whom the framers of the US Constitution wrote:

The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the Samnians. The same man, stimulated by private pique against the Magarensians . . . or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened . . . or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity, or from a combination of these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war . . . which terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth.

Federalist No. 6

It is this Pericles, celebrated in US high school textbooks as the “father of democracy,” who had the audacity to counter the grief of the Athenian bereaved by mansplaining why the loss of life was their fault and why, in any case, it would be ill-advised to withdraw troops.

Do not think that the only issue at stake is slavery or freedom: there is also loss of empire, and the danger from the hatred incurred under your rule. You no longer have the option to abdicate from your empire, should anyone out of present fear affect this idea as a noble-sounding means of disengagement. The empire you possess is by now like a tyranny — perhaps wrong to acquire it, but certainly dangerous to let it go.

Peloponnesian War ii.64

This is the argument now being trumpeted throughout the US Congress: perhaps wrong to acquire it, but certainly dangerous to let it go. Yes. Indeed.

But even more cynical are those who ape Pericles’ Funeral Address, which urges mothers to add more and more sons to the unending fodder of war in order to avenge the deaths of more and more sons sacrificed . . . to avenge the deaths of more and more sons sacrificed . . . So that they might not have died in vain! (It is, in fact, all vanity.)

Those of you who are still of an age to bear children should hold firm to the hope of further sons. In their own lives some will find that new children help them forget those they have lost, and for the city there will be double benefit — both maintenance of the population and also a safeguard, since those without children at stake do not face the same risks as the others and cannot make a balanced or judicious contribution to debate.

Peloponnesian War ii.44

In other words, those who have not lost sons or husbands or uncles or brothers cannot contribute to the debate over whether we should perpetuate the sacrifice, ad nauseam.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if women’s education and freedom can only be maintained in a community by massive force of arms into the indefinite future, then how can this strategy ever be a strategy of life? Women’s freedom is absolutely central to this question. But freedom won by perpetual violence is not freedom. It is tyranny, perhaps wrong to acquire it, but certainly dangerous to let it go.

But then I notice that these works have been in the public domain for over two and a half millennia. Anyone can read and study them. And, yet, here we are.