What are old, wise books for if not for the present? And what is the use of current politico-social commentary if not seen in relation to the past? The more ancient the book and the more recent the commentary, however, the more does a comparison of the two risk outlandishness. And when one refers, as does this letter, to the oldest book about war in order to criticize one of the newest journalistic calls to arms, the challenge becomes extreme.
Nevertheless, this is an old-bookish criticism of Diana West's recent advocacy of "Total War" ("The 'limited' war for 'hearts and minds,' " Herald, May 3), for I think her view short-sighted and foolish. She writes: "Total War. It's ugly and barbaric, but it leads to Total Pacification, not to mention Total Victory, which is supposed to be the point."
My criticism of West's war-mindedness refers to the ancient Greek poem about war, Homer's the "Iliad." Midway in the 26 books of that epic, Book 13, the first paragraph, the poet recounts: "Now Zeus, when he had brought the Trojans and Hector to the ships, left the combatants there to have toil and woe unceasingly, but he turned away his gleaming eyes, and looked afar over the land of the Thracian horsemen, and of the Mysians who fight in close combat, and of the lordly Hippemolgi who drink the milk of mares, and of the Abii, the most just of men" (translated by A.T. Murray, revised by William F. Wyatt, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1999, vol. 2).
Here the eighth-century B.C. Ionian Greek epic shows Zeus turning away from the woeful, unceasing combat to view, instead, the land of "the most just of men." Thus, in the midst of the long, bloody war, the poet brings in the question of justice. Who were "the most just of men"? What was their way of life? Homer does not explain. From the first lines onward of the "Iliad," though, he implicitly invites us to be mindful of the question of justice. And never does Homer think of "Total War" as leading to "Total Victory."
I emphasize the implicitness of the justice theme because, as Edith Hamilton says, "The buccaneering chieftains in the 'Iliad' did not want justice. They wanted to be able to take whatever they chose because they were strong and they wanted a god who was on the side of the strong" ("Mythology," 1942, p. 20). For them, as for Diana West, strength is the "point." Homer thought otherwise.
The main " point," about the heinous war in Iraq, is not total victory (impossible anyway in Iraq's civil war) but the need for justice — most obviously the need for fair political solutions.
In view of that far-away attraction of justice we must ask, if we want to build a just society at home, how much longer can we afford to spend lives and resources for a misguided invasion and a civil-war-enmeshed occupation abroad?
The greatest need is not for "victory" but for justice.