I do not understand why it is that man loves war so much. I used to imagine a world at peace. But war seems to be innate, deeply ingrained, inescapable, inevitable, unending. Does war fester deep inside the heart of even the most placid of pacifists? One of my own earliest memories was of receiving for Christmas the plastic toy soldiers that I had coveted.
If war is a part of being human (or is it a part of being inhuman?) then it is doubly a part of being American. The older I get, the more disgusting and disingenuous I find the conceit that America is at the pinnacle of peace-loving nations and that anyone foreign is, by comparison, a bloodthirsty barbarian. In my lifetime, has there been any other country in the world that invaded so many homelands with so much devastating force? The American history that we celebrate, that stirs our sense of patriotism, is one of violence, destruction, genocide, conquest, and empire building. Maybe all those things aren’t mutually exclusive with compassion, sacrifice, and honor. Certainly, valor and bravery can be exhibited outside of war. I’m just not sure how strongly we believe that.
I am sick of war, and I am tired of reading about war. I am glad that I skipped Homer’s Iliad until a later time. Herodotus wrote of the Persian Wars that were recent history to him, dragging along for half a century. If you call it a human enterprise, King Xerxes of Persia accomplished one of the greatest human enterprises ever seen by assembling millions of soldiers for the campaign against Greece.
Herodotus gives us an mind-numbing account of the names and places along the way, the burning of Athens, the death of one leader after another, the stubborn resistance of the warriors of Sparta, and everywhere, slaughter. The land itself was a victim, since there was hardly enough food for the millions of invaders. They peeled the bark from the trees just to have something to eat.
Eventually, Xerxes retreated along the path of invasion, and you’re left with the question, “why?” What did any of it come to, except to satisfy a deep longing for war itself. The problem is, the deep longing for war is never satisfied.
In reading the passages from Herodotus where Xerxes was consulting his top advisers over whether or not to launch the war, I could not help but picture the George W. Bush White House. Herodotus recreated the dialogue between Xerxes, Mardonius, and Artabanus as they deliberated over a course of action that was already inevitable, and it might as well have been a transcipt of the conversations between Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell:
Now in all this God guides us; and we, obeying his guidance, prosper greatly….
From the day on which I mounted the throne, I have not ceased to consider by what means I may rival those who have preceded me in this post of honour, and increase the power of Persia as much as any of them. And truly I have pondered upon this, until at last I have found out a way whereby we may at once win glory, and likewise get possession of a land which is as large and as rich as our own nay, which is even more varied in the fruits it bears- while at the same time we obtain satisfaction and revenge.
For these reasons, therefore, I am bent upon this war; and I see likewise therewith united no few advantages. Once let us subdue this people, and those neighbours of theirs who hold the land of Pelops the Phrygian, and we shall extend the Persian territory as far as God's heaven reaches. The sun will then shine on no land beyond our borders…
The nations whereof I have spoken, once swept away, there is no city, no country left in all the world, which will venture so much as to withstand us in arms. By this course then we shall bring all mankind under our yoke, alike those who are guilty and those who are innocent of doing us wrong….
So said Xerxes, and so it goes.
And today, the neo-cons in Washington are craving an opportunity to launch war against…the “Persians.”
For some, there is no learning from history.
As it turns out I was not alone in perceiving George Bush as an uncanny reiteration of Xerxes. Eleven years ago (November 26, 2002) a Canadian journalist wrote a commentary for the Toronto Sun:
Emperor Xerxes and George w. Bush: Imperial Deja Vu
by Eric Margolis
President George Bush delivered a philippic last week at the NATO summit in Prague, comparing Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler and calling on America's allies to join his crusade against Iraq.
Who says history doesn't repeat itself?
Flashback to 480 BCE. Ultimatum from Persia to Athens: `Emperor Xerxes orders you to surrender your weapons and become an ally.' Message from Xerxes to his satraps - subordinate rulers within the mighty Persian Empire: `I intend to...march against Greece, and thereby gain vengeance on the Athenians who have wronged Persia and dared to injure me and my father!'
Ten years earlier, Xerxes' father, Darius, had attacked Athens but failed to crush the defiant little state. Now Xerxes was summoning his satraps to finish the job, warning that Athens was a threat to the entire civilized world. Contingents (modern terminology: coalition) from Parthia, Egypt, Media, Pontus, Scythia, Phoenicia, Assyria, and a score of other satrap kingdoms rallied under Xerxes' banner.
Flash forward 2482 years to Prague. `He's the guy who tried to kill my dad!' says Bush Jr. of Saddam, echoing Xerxes' filial anger. Bush's cartoon characterization of Saddam Hussein as a second Hitler plays well in unworldly Peoria and the US Bible Belt, but it produced derision or dismay among sophisticated continental Europeans, many of whom regard the saber-rattling, imperial-minded Bush Administration as more alarming than Iraq or Osama bin Laden.
Undaunted by such concerns, President Bush forged ahead with plans, first presented last September, to press NATO to deploy a 20,000-man rapid reaction force composed of European, Turkish, and Canadian troops whose prime mission would be to attack `rogue states,' Islamic militants, and any other violators of the `Pax Americana.'
In keeping with the Bush Administration's ever closer identification with the ethos and methods of the former British Empire, Europeans, Canadians, Turks, and, most lately, Australians, are to become the `sepoys'- native infantry - of America's new imperial forces, providing a diplomatic fig leaf and cannon fodder for aggressive missions. Washington is demanding its subordinate `allies' contribute troops whenever it so orders, just like Darius, Xerxes, and every feudal system and empire in history.
The British, ever the moon to America's sun, and the seven, small former Soviet-ruled East European states just invited to join NATO, eagerly volunteered token troop contributions, but the rest of Europe was deeply troubled by the prospect of what the late West German defense minister Franz Josef Strauss aptly called `playing foot soldier to America's atomic knights.'
After half a century of being an obedient junior partner to the US (France excepted), a now united Europe is timidly asserting its independence, the most recent example being Germany's refusal to obey Bush's imperial command to join his anti-Iraq jihad.
The EU is struggling to form a 50,000-man European intervention force that America clearly sees as a rival to its own plan for a US-directed Euro `rogue state' swat team. Europe's reaction force is designed for peace-keeping; the Bush Administration wants its Euro-force to fight America's enemies.
The White House pushed hard for admission to NATO of militarily feeble Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia. This was primarily because the US needs their air bases as refueling and logistical waypoints on an air bridge that extends from North America to new, permanent US bases in the Mideast and Afghanistan, the 21st century version of the British Empire's old `imperial lifeline' that ran through Gibraltar and Suez to India and beyond.
These economically weak nations are quickly becoming US dependencies, replacing increasingly `undependable' European allies like France and Germany. Even so, few noticed that the admission of these four states, plus Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, would likely weaken instead of strengthening NATO by draining rather than adding to its military resources, and making its least capable members vulnerable to an inevitably resurgent Russia. As Frederick the Great observed, `He who defends everything, defends nothing.' No matter how gratifying it is to see these seven states - particularly the long-suffering Baltic peoples - back in the arms of Europe - NATO has effectively diluted its military power.
Equally interesting, was the dog that didn't bark: Russia. After Prague, Bush hurried off to see `my friend Vladimir Putin' to assure him that a western military alliance smack on Russia's western border and St Petersburg was no threat at all, but somehow a benefit.
The reason the Russian dog didn't bark was twofold: Russia's military remains weak and absorbed by the bloody war in Chechnya; Putin and his supporters are heavily dependent on discreet US funding to maintain their power and keep their cash-strapped government running. Putin needs Bush's support to prevent Chechen independence. In exchange, Bush has allowed Russia to re-occupy half of Afghanistan via its proxy Northern Alliance.
At their meeting, the two leaders also discussed plans for Iraq: Putin might not stand in the way of an American invasion in exchange for Russian oil firms retaining their large drilling concessions in northern Iraq, and an honorarium from Uncle Sam of at least US $12 billion.
Flashback 480 BC: Xerxes: `At last I have found a way whereby we may at once win glory: get possession of a rich land and obtain satisfaction and revenge.'
Epilogue: To everyone's surprise, the irksome Greeks (`Grecians' to George W. Bush) won. The irksome Iraqis are unlikely to be so lucky.
Yes, after surviving the Persian Wars with Herodotus, and after hearing the bellicose presidential aspirants beat the same old war drum day in and day out, I am tired of war. I intended to read Herodotus and Thucydides back-to-back, but I need a break before entering the Peloponnesian Wars preserved by our next Greek historian. So I’m going to jump ahead to Aristophanes for some comic relief. And under the circumstances, what better play to read than Lysistrata?
Well, so much for avoiding war, huh?