Personal war

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Greeks attacking Trojans in a medieval manuscript from the 13th century, Montpellier, Bibliothèque Universitaire de Médecine, H 251

Many of the philosophical debates about the future of warfare revolve around the question of remote warfare, personal accountability, and the ethics of waging a kind of war that means little to those involved in it. Drone wars and remote-controlled battles may seem the stuff of science-fiction, but the issues they raise have been raised for thousands of years. Homer was obsessed with them. The Iliad is a great story about the Trojan War, but it is also an extremely sober reflection on war and on why wars should be fought. 

Homer condemns wars but accepts their inevitability. The worse thing about wars is that they seem to eternalise themselves and become wars without end to everyone’s dismay. But if we can’t prevent wars from being waged, we can at least shape the culture that creates them. And this means reflecting not on if and what makes a war just, but why should someone fight in it, in other words begin with the warrior, not the abstraction. That’s what Iliad is all about. Why should Achilles fight at Troy? He’s the reluctant warrior born to be a warrior. For most of the Iliad, Achilles doesn’t fight. He sulks, nurtures his hatred, eats souvlaki, drinks wine, but doesn’t join the fight. Achilles is critical of impersonal wars. Before Patroclus gets killed by Hector, Achilles can’t find a reason to fight. His hatred of Agamemnon also prevents him from entering the list. So he watches from the sidelines, engaging in occasional skirmishes but refusing to offer his body to the Greek cause. He’s far from being a conscious objector, but he nevertheless objects to the grounds of the operation. And without his help, the war enters its 9th year.

It is only when things get personal that Achilles’ war machine starts turning. By the time he killed Hector, Homer had delivered one of the most important lessons of the Iliad, which is that wars make sense only insofar as they are waged by those who have cause, and that cause always has to be personal. Most warriors at Troy didn’t have cause. Their leader did, but his personal grievance, Homer seems to suggest, should have offered him a justification for going to war on his own, not dragging all of Greece to the Trojan coast. Impersonal wars fought by people who don’t really understand what the war is about nor why they have to be in it are an abomination.

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