Tag Archives: ancient greece

The Scratch on Achilles’ Armor

 

Much has been said of Trump’s success as a businessman, as an industrialist, as a media mogul, and now as a politician. One cannot argue with success–except when it’s irrelevant.

America has always been the land of the underdog. A small group of Pilgrims braving ocean and foreign land for the chance to practice their religion in peace; the ragged revolutionary besting the greatest army in the world; the rebel yell resounding in the halls of Washington; our little Sherman tanks facing off against the mechanical behemoths of Nazi Germany…

We don’t like theĀ  clear winner.

At least, that’s theĀ  America I grew up with. It’s a patent falsehood.

We brought old world technology and organized zeal to bear against the disorganized aboriginal tribes of the new; we organized a brilliant guerilla campaign against a politically divided and distracted enemy 3000 miles away in an age with no instantaneous communication; no underdog can face down the shame of defending slavery; and we brought to bear upon Nazi Germany a military industrial complex so overwhelming, we managed to fight two full-scale wars on six fronts all at the same time (land campaigns in Europe and the Pacific, Atlantic and Pacific naval campaigns, and the intense bomber campaigns that devoured both Germany and Japan).

We have never been the underdogs.

And yet, I find myself, again and again, rooting for them. I root for Hannibal against the Romans, the Red Coats against the Colonials, the Union against the Confederacy (huh?)…and the Trojans against the Greeks.

Walter Benjamin once quipped that history is written by the victors. I often wonder just how true that is. Thucydides wrote the history of the Peloponnesian war, after all. So while many wars are written about by the conquerors, it’s not some kind of law of nature. This became especially clear to me recently as I finally got around to finishing the Iliad. The Song of Ilium, with justice subtitled the Wrath of Achilles, was written by a Greek(s) and tells the story of their conquest of the city of Troy. One would assume that the story unabashedly takes the side of the Greeks, the author(s) being as partisan as the rest of us. This is not the case.

Time and again the Greeks, when compared to their Trojan enemies, come across as haughty, arrogant, vainglorious, and duplicitous. The Trojans, on the other hand, are more often than not honorable, stoic, stalwart (Paris notwithstanding). Both sides evince passions and foibles, but it is the Trojans, exemplified by Hector, who really come across as admirable men. Perhaps it’s no wonder that in the Middle Ages Hector was elevated to one of the Nine Worthies, up there with Judas Maccabeus and Charlemagne.

It’s Hector I want to talk about. There’s a scene in the 2004 adaptation of the Iliad–Troy–wherein Hector duels Achilles and, having fought bravely, is slain by his unbeatable foe. Everyone knows that Achilles is going to win–even Hector. Yet still he walks into the field of battle, resigned to his fate, a true Stoic. He doesn’t go quietly into the night, however; in and amongst the swordplay, he manages to graze the armor of Achilles, nearly wounding the demigod.

This scratch upon the otherwise completely unblemished armor of Achilles is worth some exploration. That a man could even touch a demigod seems to me quite incredible. Hector, knowing he is going to lose ,still does his level best, and leaves a mark upon his conqueror as a reminder of what was lost in the winning: a good man.

I think Trump would do well to remember the scratch upon Achilles’ armor. America has always been a land of winners and losers. We are not unique in this. History is the story of the quick besting the slow, the smart the dumb, the strong the weak. Nothing new. What is a little unsettling, in our case, is just how disproportionate our victories have been. We don’t just subdue an enemy, we decimate them entirely. A sliver of the aboriginal population remains on this continent. Post war Japan and Germany were irrevocably changed as a result of our bombing campaigns, occupations, and commercial interests. The middle east has seen an influx of billions of dollars, thousands of foreigners, and tens of thousands of corpses since the inauguration of the War on Terror.

We go big, then we go home.

I hope that, in some small way, this piece serves as a reminder of the little scratches our victories leave upon our national armor. They came not without cost; and we as a nation do precious little reasonably to ask ourselves if these victories were worth it. This question is rarely asked in a balanced way. Whether defending or bemoaning, the conversation is one that generally disregards the reality of the past.

The Right tends to erase the real cost of Progress, unable to face the human toll that allowed for the spread of Christianity, Capitalism, and the like. The Left, on the other hand, pines for a return to some halcyon time where aboriginals lived in harmony with nature and the White Man (that scourge!) was nowhere to be found.

Of course, both views of the past are patently ridiculous, alternative facts if ever such things existed–like my narrative of America the underdog: comforting but ultimately false.

What we need, and what T rump needs to come to grips with, is a rational look at the debt our nation has incurred in order to get where it is today; a solid understanding of what victory really means; and a recognition, that, for crying out loud, America is not in danger of being overthrown by a foreign power.

We are more a threat to the rest of the world than the rest of the world is to us. We have bountiful resources, the largest military in the world, a united and fertile population, a foothold on every major continent–and a president who is more interested in self aggrandizement than anything else.

Given our power, I wish that we were more like the humble and honorable Hector and less like the haughty, thin-skinned, vainglorious Achilles.