The phrase “war myths” these days is generally taken to mean such nonsense as that war will make us safe, or civilians won’t be killed, or surgical strikes will kill more enemies than they produce, or prosperity and freedom will follow war-making, etc. But I wonder whether “war myths” shouldn’t be taken more literally, whether we don’t in fact have a bunch of warmakers believing that they are Odysseus.
Remember Odysseus, the great Greek hero who went on lots of thrilling adventures on his way home from Troy and kicked a bunch of interloping suitors of his lonely wife out of his house in Ithaca when he got home?
Well, Odysseus didn’t actually kick them out, did he? Do you remember what actually happened? Odysseus could have ordered them out upon his return. He could have announced his approach and had them gone before he arrived. Instead, he disguised himself and entered his house unannounced. He secretly hid all the weapons except those for himself and his son and loyal servants. He secretly blocked every door. The suitors were unarmed and trapped when Odysseus revealed who he was and started murdering them.
The suitors offered to more than repay him for what they had stolen from his house, to apologize, to try to make things right. Odysseus, who had a goddess making sure he succeeded in every detail, declined all offers and murdered every man but those his son said were loyal. He beheaded. He tortured. He dismembered. He cut off faces and cut out organs and fed bits of people to dogs. And then, seeing as how he was on such a glorious killing spree, he asked his wife’s head servant whether any of the servant women had been disrespectful or misbehaved in any way. Those who had were quickly identified, and Odysseus murdered them immediately.
And there was a cute reunion scene with his wife, and everyone lived happily ever after, right?
Well, actually, there’s a bit of the story we tend to overlook. Odysseus realized that the giant pile of corpses in his house had friends and relatives who would seek revenge exactly as barbarically as he had. So his goddess friend cast a spell of forgiveness on all of them, and by that means there was peace.
Now, in the world of the myth one might well wonder why Athena didn’t just cast that spell on Odysseus the day before, let the suitors repay him, and skip the blood bath. But in the world of reality, one must ask whether our masters of war believe Athena is going to help them too.
They revenge themselves with righteous brutality on various dictators who have lapsed in their loyalty or death squads that have lost their utility, and the blowback is predictable, predicted, and tragic. No goddess ever shows up to cast a spell of forgiveness on victims’ friends and family.
War supporters know there’s no goddess in their fight, but often they begin to imagine that the other side will find forgiveness by seeing the justness of the war against them — although I don’t believe there are any examples of this actually happening.
War propaganda maintains that the other side only speaks the language of violence, so violence will communicate to that other side our grievances, our suffering, our justifiable outrage, and our desire for peace. But of course, violence is not a language, not even when dressed up in Homer’s art. A language is a substance that can be thought in. Violence cannot embody thought, only fantasy.
The happy little war that turned Libya into hell three years ago was called Operation Odyssey Dawn.
There have been many admirable suggestions put forward to name Obama’s latest war:
Operation Enduring Confusion
Operation Rolling Blunder
Operation Iraqi Liberation
Operation We’re Indispensable – Guess What That Makes You
Operation Unchanging Hopelessness
But I think the appropriate tag for a mission based on the idea of special holy goodness and power, the idea that mass killing of civilians is justified by outrage at killing of civilians, and the notion that everyone will forgive it afterwards so it won’t just make matters worse, is Operation Odysseus’ Butcher Shop.