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  • Editor's Note

"Wars cast their shadows before them and leave emotional disturbances behind them," scholar E. R. Dodds observed as he reflected on the catastrophic war 2500 years ago that destroyed Athens. The aggressors in that reckless campaign—the Athenians themselves—modeled their sense of honor on their culture's foundational epic, the Iliad. In that brutal narrative, however, glory is brief and arbitrary; there are no victors, and no one is spared terrible suffering. We can't know, of course, if the epic was Homer's glorification of vengeful rage or a lesson on the senselessness of war. But to the Athenians who campaigned—and lost in the Peloponnese—many centuries after the Iliad was written down, Homer's epic seemed intended to celebrate the sorrows of orphans and widows, and to sanctify every warrior who died in battle. As Pericles said in his funeral oration at the end of the first year of the war, no words could adequately praise the beauty of a warrior's death.

In the winter of 1940, Simone Weil understood the Iliad differently. Watching the rise of Hitlerism, she wrote:

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.…In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.

Weil defined force as "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us."

We have many stories that depict force in the way that Weil understood it. How, then, do we account for our failures to consult those "loveliest of mirrors" each time we set out to settle old scores with violence or to gain [End Page vii]

advantages for a religion, ideology, or nation by force? Weil's answer was that men are blinded by leaders who incite war's madness in them. Once war has begun, a miracle is necessary to escape its corruption of the spirit, she wrote; but not even an act of grace can prevent the wounds.

In his May 2008 essay "What Have We Learned, If Anything?" historian Tony Judt blames cultural amnesia for the continuation of the atrocities of the last century:

In many countries "putting the past behind us"—i.e., agreeing to overcome or forget (or deny) a recent memory of internecine conflict and intercommunal violence—has been a primary goal of postwar governments: sometimes achieved, sometimes overachieved.…

We are slipping down a slope. The sophistic distinctions we draw today in our war on terror—between the rule of law and "exceptional" circumstances, between citizens (who have rights and legal protections) and non-citizens to whom anything can be done, between normal people and "terrorists," between "us" and "them"—are not new. The twentieth century saw them all invoked. They are the selfsame distinctions that licensed the worst horrors of the recent past: internment camps, deportation, torture, and murder—those very crimes that prompt us to murmur "never again." So what exactly is it that we think we have learned from the past? Of what possible use is our self-righteous cult of memory and memorials if the United States can build its very own internment camp and torture people there?

Far from escaping the twentieth century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again—or perhaps for the first time—how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-943x
Print ISSN
1045-7909
Pages
pp. vii-xii
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-04
Open Access
No
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