Euripides teaches us about war

Herakles Gone Mad - Euripides, Robert E. Meagher

In August 2010 Matthew Magdzas, a national guard veteran of one tour of duty in Iraq, returned home, and without warning, murdered his pregnant wife and his daughter before turning the gun on himself. Later, in England, David Bradley, a long serving member of the British Armed forces who had served in numerous combat zones during his life, walked into the house where he was staying with a silenced pistol and killed the occupants and then waited for the rest to return home and killed them as well. He was later arrested when he walked into the local police station carrying a rucksack containing an improvised explosive device. Is there some connection between these two incidents and a two and a half thousand year old play by Euripides about the ancient Greek's greatest hero returning home from war, descending into madness, and proceeding to kill the family he loves? Quite possibly so, as Maegher seems to believe. While the two examples above are the only a couple of examples from a brief look over the internet (bringing up what limited information that Google tends to dredge up), Maegher assures us that this is actually not all that uncommon.


Maegher has followed on from the work of Jonathon Shay, who wrote two books Achillies in Vietnam and Odysseus in America where he explores ancient literature to learn what the ancients had to say about the nature of combat trauma and how combat troops should be handled when they return home. Here Maegher is looking specifically at the concept of PTSD and flashbacks, particularly where a combat veteran begins to think that he is back at war and begins to act accordingly, usually with tragic consequences. There is a lot that can be said on Maegher's work, and I do think that it does need to be explored in some detail. As such I will look at a number of areas he explores: the inability of humans to kill another human, the connection between sex and violence, once a killer always a killer, the nature of war as a civilising exercise, and the difficulties of resettling combat troops. There are a number of points to make about the nature of war in the ancient times, but I will leave discussion of that until the end.


The repulsion of murder

Now, as mentioned, studies have shown that humans tend to have a reluctance about shooting and attempting to kill another human being. Maegher has cited evidence, particularly in the battle of Gettysberg, where discarded rifles were found, useless, because they had been jammed full of ammunition. As it turns out the beligerents in the battle preferred to load their rifles rather than fire them, and if they did fire them, they would not fire them directly at another human being, even if it was an enemy doing the same to them. Instead they would rather fire over their head, into the ground, or not fire at all. It is suggested that even if they were being attacked, they would have great difficulty shooting the rifle. Similar suggestions have been made with regards to trench warfare in World War I and even the Normandy invasion in World War II. However, it is clear that there were lots of casualties during the war, but it has been suggested that it was more likely due to disease, starvation, and indirect attacks such as with artillery and machineguns. Further, it has been suggested that the more distance one puts between their victim, the easier it becomes to kill them. Further, it is clear that if one wants a soldier to become a killer, one must somehow remove that part of them that prevents them from being killers. I guess that that is why the nature of the army has changed these days, with most of the killing and fighting being performed by special forces (at least in Australia) and the regular army being little more than glorified police officers.


Sex and Violence

Now, war in the Ancient World is much different to war today. In one aspect it was very up close and personal. Granted, the Greeks did use bows, and there are a number of Greek Heroes (Herakles, Philoctetes, Paris) who's preferred weapon was a bow. However, bows become useless in hand to hand combat and it is suggested that the use of a bow is not as honourable as being up close with a spear. However, there is a catch, and while I do question Maegher's reasoning, it is not necessarily something that I am unaware of: the connection between sex and violence. This is something that I explored in American Psycho, especially how in that story the sex scene would almost seamlessly meld into an orgy of violence, and the violence would usually be perpetrated by a knife. This is the nature of piercing because, in a way, the act of sex involved the piercing another person. In fact, when a virgin woman first has sex her hyman must be pierced by the penis. It is a short jump, says Maegher, between the piercing that occurs during the act of sex and the piercing that occurs during hand to hand combat. As such, Maegher suggests, that the human is adverse to fighting and killing with a blade, especially as images of sex are conjured up during the combat, and thus he goes on to suggest that we would rather club somebody to death than stab them.


However, there are what are termed crimes of passion, but there are also lots of incidents where people are attacked and clubbed. However, knives were obviously such a concern that the government, at least here in Australia, has outright banned carrying them. It does seem though that in some context murder is possible, if it wasn't the murder rate would not be as high as it is. I suspect that in some circumstances, such as when we are emotionally charged, such as when we are fuming with anger, or passion, then our natural resistance to killing another human can be over ridden. I also note that this occurs in relation to gang violence, though I suspect that when it comes to gang violence we are looking at a warlike situation as well, as well as the minds of the perpetrators being over ridden by the effects of drugs. I suspect that acts of desperation, especially when we are looking for our next hit, can also have an effect.



Now, there is this idea that once one becomes a killer, it is something that is hard to shake off. I suspect that it is like a drug, or other addictive substance: once our eyes have been opened, and we know the experience, or at least we know that we can do it, then it becomes easier. There is a discussion of blood lust, the rush that a soldier gets when in combat, and sometimes it is described as a berserk rage. Some have pointed to the Viking berserkers in this regard. While impressive on the battlefield, a person fuelled by bloodlust can really only exist on the battlefield. There is no room or space for a berserker in peaceful and civilised society. However, it has been argued by some that humanities nature is to be at war with each other. That is something that I am going to have to agree with. The biblical concept of sin and individuality means that we put our own goals and ambitions above that of those around us. As such when we reach a disagreement we are more likely to fight for our own interests than negotiate a mutual outcome. Much has changed over the years though, and we are living in a period of peace where war only occurs on the fringes of our society. However, I would argue, that this is always the case: the core is at peace and war only occurs on the fringes.


Civilising war

This leads me to the point of war being an exercise of civilisation. That I consider also to be true, but also point to this as being expansionistic war. There are two types of warfare: defensive and expansionistic. When a person's homeland, lifestyle, or even family, is threatened, then the desire to protect those whom we love supersedes the inability to murder another human. If our family and our freedom are at stake, we will fight and we will fight viciously. However, war is also expansionistic, and in many cases it is seen as spreading an idea, whether it be nazism, communism, or even capitalism, out to the corners of the Earth. Unfortunately to fight that type of war we need killers, and as pointed out above, man, by nature, is not a killer, so they need to be turned into killers to do so. That is where the problem comes in because one cannot settle a killer back into society once peace has been achieved. I guess that is why in Rome the soldiers were settled on farms, as was the case in the United States.


Bringing us to Herakles though, Maegher, as does Shay, argues that these plays and stories are allegories pointing to war and combat trauma, and how do deal with it. Herakles is very canny like that, particularly with the emphasis of friendship. Herakles, the Grecian Hero, is ashamed and despoiled by his act of madness (and who wouldn't). He is a hero, he completed the twelve tasks, however he has murdered his family, and to him, it is this act that he will be remembered. It is like the saying that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a minute to destroy it. This is all Herakles could think of at the time, however as we look back on him, we are not reminded of him killing his family, but of the twelve labours that he completed, and the extended progeny of the Heraclidae that sprung from his loins.


Now, I am not entirely convinced that all of these plays are allegories, but are allegorical in the sense that they take the myths and use the myths as a means to help people understand society. It is suggested that the Greek Theatre was a male only affair, however I am inclined to disagree. Highborn women would attend the dramas as well. However, Euripides was not a popular playwright, at least not to the extent that he would always win first prize. His plays were chosen to be performed, so obviously he did impress the right people. However, the plays are not directed to the highborn, but to the common people. The highborn were the commanders and the leaders, and then, like now, they did not necessarily see combat up front. Some would, others would resign themselves to tents and horses. As such, the nature of combat trauma is more likely to be the province of the ordinary citizen than of the ruling class (and even in democratic Athens, there were the wealthy, highborn, ruling class).


I would go into the allegorising of the twelve labours, however I have written enough here already, so I guess I need to finish. I was also going to mention the difficulty to resettling combat troops, but I guess I have also said a lot on that as well. However, I suspect that in our society we are having a lot of trouble doing that anyway. This book is looking more at modern warfare, particularly with the wars that are being fought at the moment, however remember that war has always been with us, and will always be with us. America has constantly been at war since World War II, and much of that occurs at the fringes. The same is to be said of Ancient Rome and of the British Empire. Pax Britannia did last for 100 years, but they were always at war, though they did not recognise it as war because it was not with a European power. However there was war on the fringes, as the British sought to expand and civilise the world. So did the Romans, and so do the Americans. It is almost that it is in the nature of the ruling empire to spread out civilisation. It cannot help itself. It was true in the days of the Delian League and the Athenean Empire, and it is true of us now. The Greeks did not stop when they drove the Persians off the mainland, they had to continue the fight, and they continued into Asia Minor. About two hundred odd years later (I think, or it could be 150) Alexander the Great took the war to Darius' doorstep. It was not simply a war of conquest, but a war of civilisation. Persia wanted to civilise Greece (and failed) and the Greeks in turn wanted to civilise Persia (and succeeded). Therefore, what we come across is not so much a civilising influence, but a clash of civilisations. In this example, as it is today, who is to say which power is civilised and which is not. My inclination is to say neither.