War and Pain: Nothing New Under the Sun

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Young Greeks riding to the battlefield almost 3000 years ago.

By Gaither Stewart

THE WORLD GOES ROUND and round and human beings say and do the same things again and again, so that it seems there is truly nothing new under the sun. The perplexing unchangingness of man’s behavior and the ways of the world have again led me back to the ancient Greeks. And what do I find there? I find the same warmongers and pacifists of today, identical war parties and peace parties, arms industries and anti-war writers, the generals who predictably “just love war,” and, as one might expect, the same identical massacre of women and children as everyday in Iraq, now conveniently called “collateral damages.”

We are used to that military euphemism dating from the Vietnam War. We nearly skip over those terrible words.

Someday collateral damage might be called by its real name: “Crime against humanity.”

For this reason I have begun examining Greek classics for confirmation that human beings are not as innovative as we like to think. A recent look at Greek ideas on Power subsequently led me step by step to considerations of how Power in the time of the Greeks of 2500 years ago led inevitably to war, as it does today.

The Trojan Women

Euripides’ tragedy of 415 B.C. is considered the greatest anti-war play ever written. That conclusion is truly astounding, considering the number of major wars fought in the world’s major civilizations since those times. But, wait! Before going further I should situate this literary work in its proper framework: First of all, it took place in “peacetime”, in the aftermath of the fall of Troy to the victorious Athenians. Moreover, centralizing Athens had just brutally sacked the island state of Melos to force it into the Greek Federation, a military action that had shaken the people of Athens itself much as each new slaughter of civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan stuns some of us today: as was customary in those times all male citizens of Melos were massacred and women and children enslaved. At the same time the peacetime Greeks were preparing an unprovoked war against Sicily (read Iran for today), which in the long run did not work out well at all.

Vase commemorating the Trojan Wars, and Philotectes actions therein.

Such was the international atmosphere when playwright Euripides staged his protest.

Euripides’ tragedy is set in Troy in the period between the fall of the city-state of Troy and the departure of the Greek fleet for home. The same thing had happened there as in Melos: again the innocent civilians suffered most. Oh yes, the Trojan men were slaughtered, or somehow escaped, while the Trojan women were distributed among the victors. But as happens time and time again throughout history, the villains, the hated Athenian Odysseus, pretty Helen over whom the war was fought, and her former husband Menelaus, survived.

The focus in Euripides’ masterpiece is on the defeated Trojans. For a change the warlike Greeks are the bad guys. Men of both sides fought the war and suffered, but, as usual, the defeated suffered the most. Hecuba, the former Trojan queen, goes to Odysseus. The prophetess, Cassandra, Hecuba’s daughter, is given to Agamemnon. Andromache, wife of slain Trojan hero, Hector, goes to Achilles’ son, Neoptolemos. Helen, wife of Paris, is returned to her former husband, Menelaus. And so fearful were the Athenians of reprisals for their terror that they killed also the infant son of Hector.

First element: the hopelessness of war. One sees the hopeless despair of the women survivors in Troy, their fates as slaves and concubines of the victors. In our times we recall the despondent Mothers of Mayo in Argentina, the Iraqi mothers and wives and daughters, and the wives and mothers of American soldiers killed and maimed in Vietnam and Iraq.

Second element: the inhumanity of war. The lack of compassion on the part of the Greek warriors recalls the same degeneration of humanity as seen in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. So great is the savagery of the Greek victors that even the gods Athena and Poseidon turn on them and destroy many of their ships on the return voyage home.

Third element: the writer’s sympathy for the defeated. The tragedy by the Athenian playwright is pro-Trojan which would cause bewilderment in a tongue-tied American, anti-war critic of America in Iraq today. One wonders why we today are not capable of the same self-criticism Euripides was 2500 years ago? How many of us take a position and pronounce ourselves pro-Iraq in this war?

The uncomfortable truth is that the world of the Greeks was upside-down. It was ruled by tragedy and ruthlessness and disregard for human lives; war and death and destruction reigned. Yet, all who have read the classics know that its men of culture resisted. The great Greek tragedies—of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus—were committed expressions of cultural freedom directed against Power in all its forms. Though the Greeks were a male-dominated, martial society, the writers were the ethical conscience of mankind.

Euripides’ message to people and to gods and to all eternity was that war scars the defeated and the victors alike. What remains, he said, is that not even the post-bellum cleansing can remove the stain of blood and guilt. Still today America speaks of undigested Vietnam. We can well wonder how long it will be destined to speak of the guilt of Iraq.

Fourth element: the victims of war. Statistics of war dead are always misleading. In Greece, chiefly soldiers died. The women of Troy and Melos were enslaved. In our times, the great majority of dead are instead civilian, the collateral damage: in Vietnam, ninety per cent of the total dead were Vietnamese civilians as opposed to 59,000 American dead and its hundreds of thousands mutilated. In Iraq, probably ninety-nine per cent of the total dead are civilians.

Fifth element: Who profits from war? War profiteers are nothing new and should be recognizable by all of us for what they are. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the Chorus, standing at urns filled with the ashes of young men warriors (recalling the body bags and caskets bringing the dead back from Iraq) recite: “For war’s a banker, flesh his gold.” The makers of swords and spears and helmets and shields of the time censored all talk of peace. Generals like two-gun General Patton singing of the “joy of war” and “crazed for sweet human blood” sorrowed at the very mention of the word “peace” … at which ordinary people always rejoice.

At first also the Greek wars seemed glamorous and righteous and heroic … young men off in adventure to see the world. But those wars too ended in slaughter. Men and gods now know that winnerless war always hurts also the innocent and pillages man. Conquerors never conquer completely and the defeated are never defeated completely. Vietnam and Iraq and Cuba and Nicaragua, to name a few, are the proof. But in the attempt, the innocent pay.

Sixth element: the absurdity of war. I offer this little très modern gossipy aside about Helen of Troy to lighten an admittedly heavy read. The Athenians and Trojans allegedly fought their bloody ten-year war over the bigamist and two-faced Helen. Helen or Helena, first Athenian as the wife of Menelaus, then Trojan as wife of Paris, then again back to forgiving Menelaus. Helen, it was said, had great hair, bland manners, a cute little wart between her eyebrows, little mouth and perfect tits. Menelaus erupted into Troy to kill her for her marital betrayal but he only had to take one look at her bared breasts before he dropped his sword.


Ancient Greeks prepared themselves for battle with a creative array of defensive instruments and implements to avoid unnecessary risk and maximize the possibility of survival. Armor, which mainly protected the head, parts of the chest and legs, was lighter than in the Middle Ages.

In her life Helen apparently did little more than display her body … and betray. We do not know what she thought. Apparently she had no virtues. Most certainly she brought disaster to men. She has been defined as “an irresistible sorrow.” As Hecuba says in The Trojan Women, “a man in love once is never out of love again.” Perhaps chastised by conscience but still a slave of her passions, she Helen once referred to herself as “bitch that I am” and “whore that I am”—which I frankly find redeeming despite critics’ criticisms. She must have been capable of self-examination in a way that men warriors were not. Yet, for the Greeks too she was the confirmation of Horace’s cutting words that even before Helen “the cunt was the cause of wars.” Another story of Helen that I encountered in Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea was that when she found her sister with her throat cut, her mourning consisted of trimming the tips of her beautiful hair … but not too much.

Seventh element: the position of woman. It has been generously suggested that fabled Helen was just a victim of the gods. We might remember that in all her duplicity she was the subject of two Euripides plays: Helen and The Trojan Women. So maybe the words about woman’s role in ancient Greece are understandable even though hardly justified. For Greeks, woman was forever the “opposite”, the “other” of man, a non-man, defective, playing a negative role in relation to the male who was the first principle. The male was man by virtue of the exclusion of his opposite. Man and woman, the positive and the negative. Therefore man needed woman to survive. Down through the ages the male has always needed two things in women: the Mother and the cunt. Men admit it. Woman is the nature he wants to suppress but cannot live without: woman, fickle, beautiful, unknowable, mysterious, desirable, necessary.

Eighth element: patriotism. This is the difficult obstacle for modern Americans. We have seen the difficulty of being pro-Iraqi. However, the Athenian Euripides resolved the problem in this way: he was less against his Athens than opposed to all war makers. The purpose of his Trojan Women was apparently an attempt to shock and shake people to their senses as their leaders continued on their warlike path of conquest and the spread of their empire with the sword. The same dilemma goes for America today: in my mind opposition to the Iraqi war, rejection of Washington’s Cold War-terrorist bugaboo, convictions of a Washington-organized Twin Towers tragedy, are not unpatriotic principles. On the contrary.

Who in his right senses is not in accord with Euripides who screamed across Athenian stages 2500 years ago the same word pacifists cry today: “Enough!

Gaither Stewart, a Special Contributing Editor and Cyrano’s Journal European correspondent, is a seasoned journalist and essayist with hundreds of articles published in both digital and print media in the US, Europe and Latin America. He makes his home in the hills of Rome.

2 comments on “War and Pain: Nothing New Under the Sun
  1. I think there’s always been a minority of “vanguardists” in terms of morality, and they have seen the insanity and injustice represented by war, even though at times human conflicts cannot be resolved by means other than organized violence. Why? Because at any given time there are so many people set in their beliefs–many of them destructive and exploitative–and such people cannot be simply “argued” into a more generous position. If that were possible, we would have not seen an American Civil War, nor the world wars of the 20th century, nor the stupidest and most self-c0nsciously fabricated of all the wars (thanks to the Western capitalists): the Cold Wars.

    And while patriotism may at last be slowly receding in some parts of Europe, and its long term prospects I believe are poor, in some places it retains its tribal ferocity, beginning with the seat of the Empire in the US.

  2. Another tour de force by this author. The question for me is, do people ever come to their senses when it does make a difference? Humanity seems to be on a perennial “student” track; lessons studied but not retained!

    Love the bold sweep of these essays. Thank you!

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