The Shield of Achilles

For me, growing up in the years after World War II, Memorial Day meant a civic service of remembrance at a neighborhood monument with a heart-stopping rifle salute to the dead; followed by a parade down Staten Island’s Victory Boulevard, where columns of veterans, active military units and martial bands passed in review; and finally a family visit to St. Peter’s Cemetery to lay a wreath on my Uncle Joe’s grave, where the American Legion had already stopped to plant an American flag.

Today my rituals are more private, pensive and mournful: a small Mass in community where, as we do on most days, we pray for all today’s war dead; a mournful remembrance of the service personnel killed in Iraq, whose photos I survey each month in The New York Times, and the scores of faceless Iraqi civilians daily slaughtered by terrorist insurgents; and finally reading war poetry, for a poem captures better than news reports the ambiguity, the pain and, most of all, the evil of war.

This year I settled on W. H. Auden’s Shield of Achilles, a favorite I read often in times like these, of low-intensity, low-profile warfare. Published in 1955, the poem draws on a passage of Homer’s Iliad, where the lame blacksmith god Hephaestus, at the request of Thetis, Achilles’ mother, fashions a magnificent shield for the hero celebrating scenes of Greek pastoral and civic life. As if to contrast the heroic ideal with the modern reality, Auden alternates short, lyric depictions of the Homeric shield with elegiac descriptions of modern war.

The second modern stanza is typical:

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place;
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed,
Column by column, in a cloud of dust,
They marched away, enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

As I gaze on the faces of fallen Americans, as I hear daily of the suicide bombing deaths in Baghdad, Mosul and Irbil, I think of the ways the administration and its defenders tried to prove some cause was just. Was it weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda or Iraq’s liberation from the tyrant Saddam Hussein? Recently on Crossfire, Bay Buchanan gibed to Donna Brazile, Why can’t you people get over it? That is, forget the origins of the war; be satisfied that Saddam has been deposed; and relish the ink-stained Iraqi fingers that elected a free government? But every day, there are the deathsof Americans yes, but even more of Iraqis, who are paying a far higher price for American hubris.

It’s a price the government does not want us to see. There is no accounting, as in other wars, of Iraqi dead. Even photos of the coffins of the American dead had to be forced by court order from the Pentagon. If it were possible for American journalists to travel openly in Iraq, it does not appear likely that the network executives, pressed to increase profits and mingle news and entertainment, would carry their disturbing, illusion-breaking stories.

Instead we have our own shield of Achilles. On it those purple fingers are raised in defiance; the architects of war receive presidential medals and are rewarded with high-level appointments; the election results of November 2004 are touted as validation for a slam-dunk war; and a Pentagon commission exonerates the top brass as enlisted personnel are sentenced to the brig for having tortured and abused prisoners.

David Rieff is a fidgety, disenchanted journalist, who has covered this country’s wars for the last 15 years. In his new book, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (Random House), he documents his gradual disillusionment with military intervention as a tool of humanitarian foreign policy. No pacifist, he admits intervention would have been justified in Rwanda and perhaps today in Darfur, but the human costs of war and the political ineffectiveness of military intervention have led him to reject the use of force for idealistic ends.

Like the late Pope John Paul II, Rieff rejects human rights wars, and would accept only efforts, in the pope’s words, to disarm the aggressor in situations where whole populations are at risk. That is a standard too high for some, like Michael Ignatieff, Jean Bethke Elshtain and Thomas Friedman, who favor the use of force for the sake of extending the domain of liberty. Certainly it is a far too restrictive norm for permissive just-war thinkers, like George Weigel and James Turner Johnson, who are ready to find a just cause wherever political convenience directs.

John Paul II, who in 1991 declared, I am no pacifist, understood the evil of war. That is why he preached a gospel of peace. As he wrote in Centesimus Annus (1991) and never tired of repeating, war destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing, and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war.

From personal suffering John Paul understood war is part of the culture of death, so he would offer only the slenderest grounds on which to resort to arms. In Evangelium Vitae (1995), moreover, he identified as one of the hopeful signs of the times a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples and increasingly oriented to finding effective but nonviolent’ means to counter the armed aggressor.

John Paul would have been attuned to the mournful conclusion of Auden’s poem. There the poet tells us of the melancholy effect of even the best attempts to ennoble war:

The thin-lipped armorer
Hephaestus hobbled away;
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay.
At what the God has wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted and man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

As a cardinal, commenting on the 2003 Persian Gulf war, Pope Benedict XVI said, [T]oday we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a just war.’ Given the chaos, death and suffering unleashed by the war that one partisan promised would be a cakewalk, it is time to take seriously Cardinal Ratzinger’s question. Catholics, other Christians and all men and women of conscience ought to ask whether the just war as practiced by nation-states is obsolete. Does just war do so little to prevent conflict, limit its destructiveness and save the lives of the innocent that it ought to be abandoned? Should it be replaced, in exceptional circumstances, by something akin to international policingjust policingand in most others be supplanted by varieties of nonviolent conflict resolution?

New reforms of the United Nations, proposed by Kofi Annan, may augur stricter norms for the use of force and rules for humanitarian interventions (see America’s editorial Global Governance, 5/16). Let us pray that world leaders will approve such changes and that the church will lead the way toward a less violent world order. For this Memorial Day, the chaos that is Iraq shows us how damaging the resort to arms can be.

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