The first book of The Iliad teaches us, among other things, that war erupts sometimes simply because people can’t stop being children. And as children, they just don’t consider the consequences. Nor do they want to. What Achilles says of Agamemnon – “He lacks the sense to see a day behind, a day ahead” – surely applies to him as well.
Homer’s Achilles, “doomed to the shortest life of any man on earth,” is the quintessential child. He may fight better than anyone. But when his feelings are bruised – when he has to give up Briseis, his captive slave-woman, to Agamemnon – he goes to momma.
And Thetis, wondering why she ever bore this child of doom (Roe v. Wade hadn’t been adjudicated back then), goes to Zeus to plead his case; and then Hera, Zeus’ sister and wife, gets jealous and pleads Agamemnon’s case; and all Zeus wants is to be left alone. At one point he threatens to “throttle” Hera if she doesn’t suspend her “eternal suspicions.”
Then the first book ends in what has to be the most brilliant and incomparable example of foreshadowing:
And Olympian Zeus the lord of lightning went to his own bed
where he had always lain when welcome sleep came on him.
There he climbed and there he slept and by his side
lay Hera the Queen, the goddess of the golden throne.
(Book I, 732-35, Robert Fagles translation)
In other words, war’s afoot. So is all that comes with it. All’s been settled by a night of spooning gods.
Homer, an enigma to literary scholars and historians, knew people. The scholars think they know that sometime between 725-625 B.C., his hexameters were composed, derived from an oral tradition that went back many years. (Hey, it’s hard to be a scholar of the most important work of art on Earth.) But while Homer the person, historically, may be hard to legitimize, his words aren’t. And they are timeless.
John Krakauer borrowed Homer’s words for his great book Where Men Win Glory (Book I, 584), an account of former Arizona Cardinals defensive back Pat Tillman and the Bush administration’s lies about his death from friendly fire in Afghanistan (I thought Christians weren’t supposed to lie), all to push its odious propaganda war, ala Joseph Goebbels. If you’ve read the book and aren’t disgusted – and as angry as a cornered possum – lying to Tillman’s mother about how her son died is unforgiveable – you’re lost.
But propaganda works, even while it rots the soul, the heart, the mind.
Some people have asked me why I don’t go back to newspapers, and I always resist telling them. I envision the same response I got from my CO in the Navy when I refused to pray with him and my shipmates back in the 70s: “You’re a godless communist, aren’t you, Seaman Wigginton. Clean the shitters with your toothbrush, then brush your teeth.”
Truth is, I don’t and won’t go back to the American press, print or otherwise, because newsrooms are the playgrounds of the status quo, wrapped up in propaganda. The powers that be may say they want and encourage input from their subordinates, may say they want great journalism, but they really don’t. As a result, most stories are thinly disguised pieces of PR — a dance of embedded stenography.
So I’d rather cut grass and paint houses for a living – though my brother tells me I’m so-so slow – than step into another American newsroom, places that literally make me ill.
I could blame this on Afghanistan, because I just couldn’t come back and believe in what I was doing anymore. As much as I tried, I couldn’t. It’s hard to transition from seat-of-the pants life or death to some school-board meeting. The movie The Hurt Locker is absurd in many ways, but it does get some things right: When Jeremy Renner finds himself in that grocery-store isle, looking at all those cereal boxes and not knowing what to do, that’s real. I’ve been there. I know exactly what’s going on in that troubled head.
But Afghanistan isn’t to blame. I started questioning my involvement with the American press shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
Dan Rather telling Dave Lettermen that he was, essentially, a soldier for President Bush made me ashamed: Real journalists have no country.
But it got worse, culminating on Fox News on the night of Nov. 5, 2001. That was the beginning of the end for me.
On that night, Brit Hume and his Fox News reprobates argued, like Homeric children, that American journalists shouldn’t be driven by the deaths of Afghan civilians.
It was a bad night for journalism.
It was a bad night for the heart.
It was a bad night for truth.
I ask you, reader, to be patient as I provide the transcript of the exchanged between Hume, Mara Liasson, Michael Barone and Mort Kondracke, responding to news reports about Afghan civilian deaths from U.S. bombs. Wordsworth told us about moments in our lives that stick, because they reveal the deepest meaning. He called them “spots of time.” Here’s one of mine:
HUME: If you listened to the Pentagon briefings in the past week, watched ABC News in the past few weeks, or CNN to some extent as well, you’ll know that civilian casualties has emerged, at least in those venues, as a major story line of this war. And the question I have is, civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really. Should they be as big news as they’ve been — Mara?
LIASSON: No. Look, war is about killing people. Civilian casualties are unavoidable. Now, I think there’s this notion that we have precision weapons and we can actually choose who we want to kill. I don’t think that’s correct. I do think what’s been missing, in a television war where the opposition, your enemy can take reporters to show them purported civilian casualty areas, has been a message from the U.S. government that says we are trying to minimize them, but the Taliban isn’t, and is putting their tanks in mosques, and themselves among women and children.
HUME: Well, we first heard that from the Pentagon. It was Rumsfeld who came out and said that.
LIASSON: Yes, but I don’t think that’s been repeated over and over again in a way that would counter the Taliban message.
KONDRACKE: Well, the Pentagon puts out these pictures which show us hitting a tank or hitting a truck. And one gets the impression that every shot is a perfect shot, which it clearly cannot be. You know, some percentage of shots are going to miss. And it should be clear, but it’s got to be emphasized repeatedly, that the United States is not trying to kill civilians. I mean, if we were, we would carpet bomb Kandahar, which we are not going to do. But it’s hard to know whether ABC and CNN broadcast this because they are offended that we are causing the civilian casualties, or because they’re trying to show us what Al-Jazeera is likely to be showing in Pakistan and elsewhere. If that’s the case, then American people should know, at least, that there are civilian casualties that are being exploited.
BARONE: Well, Mort, I think people do understand that these things don’t hit target 100 percent of the time. A population that’s got cell phones and laptop computers knows that machines don’t always work, even though they’re pretty miraculous when they do. I think the real problem here is that this is poor news judgment on the part of some of these news organizations. Civilian casualties are not, as Mara says, news. The fact is that they accompany wars. What’s newsworthy here is that the United States taxpayer and the United States military has spent billions of dollars to develop these precision weapons, which most of the time hit a very precisely defined military target. They get much more bang for the buck and much more bang for each (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And we very seldom do it. So I think a lot of these stories are holding us to a standard. And the tone and the structure of the story almost suggests that the United States is committing some kind of a war crime when there is a civilian damage or a collateral damage on the side. I think that’s a very wrong judgment of what the rules of war are about. And I think this is very poor news judgment, because civilian casualties are really not news.
It’s still hard to read this without crying. The words reflect the darkest season of the human soul.
Utterly illogical in so many ways, however, these words typify the American character post 9/11.