“It may have been wrong for us to take [our empire,] but now that we have it, it is certainly dangerous for us to let it go.”
— Pericles of Athens
So we have Alexander (picking up from our prior episode) caught morally between an angel on one shoulder and a devil of the other.
Alexander is our protagonist.
He’s our hero.
He has to resolve the clash between one beloved friend who makes the case that no action is out of bounds in war if it produces victory … and another companion, equally dear and equally honorable, who declares that he crossed these thousand leagues “to be a soldier, not a butcher.”
Here’s the next scene. Again, Alexander narrates:
My estrangement from Hephaestion, though more painful than ever, has evolved to that state, at least, in which he and I can address each other with absolute candor. When, again alone with me, he declares this campaign “odious,” I cite great Pericles of Athens, who, speaking of his city’s empire, stated that
it may have been wrong for us to take it, but now that we have it, it is certainly dangerous for us to let it go.
“Ah!” my mate replies, “then you admit the possibility that this Butcher’s War–and we who prosecute it–may be wicked and unjust.”
I smile at his clever turn. “If we are wicked, my friend, then Almighty Zeus himself has founded our iniquity. For he and no other has established the imperative of conquest within our hearts. Not in mine alone, or yours, but in every man in this army and all the armies of the Earth. He has made us this way. Yes, and every lion and wolf and eagle, who are impelled by their natures to contend for supremacy.” I indicate the bronze of Zeus Hetaireios on my writing stand. “Plead your case not to me, Hephaestion, but to him.”
But for all these words of mine, my friend has won me. That night I make up my mind. I will end this campaign of massacre, before it destroys us all, and remarshal the corps to cross into India.
We must have a good war.
We must have a war with honor.
Alexander’s answer to Hephaestion goes to the heart of all moral issues on planet Earth, i.e. that dimension where we and all of nature inhabit physical bodies that are mortal and that can bleed, and feel pain, and die.
Who made this world?
Who made the rules?
A lion–or a rat, or you and me–must kill and devour another living creature … a being that is sentient and feels fear and love and wishes to live, just as we do … in order to survive for one more day.
Is that “right?”
Is it just “the way it is?”
Is war eternal?
This idea of life eating life goes deep. If mythologist Joseph Campbell was still alive, I’d pay dearly to listen in on a conversation between him and Steve. This one-minute clip is from “The Power of Myth” (the 1988 six-part PBS documentary of Campbell’s conversations with journalist Bill Moyers), here where Campbell is talking about mythology related to the hunt.
I think certain parallels can be drawn between hunting and war, parallels that go beyond just the killing: Being paired in a dance of life and death that continually requires an assessment of one’s own place in a moral universe; the potential of some degree of respect between the parties; and a recognition that the taking of life requires some ritual of appeasement before the entity that created that life. Good stuff today.
Lots of topics in this one post, Steve, thank you!
“A war with honor?” Absolutely; if you’re defending your country, your government: Allies vs Nazi Germany, America-Allies vs Japan. North in the Civil War. American response in Afg after 9/11. Ukrainans trying to defend against Russians; Vietnam in 1979 against the Chinese invasion…there are plenty of just wars throughout history, and warfare is anything but antiseptic. They burned people at the stake; we used flamethrowers. Other than efficiency, what is the difference?
But while brutality in combat against an opponent is necessary to both survive and win (Marines vs Japanese, for example); look at how those same Marines tried hard to save civilians @ Saipan and Okinawa. That’s war with honor.
But can you turn a war of conquest into a war with honor, as Alexander hopes to do in India? Not really; he’d already waged a brutal campaign in Afg, so having gotten to the Afg-Indian border, his motives were already suspect. Keeping the conquered kingdoms are a political and economic, not philosophical issue. And I vehemently disagree with him that Zeus/God made warriors to fight in that way; and generals from Leonidas to Mattis would agree with me.
I can’t help but wonder if there will be a future where all entities on this planet behave as a whole with a common purpose of survival: the war, the battle becomes a goal of preservation for all.
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