America’s Modern Iliads
Dr. Austin Mardon & Cheyanne Welch
When Homer wrote the Iliad, he could not have known that it would remain a staple for students throughout Western classrooms in literature courses. Perhaps he would not object – until he discovered how the Iliad is perceived: a glorious account of a glorious war with glorious warriors. Glory and war are commonly seen as intrinsic to each other throughout the Iliad; yet when read carefully and critically, it is seen for what it is: a literary memorial. Caroline Alexander, who translated the Iliad in 2015, explains that,
“…when one reads the entirety of the epic, it is unambiguously clear at every turn that the poem is evoking the blighting effect of this war on every single participant in it. Old men, civilians, children, captive women or wives, as well as the warriors, like Achilles—they all decry it. Every adjective evokes the destruction and tragedy of war. It’s literally a war of tears” (Worrall 2016).
The view of war expressed by Homer and Alexander reflects my own – that war is a plague on society, dressed up and celebrated by the victors while it simultaneously eats their hearts and souls. In his book Anarchy and Apocalypse, Ron Osborn argues that war has a logic of its own and that, once begun, is more difficult to halt than to continue (2010). It disguises itself as active and pre-emptive, but, in reality, it is passive and reactionary. Furthermore, war not only destroys the people who lose, but it destroys the people who win, as evidenced by the prevalence of PTSD and subsequent suicide among soldiers, whether from the winning or losing sides (McKelvey 2008). What reason do we have to celebrate war?
While this opinion may be ‘unpopular’ in the West, it is seen by some in the United States of America as downright treasonous. A Homeric interpretation of US foreign policy means opposing many of the actions taken by the American military. It also affects perceptions of their history and current attitudes – and their war memorials. Numerous and popular, these memorials stud the country like gemstones in the rejected monarch’s crown, and crowds gather to ‘pay respects’ at many. Two stand out, each for a different and important reason.
The Marine Corps Memorial, located in Arlington, Virginia, depicts a famous moment from World War II, but is dedicated to all the Marines who have given their lives in service of the United States of America. Modeled after a famous photograph taken on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945, the massive bronze and granite statue stands approximately 23.77 meters (78 feet) tall (“History of the Marine Corps War Memorial”). Larger than life, it towers over any human standing in its shadow – whether marine or civilian. As the rippling flag blocks out the sun for a moment, it is as though the accomplishments of these men are to be ranked among the gods – they are immortal and holy. Surely, in the shadow of this immense homage to freedom, you could not criticize how that freedom was attained.
That is the precise issue – the means of gaining freedom is never questioned when memorials create heroes of mythic proportions out of regular men. And yes, “men”, because the memorial has yet to include the women who serve in the Marines and still stubbornly reads, “In honor and in memory of the men of the United States Marine Corps who have given their lives to their country since November 10, 1775” (“History of the Marine Corps War Memorial”, emphasis added). The size of the memorial alone is imposing and authoritarian. The flag of the USA, penetrating the sky, is reflected in the distant phallic Washington Memorial. Instead of barbed wire and shrapnel surrounding the soldiers’ feet, there are neatly crafted stones, as though they are raising the flag atop a particularly difficult peak in the Rockies, and not atop a battle ground. What screams out from this gargantuan mass of metal and rock is what is not there – the bodies. 20,000 American men were wounded in the battle for Iwo Jima. 7,000 American men were killed. 17,784 Japanese men were killed. It was one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history (“The Battle for Iwo Jima”), but not a drop of blood is seen at this memorial. Three of the six men raising the flag did not leave Iwo Jima alive, but the massive, shining effigy loudly whispers that their lives were a fair trade for the proud, picturesque moment and the achingly patriotic story. “War is monstrously beautiful,” it screams. “Just look at these heroes, frozen in bronze, worshipped for their feats of strength.” It forgets to scream that those heroes died along with 60,000,000 other humans.
Less than an hour down the road is another memorial, also in Arlington, Virginia, and within walking distance, but like stepping into a different country. The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial sits quietly on the lawn of the Pentagon itself, still in the flight path of airplanes coming and going from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The sound of their engines jolts the memory of every visitor, as if those visitors could ever forget what happened there. The memorial is a park without grass, a grid of metal stripping the stony ground. Along those stripes are cantilever benches – one for each innocent death – arranged by the age of the individuals. The benches are suspended above pools of water and Crape Myrtle trees cast shadows that dance with the liquid reflections, like shadows of the human lives that ended there. It is a sombre place, individualistic and inclusive at once. Spreading across the small field, the space unobtrusively communicates the enormity of the tragedy; it is the gaps that create a sense of awe, rather than the enormity of a fabricated metal statue. There is no proud American flag. There is no invasive statue. There is no celebration. This memorial haunts. It hurts. It weeps and bleeds. The silence closes around a person, forbidding them to speak and yet inviting them to communicate with their fellow humans gathered beside them, beneath them. The memorial asks for reflection, rather than admiration for the series of tragedies that lead to its construction.
The memorial also dares – dares a person to brush aside the reality of war. It does not scream or whisper but speaks loudly and clearly. “War is hell. It is pain and horror and death. It does not care if you are a child, a lover, a parent, a friend – it kills without discrimination, without mercy. It destroys people with other people. It turns bodies and minds into bombs and mines, and humans become weapons of mass destruction as easily as they become dust after death.” The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial is a physical manifestation of a modern Iliad, complete with dead babies, women, and old men.
Each memorial is unique and shares a slightly different narrative of war with those who visit. While there are moments of heroism and humanism in war, highlighting those moments in ignorance of the overarching horror allows the nightmare to persist through generations. How the West views war must change. The cost in human lives needs to be recognized. Only 1.2% of Japanese troops survived the battle for Iwo Jima. In retribution for the 2,996 innocent people who died on 9/11 (Plumer 2013), 173,000 Afghan and Pakistani men, women, and children have died in the ensuing war and 183,000 more have been seriously wounded (Crawford 2016). If the war memorials of the West, and particularly America, continue to celebrate and glorify war, ignoring the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives lost on both sides of the conflict, humanity will continue to be eaten alive by the beast called violence, and the myrtles at the Pentagon will weep alone.
“Battle for Iwo Jima.” The National WWII Museum: New Orleans, July 2017, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/sites/default/files/2017-07/iwo-jima-fact-sheet.pdf. Accessed 25 Mar 2022.
“History of the Marine Corps War Memorial.” National Park Service, 27 Nov. 2017, https://www.nps.gov/gwmp/learn/historyculture/usmcwarmemorial.htm. Accessed 25 Mar 2022.
“Research Starters: Worldwide Deaths in World War II.” The National World War II Museum: New Orleans, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-worldwide-deaths-world-war, Accessed 25 Mar 2022.
Crawford, Neta C. “Update on the Human Cost of War for Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001 to mid-2016.” Brown University, Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Costs of War, August 2016, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2016/War%20in%20Afghanistan%20and%20Pakistan%20UPDATE_FINAL_corrected%20date.pdf.
McKelvey, Tara. “Combat Fatigue.” The American Prospect: Special Report, July/August 2008.
Osborn, Ronald. Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy. Cascade Books, 2010.
Plumer, Brad. “Nine Facts about Terrorism in the United States since 9/11.” The Washington Post, 11 Sept 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/09/11/nine-facts-about-terrorism-in-the-united-states-since-911/?utm_term=.7654df877ebb.
Worrall, Simon. “War is Unavoidable—and Other Hard Lessons from Homer’s Iliad.” National Geographic, 10 Jan 2016, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/160110-homer-iliad-ancient-world-alexander-ngbooktalk/.
Cheyanne Welch is an article writer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada and MPH Global Health at University of Alberta
Austin Mardon, PhD, CM, FRSC, is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta.