Recently I have been re-reading the seven extant plays of Aeschylus, primarily because the tragedy of Iraq seems to me so parallel to themes of the great Greek tragedian. Most pertinent, perhaps, is his play The Persians, the only surviving play of fifth-century Athens, which takes its subject matter directly from contemporary history. At the heart of the play is the notion that pride ultimately destroys not only individuals, but nations as well. Herodotus in his Histories relates Artabanos, the uncle of the Persian leader Xerxes, advising his nephew that “it is the great ones that God smites with his thunder… For God tolerates pride in none but himself.” And in Aeschylus’ play about the Persian imperialistic attempts to conquer and govern other peoples, the idea is put forth that God punishes such supreme ignorance:
But where is the man,
Where is he so keen
As to cheat the snares of the Gods
With a leap?
Calamity lures him, smiles,
Seduces him into her net
And no escape.
Do these lines not strike terrible chords today? Have we not been lured by sheer arrogance into a net from which there seems no good escape? We stay in Iraq and more soldiers and civilians die, more terrorists are drawn into the arena, and America’s reputation sinks lower and lower. We withdraw and civil wars may escalate further, and, in the eyes of the world, we confirm the view that we blundered and were ultimately defeated. We cannot stay successfully and we cannot leave successfully. As the tragedian writes:
Mortal men should think only
Violence sown has reaped a harvest of
Ruin and bitter tears.
We learn this after every misguided war, Vietnam being the most recent, yet we quickly forget and believe, somehow, that war can solve complex issues. We forget that war is itself the ultimate failure. That the schemers of this war believed they could impose upon a foreign culture their own scheme of how that country should behave constitutes a supreme act of arrogance and, as Aeschylus writes, “just payment for terrible pride and godless ignorance…is misery.” In the case of Iraq – misery for the now over two million, yes, two million refugees, for the over 100,000 innocent civilians dead and the cities destroyed. All because mortal men allowed themselves to believe they could achieve their own brand of immortality and political gain through the violent invasion of a non-aggressor nation. Many Americans keep conveniently forgetting Iraq did not engineer 9/11.
The Greek tragedian also writes that we must “never scorn the blessings heaven gives today while lusting for others.” Yet whether the lust was for oil, as some contend, or for regime change or for nation-building, or whatever – lust was certainly involved. And peace, however despicable Saddam was, peace has been the victim of the American aggression. The blessings heaven has given the U.S. in the form of great wealth have been converted into our own weapons that have caused mass destruction in Iraq and devastation for its innocent peoples. The irony, no, the tragedy, of invading a country because we could not find its weapons of mass destruction and the unleashing upon its citizenry our own terrifying weapons would surely not be lost on Aeschylus, who would say to our leaders, as he says to the Persian leader in his play:
Tell him [them] in his [their]
Foolishness to listen to you and
Stop offending God with
Would that our leaders had read and understood Aeschylus.