Home > Iliad, The > The Glory and Horror of War

The Glory and Horror of War

There are plenty of ‘anti-war’ films out there. Especially recent ones. I don’t think that war movies are even allowed to be made nowadays, unless they at least comment on the supposed unnecessary reasons why the battle they are depicting is being fought.

On the flip side of this coin are the action films of the 80s and 90s, in which Stallone or Schwarzenegger would blaze into a jungle or a military stronghold somewhere, blowing hundreds of enemies to kingdom come without batting an eye, only to offer a cringe-inducing pun at the end, commenting on his own carnage.

Some people would say we’ve come a long way since then, but I actually kind of miss those movies. Film director Francois Truffaut once said that it was, in fact, impossible to make an anti-war movie. What he meant, was that since battle scenes of movies contain action, they are exciting. This causes the viewer to inevitably root for one side, and look forward to the defeat of the other. So even if you were making an anti-war statement, people would still get excited about war, thus defeating it’s own purpose, even if it were accidental.

I suppose there really is something to Truffaut’s concern, but at the end of the day, the problem is that war is exciting. We can fight it and pretend like it’s not, but then we’d just be fooling ourselves.

Homer handles this tension perfectly. The Iliad is both extremely considerate about the horrors of war, and unapologetic about the glory of it. It is amazing to me to read the story – which was written by a Greek – in which many of the Greeks in the book are evil and cruel, while many of the Trojan enemies are heartfelt and honorable. I would wager that most people who read the story nowadays would tend to look much more favorably on Hector than they would Achilles.

Even in the most exciting of action scenes, Homer steps back and gives us the back story of the person who is about to be slaughtered. There is a tendency when reading The Iliad to wish that Homer would just skip the descriptions of these minor characters and get back to the battle. But Homer won’t let us off the hook that easily.

Consider the demise of the brothers Xanthus and Thoon at the hands of Diomedes in Book 5 (which is merely one example of many). Homer stops for a bit to tell us of their father, whose sons were just killed:

[Diomedes] ripped the dear life out of both and left their father

tears and wrenching grief. Now he’d never welcome

his two sons home from war, alive in the flesh,

and distant kin would carve apart their birthright.

Even though I’m rooting for the hero at this point, I’ve got to deal with this incredibly sad anecdote shoved right in the middle of the battle. You can’t escape from it.

There are no nameless faces in The Iliad. There is no cannon fodder whose only purpose is to be mowed down by the heroes. There are only real, three dimensional characters, with families and hopes and dreams. We are at once excited and horrified by what we are reading. Homer tackles each aspect perfectly.

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