Thursday, February 11, 2021

Classics as War Literature


Unarguably, Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus were the only classics for centuries.  In Western Europe, the Renaissance consisted of rediscovering these classics.  And key to these classics was the Trojan War.  The method for fighting that war changed little in succeeding centuries.  Even by Napoleon's time there was only a marginal difference.  His soldiers had bullets, but tactical attacks were made with bayonets.  In the midst of the American Civil War it was demonstrated that bayonet attacks against entrenched troops using rifles that could be reloaded quickly were destined to have unacceptable casualties.  Though this lesson should have been well understood by the First World War, it was not.  British, French and German soldiers were ordered to fix-bayonets and charge entrenched enemies equipped with machine guns.  Most had learned this lesson by World War Two, but the Japanese were famous for their banzai charges which were successful against poorly equipped Chinese, but suicide against the Marines who island-hopped using machine guns and rapid firing M1's.

Have there been "classics" written about warfare that is radically different from the way the Trojans and Achaeans fought?  What comes to mind?  All Quiet on the Western Front for example?   I see that as an antiwar novel whose author is pessimistic about WW1 tactics.  Improvements in communications let the people back home understand the nature of modern warfare and they were critical of it.  British and French populations were so traumatized by the devastating methods of their generals that they refused to adequately prepare for Hitler's initiation of WW II.  The U.S. had less excuse for being unprepared, but it had a history of isolationism as a result of being located between two oceans.  

One might see modern warfare in a great state of flux and think it impossible to write a classic that will be pertinent for succeeding generations.  How would such a thing be possible when warfare is sure to be different?  I read Nelson DeMille's extremely well-written Up Country.  His protagonist, Paul Brenner thirty years after the Vietnam War in which he was an an accomplished and decorated combat soldier, returns for an Odyssey Up Country.  Rather than a Homeric as-it-happens trek, Brenner recalls significant events as he travels.  Rather than Gods and Goddesses thwarting him, he has a Communist Colonel who dogs him throughout his entire journey.  Odysseus thwarts Penelope's suitors and restores himself on Ithaca.  Paul Brenner thwarts the Communist colonel as well as corrupt American officials in Vietnam and returns safely to America. 

DeMille has the current advantage of writing in a modern language understood by English-speaking people everywhere and potentially translated into any modern language.  Homer has been translated into modern languages, but ancient Greek is translated into modern languages with uneven results.  Scholars of ancient Greek are regularly expressing unhappiness with earlier translations and creating new ones.  So, is there any possibility of a DeMille’s Up Country being thought equal to The Odyssey?   No.  The Odyssey is incomparable.  Even if DeMille is easier to read and understand than Homer, Homer has the prestige. Homer is in a sense the definition of “classic.” 

Imagine a college literature class 500 years from now.  It will still be valuing Homer, but will it value DeMille?  What could they say about him?  He may have had Homer in mind when he wrote Up Country and so isn’t as original.  Also, he wrote about a forgotten war between the U.S. and Vietnam; whereas no generation forgets the Trojan War.  Also, DeMille’s soldiers fight in a fashion that was used for a short time, but Homer’s soldiers fought using a method present at the dawn of history and subsequently used for hundreds of subsequent years.

Will anything being written today be current 500 years from now, be, in other words a “classic” at that time?  I’m reluctant to say “no,” but at the moment I can’t bring anything to mind.

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