See the tragedy of march to war

January 12, 2003|By William D. Adams

AS TROOP and hospital ships depart for the Persian Gulf, it seems more and more certain that the United States will go to war with Iraq.

The United Nations resolution has required the shadow play of inspections, but despite the inspectors' inability to thus far find weapons of mass destruction or banned biological or chemical agents, real war looms with a tragic aura of inevitability.

And tragic is the word. I was reminded of that recently while watching students at Colby College perform a classical tragedy, about that same aura, written 2,500 years ago.

In Iph, Colin Teevan's fine contemporary adaptation of Euripides' Iphigeneia at Aulis, the goddess Artemis is said to require that Iphigeneia, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, be sacrificed before the Greek fleet sails off to war with Troy. The chilling and still resonant truth of the play - we sacrifice our children for the nation, "for Greece!" - was made all the more ironic by listening to these children - our students, our children, Iphigeneia's distant successors - speak it.

Mr. Teevan's reworking of Euripides' story is especially relevant now because of its stark insistence that the sacrifice that is called for in war is concrete, immediate, personal and inescapable, no matter how smart the bombs and irrespective of the histories and accents of the children falling beneath the knives.

By some historical measures (the Gulf of Tonkin resolution comes to mind), the debate preceding the congressional resolution supporting the use of force in Iraq was reasonably full.And the divisions in American public opinion regarding the necessity and wisdom of war express an appropriate level of turmoil.

But so far, most of the discussion about the prospect of war - supportive and critical - has been eerily abstract. The war planners are focused, reasonably enough, on operational matters. Politicians worry about immediate and long-term costs, both financial and political. Supporters and critics alike muse fretfully about postwar Iraq and the immense political complexities lurking there. Pervading all is the preoccupation with the technology of warfare - Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and the remarkable U.S. arsenal of smart bombs and war machines, in particular.

What has not been much discussed, except in the most clinical way, are the bloody details of suffering and death. How many American and Iraqi battlefield casualties? How and where will those casualties occur? How many civilians - men, women, and children - will die under the various planning scenarios?

It is natural to avoid such issues before any war, but we are more prone to that avoidance now precisely because of the highly technological aspect of the contemporary battlefield and our connection to it. In the coming war in Iraq, we face the surreal prospect of watching televised images of unmanned drones producing televised images of their own laser-guided missiles striking targets thousands of feet away. What we will not see, and what we are now failing to imagine with appropriate intensity, is the horror beneath.

The challenging truth of Iphigeneia consists in its willingness to entertain the necessity of war even as it reveals and inspects its horror. Iphigeneia - daughter, citizen, victim - ultimately assents to the logic of necessity. The fullness of the misery her sacrifice produces, however, is never suppressed. It remains front and center in the keening presence of Clytemnestra, who is at once her mother and all mothers. She will not bend to the logic of necessity; she will not forget.

Iphigeneia was first produced near the end of the brutal Peloponnesian War, in which Sparta defeated the Athenian Empire. Appropriately, Mr. Teevan rediscovered and applied the play's meaning to the vengeful cycle of politics in Northern Ireland.

Alas, we have no national theater or tragic festival to remind us of certain things as we now depart for distant places. But as I watched our students performing this work, I was grateful for the more local insight it provided. And I was reinforced in my conviction that a true political education for the demanding world our children must soon inherit and lead requires more than an acquaintance with history, cultures, diplomacy, strategies and the dynamics of power, as if that weren't enough.

It must also involve a close encounter with the tragic moral vision of human conflict that Euripides so clearly understood.

It would be a good thing if the president and his senior staff were to have a private showing of Iph as our troops depart for Iraq. We could then be more certain that the full force of what is about to happen to our children, and theirs, is apparent to those who give the orders. I am sure that Colby's undergraduates would be willing to take the show on the road.

William D. Adams is president of Colby College in Maine and a Vietnam War veteran.

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