I do not watch many movies about war, and rarely read any books about battle, either. For the most part, I am happy to think of war as something I am thankful to live without: living in a peaceful time, in a peaceful place is a privilege that I am grateful for, every day.
The few movies about war I have watched recently have all been conflicting: for the most part, they are good at depicting the horrific reality of wartime, but inevitably end up glorifying some part of it—whether through the heroism of soldiers or civilians, through the celebration of new technologies, or through the edification of global political machinations—in order to make the film more palatable and to advance a narrative. Rarely have I seen a movie that is simply about the horror of war, about the rampant destruction and death and nothing more.
This makes sense: if film is an escape, an opportunity for immersion in a world outside our own, then crafting a story that has no redeeming nature would be counterproductive to the medium. A movie cannot simply immerse its audience in ruination and disaster without providing an opportunity, however slim, for escape or redemption.
I thought of this, deeply, as I read The Iliad. That it took me almost to the age of 35 before I picked up the Homeric epic was surprising even to myself; that it took me this long to realize that The Iliad was, at its core, a war story like any war movie shown on a cinema screen demonstrates an ignorance of which I am not proud.
The story of the ten-year siege of Troy is one defined by death, by injury, by destruction. It is also marked by accolades, stories of incredible feats of strength, and the fickle nature of the favor of the gods. The war is seen as perilous, but also as sport—the horrors are acknowledged, but in the end, there is still glory in the battle.
“Generations of men are like the leaves.
In winter, winds blow them down to earth,
but then, when spring season comes again,
the budding wood grows more. And so with men:
one generation grows, another dies away.”
The story of The Iliad is a story that has continued to be told for the almost-three thousand years since its first telling. The characters change, the weapons change, the setting changes, but the narrative remains the same: yes, war is horrific, but it is glorious all the same.
I long for the day when the tale of war and its glory is a tale we no longer have to tell, or at least, one we can point to as an example of the folly of generations past.