BWW Blog: Coriolanus and the Humane Questions of War
I cannot begin to imagine the fear that must overwhelm people in battle. And then to attempt to imagine a person taking action while overwhelmed with that fear, the action always with someone's mortality at stake, is more than I can bear.
We have this holiday of Memorial Day today to remember these people. Mine fought in the War Between the States and left farms bleeding. They fought in World War II and to stay alive in death camps, and returned only able to stay alive with alcohol. They fought in the First Gulf War, surviving only long enough to return home so they could take their own life.
We honor the courage. But until we successfully treat the wound and then stop asking human beings to kill other human beings, or be killed, Memorial Day for most will continue only to prompt the question, "Where can I take the family for the three-day vacation?"
William Shakespeare, at least in my opinion, modernizes the humane questions of war that began with the Greeks. In Coriolanus, which he wrote not longer after his mother died, Shakespeare creates a boy who destroys butterflies for sport, who is trained in death, raised in others' blood. By age 16, he is idolized for his singular, self-styled heroism on the battlefield. He is a machine of death, seemingly as de-sensitized to killing as the U.S. Department of Defense had hoped their films and images of inhumanity pressed to Korean War soldiers' eyes would make them. (In World War II, it was determined that American soldiers, in large percentages, were intentionally shooting over their enemies' heads. The DoD's resolve: ensure the soldiers believed they were attacking things, not humans."
Coriolanus was raised in this inhumanity. And he brought it home with him - along with his many wounds. He was a walking wound - emotionally handicapped domestically, psychologically immature for the political power thrust upon him. The culture of war was brought home. If the Rome of thousands of years ago had the modern capabilities of today, they would give toy guns to boys, pay people to create beautiful childrens' video games centered on violence, encourage a family outing of going to the cinema to watch people kill people as "entertainment," and allow citizens to carry and shoot guns.
"I shall lack voice: the deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be utter'd feebly. It is held
That valour is the chiefest virtue, and
Most dignifies the haver: if it be,
The man I speak of cannot in the world
Be singly counterpoised. At sixteen years,
When Tarquin made a head for Rome, he fought
Beyond the mark of others: our then dictator,
Whom with all praise I point at, saw him fight,
When with his Amazonian chin he drove
The bristled lips before him: be bestrid
An o'er-press'd Roman and i' the consul's view
Slew three opposers: Tarquin's self he met,
And struck him on his knee: in that day's feats,
When he might act the woman in the scene,
He proved best man i' the field, and for his meed
Was brow-bound with the oak. His pupil age
Man-enter'd thus, he waxed like a sea,
And in the brunt of seventeen battles since
He lurch'd all swords of the garland. For this last,
Before and in Corioli, let me say,
I cannot speak him home: he stopp'd the fliers;
And by his rare example made the coward
Turn terror into sport: as weeds before
A vessel under sail, so men obey'd
And fell below his stem: his sword, death's stamp,
Where it did mark, it took; from face to foot
He was a thing of blood, whose every motion
Was timed with dying cries: alone he enter'd
The mortal gate of the city, which he painted
With shunless destiny; aidless came off,
And with a sudden reinforcement struck
Corioli like a planet: now all's his:
When, by and by, the din of war gan pierce
His ready sense; then straight his doubled spirit
Re-quicken'd what in flesh was fatigate,
And to the battle came he; where he did
Run reeking o'er the lives of men, as if
'Twere a perpetual spoil: and till we call'd
Both field and city ours, he never stood
To ease his breast with panting."
This man later turns on his city and family, joins his arch-enemy, and marches to the city gates to destroy his home and all he knows - until his wounds are opened by his mother and by his young son who probably looks and acts a lot like his father.
Coriolanus then surrenders his life.
Our wars do not remain on the battlefield. To remember and to honor the sacrifice means we must learn from it.
I cannot image those men and women who have been wounded with killing would want us on this day to widen that wound in America's sons and daughters.
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Sprague