Nothing much changes in 3,000 years. That’s the lesson one takes away from the new movie “Troy,” as well as from the continuing stream of violent images from the Middle East.
In that region then, in that region now, men have killed and are still being killed over honor. Moreover, then and now, great emphasis is placed on the honorable treatment of corpses. No wonder “The Iliad” lives forever as literature, because it was the first epic to make vivid man’s eternal preoccupation with such matters of honor — which the Greeks called “time” (rhymes with “relay”). Today, not far from modern-day Turkey — where the Trojan War was fought, according to legend — Americans, Israelis and Arabs are writing new and bloody chapters in the saga that Homer initiated.
As every mildly attentive high school graduate knows, the Trojan War started because one man stole another man’s wife. Soon the Greeks sailed from across the Aegean Sea to Troy, from Europe to Asia, in their 1,000 ships, bent on regime change.
But the heart of the story is the Wrath of Achilles. After sulking in his tent, the great warrior finally emerges and goes berserk, slaughtering his enemies. Indeed, the first lines of “The Iliad” are “Rage — Goddess, sing the age of Peleus’ son Achilles / murderous, doomed.” In our time, every movie featuring an initially reluctant cowboy or cop — from “Shane” to “Lethal Weapon” to the new “Man on Fire” — echoes this epic theme of the man emerging from self-exile to seek justice or wreak revenge.
But Achilles is a tragic hero; he has a fatal flaw. Having killed Hector in honorable battle, the Greek warrior, played in the movie by Brad Pitt, commits a heinous crime in the eyes of gods and men: he desecrates Hector’s body by pulling it behind his chariot as he circles Troy in triumph. So, of course, Achilles must die, too. He is killed by Hector’s brother.
Eons later, honor and mutilation are still on men’s minds. On May 1, terrorists in Saudi Arabia killed six Western oil workers. Then, as if channeling Achilles, they dragged one of the corpses behind their car — until they were all killed, too. But no doubt, at their moment of death, the terrorists believed that they were martyrs, upholding the honor of their beliefs.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the March 31 murder of four American contractors in Fallujah was compounded by the hanging of their charred and dismembered bodies. The U.S. military, summoned to righteous outrage, launched a punitive expedition. Like Troy before it, Fallujah was besieged; hundreds more died.
And on Tuesday, the videotape showing the decapitation of young Nicholas Berg was revealed to the world; three millennia after the Trojan War, men still use blades to kill other men.
Not far away, in the Israeli-occupied territories, honor and dishonor are yet again bloodily and endlessly entwined. On Tuesday, Israeli soldiers entered Gaza City, determined to mete out retaliation for a past massacre of Israeli civilians. But the Palestinians blew up one of the armored vehicles, killing six Israelis. After the explosion, Palestinians descended on the scene, scooping up the Israeli body parts.
The Palestinians attempted to ransom the bloody bits of flesh, but the Israelis refused any such negotiations. Instead, the next day, they went house-to-house through the area, looking for both the killers and the remains of their own killed — and at least five more Israelis died in Wednesday’s combat.
Somewhere, the ghost of Achilles looks upon all this honor-defending carnage and applauds. As he says in “The Iliad”: “He dies fighting for fatherland — No dishonor there!”
That’s the bargain that war makes with men: If you fight, you will be remembered — by your own side, at least — as having fought for honor. And maybe a bard will lionize your heroic deeds. It’s a deal that’s kept men fighting for 3,000 years, and there’s no reason to think it won’t work for the next 3,000 years — or for however much time man has left on Earth.
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