What is So “Timeless” about Modern War Writing?

“Hellenise it.”

“He’ll never capture the Attic note.”

-James Joyce’s Ulysses

“No Slack” by Michael Figueroa. Used by permission.

Among many other sharp insights and well-turned phrases in his Harper’s essay “First-Person Shooters: What’s Missing in Contemporary War Fiction,” Sam Sacks writes, “Proclaiming that veteran authors have transformed war into Homeric masterpieces filled with timeless truths is a way of excusing our own indifference.” There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence, but I’m most interested in Sacks’ very true observation that modern war writers have frequently used classical Greece mythology and history to give form and meaning to their own stories. I’ve long observed this trend, too, and wondered where it comes from and what it gets us. By “timeless,” Sacks means that values, events, and themes first formulated by the ancient Greeks persist and operate in modern war experience much as they did for Homer, Sophocles, and the other classical authors of Greek myth and history. Sacks is suspicious of this tendency, and, as the title of my post suggests, so am I.

Even given the extremely convention-bound strictures of war writing, I’m far more interested in the particularity of modern war, as reflected for example in Maxwell Neely-Cohen‘s exploration of the role of video games in the lives of service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, than I am in finding points of connection with, say, Herodotus. The Greek canon is above my carping pot-shots, I fully realize, and so too are excellent contemporary war works that draw deeply on Greek antecedents, such as Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch and Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, among many others. A fine essay by veteran David James on the Wrath Bearing Tree website titled “Dispatch from Greece: Myth, Tragedy, Resistance, and Hope” reminds of how profound can still be the allure of classical Greece. As James reminds us, “The myths we choose to believe or not believe have real world consequences – they are of critical importance in shaping popular opinions and current events.” But even so, I’ll push on.

Two works by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002), seem to me most responsible for this contemporary literary and cultural compulsion to namecheck classic Greece. Shay uses the stories of Achilles and Odysseus to explain the experience of combat and redeployment in regard to Vietnam, but his works have been as prescriptive going forward as much they have been helpful looking back. The public discourse about traumatized veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is so saturated—wittingly or unwittingly—by terms and concepts articulated first by Shay that contemporary writers, particularly those who reference the legends of ancient Greece, from here forward should subtitle their work “after Jonathan Shay.”

Shay’s work has been unquestioningly helpful in America’s effort to understand the plight of psychologically-troubled veterans and his use of the Achilles and Odysseus stories substantial and compelling. But there are other ways to think about the matter, too. My thoughts have been spurred this summer by reading Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. Ovid was a Roman who knew well how Rome saw itself as the inheritor of Greek greatness and The Metamorphoses is the only known source we have today for dozens of well-known Greek myths. But if you read The Metamorphoses entire, and make your way through the haze of translation, it’s hard not to conclude that Ovid didn’t think much of the Greek pantheon. His whole project, in my reading, was to undermine and ridicule the values and accomplishments of its heroes by gleefully reveling in their excesses.

That’s a lot to prove, and I’m not going to be able to do it all here, but I’ll quickly make a few claims about Ovid’s interpretation of classic Greek mythology. In The Metamorphoses, authority and power corrupt absolutely and are never to be trusted, especially when placed in the hands of men, and particularly fathers. Freedom from authority is the most enviable state to find oneself in, especially when it is coupled to the freedom of the imagination as demonstrated by artists, but artists too are subject to the same destructive personal characteristics that affect gods, warriors, and everyone else in the Greek mythos. Individual altruism in the world is almost non-existent, and so too is benevolent collective effort; greed, spite, revenge, and perverse desire drive human conduct. Relations between men and women are abysmal and generational conflict is endemic and both dynamics virtually guarantee endless social turbulence. There’s no heroic resistance or wiley subterfuge, either; both stoicism and activism in the face of injustice and hardship will accomplish nothing except getting one killed, or at best, turned into a tree or animal. Military valor is a farce and the resort to violence and deceit to solve problems and get what one wants is as lamentable as it is inevitable.

And all that’s not even the biggest problem, which is that the Greek mythos is so full of pompous grandiosity that it leaves no room for the qualities Ovid prizes most: alertness, agility, imagination, irreverence, and quickness. After reading Ovid, it’s hard to take the ancient Greeks as seriously as they took themselves. To invest in a heroic conception of Greek mythology, Ovid suggests, is to risk internalizing patterns of deference to and imitation of false gods that will cause us to act as badly as they do.

To test this conclusion, I’ve been rewriting some of the myths in The Metamorphoses and placing them in contemporary war contexts to better see their import. I’ve already published one, based on the myth “Cyex and Alceone,” which can be found here. Other myths I’ve adapted include “Daphne and Apollo,” “Jupiter and Io,” “Arachne and Athena,” and “Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur.” Time will tell if I ever publish any of these, but the titles alone point to something vital: Ovid allows modern war authors interested in the classical mythos many opportunities to portray women in the military and in the lives of male soldiers beyond the reincarnations of Antigone, Tecmessa, and Penelope we have so far seen.

Anyone interested in pursuing this line of inquiry further would do well to read Yale English professor Wai Chee Dimock’s 2002 essay, “Non-Newtonian Time: Robert Lowell, Roman History, Vietnam War,” published in American Literature. Dimock is famous for her concept of “deep time,” in which she confounds simplistic understanding of American history as bound by things that happened only from the time of the Pilgrims and Virginia colonists onwards. In “Non-Newtonian Time,” Dimock explores American poet Robert Lowell’s poetic adaptations of Roman historical episodes, published in 1965 at a time when Lowell was organizing artists and authors to protest the Vietnam War. Rome of course was the original imperial empire, and Lowell, along with Dimock writing 35 years lately, was highly alert to the very complicated use of time and myth and history when brought forward centuries and put to the service of artistically describing war.

Finally, I recently reread Siobhan Fallon’s story “Leave,” from You Know When The Men Are Gone. You Know When The Men Are Gone practically inaugurated the current war-fiction boom when it was published in 2011, and its epigram is none other than a quotation from The Odyssey. All good, very good, but what intrigued me about “Leave” was the deft way Fallon interlaces the macabre story about a soldier stalking his unfaithful wife with references to Hans Christian Andersen children’s fables. And not the cutesy-wutesy Americanized smiley-face versions of Andersen’s bedtime stories, either, but the original, perverse nightmarish versions, which are undiluted by niceness. To me, that seemed a great repurposing of tales from our cultural archive, now blended organically into a modern story about war that defies upliftingness in every way except for the respect it generates for the quality of the author’s insight, imagination, and craft.

Michael Figueroa website.

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4 Comments on “What is So “Timeless” about Modern War Writing?”

  1. David James Says:

    Very interesting post. Thanks for mentioning my Greece article. I’m not sure the Greeks, especially the ones who wrote the works that survive, always took themselves too seriously. Ovid certainly didn’t anyway, which is probably why he was banished to the Black Sea by the Emperor. I enjoyed your story adaptation and hope you finish more of them.

    • Peter Molin Says:

      Thank you thank you! My stories just reinforce my sense that I have little imagination. But “Cyex and Alceone” was well-received when I read it in Brooklyn, so maybe emboldened by that I’ll let the other tales see the light of day. What would it take today for an author to write something so disrespectful and anti-authoritarian he or she was banished to the Black Sea???

      • David James Says:

        Actually it was because he slept with the Emperor’s only daughter, who was apparently quite a tart

      • Peter Molin Says:

        Ouch, I hate it when that happens! But I wouldn’t mind visiting the Black Sea, and I’m sure life on its shores is pleasant in many respects.


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