Nicholas Kristof | Cassandra Speaks

Wednesday, 19 March 2003 06:40 By Nicholas D Kristof, Truthout | name.

Cassandra Speaks
New York Times

Tuesday 18 March 2003

TROY, Turkey | It is quiet here in the rubble at the presumed site of ancient Troy. No tourists gawk at the spot where Achilles pierced Hector's throat, at the high stone walls on which King Priam tore his gray hair, at the gate that shows signs of having been widened as if to admit an unusually big object, like an oversized wooden horse.

Then there's a roar, and two fighter jets streak across the sky, creating a collage of one of the world's first battlegrounds and the next one, just southeast of here in Iraq. The instruments of war have changed mightily in 3,200 years, but people have not; that is why Homer's "Iliad," even when it may not be historically true, exudes a profound moral truth as the greatest war story ever told.

So on the eve of a new war, the remarkably preserved citadel of Troy is an intriguing spot to seek lessons. The Trojan War was the very first world war, between Europe and Asia, and the legends suggest that it was marked not just by heroism but also by catastrophic mistakes, poor leadership and what the Greeks called at : the intoxicating pride and overweening arrogance that sometimes clouds the minds of the strong.

Troy offers us three lessons about war, each as enduring as the spring that still trickles here -- described by Homer as the place where Trojan women washed clothes.

First, even when one has a legitimate grievance, war is not always the best solution. The Greeks were initially divided about whether to attack Troy, with even heroes like Agamemnon and Odysseus reluctant. Yet the hawks won the day, in part by offering an early version of the Bush doctrine: if we let the Trojans get away with kidnapping Helen, then they'll steal women again; if we don't fight them now, we'll have to later, when they're stronger.

Turns out the doves were right. So many lives were lost "in this insane voyage," as Achilles put it, "fighting other soldiers to win their wives as prizes," that even for the victorious Greeks the struggle was simply not worth it. "Why must we battle Trojans?" Achilles asks in what I fancy was an early advocacy of an alternate strategy of containment.

The plain below Troy, where the Greeks pitched their tents, is a fine place to consider a second immortal truth of war: the crucial importance of maintaining allies. The Greeks outnumbered the Trojans by more than 10 to 1, but they were still almost defeated and came within a whisker of having their ships burned because of feuding within the Greek "coalition of the willing."

Agamemnon was the Donald Rumsfeld of his day, needlessly angering his key allies -- and outraging Achilles by swiping his concubine Briseis. Agamemnon later tried to mollify Achilles by insisting that he had never slept with Briseis and offering Achilles seven gorgeous captive women, but Achilles still withdrew from battle, threatened to go home and said things like " a ne marche pas."

The third lesson has to do with the fall of Troy itself. Some experts have offered a hawkish lesson -- the vulnerability of even the most refined city to military weakness. After all, an armed attack destroyed Troy in an instant; one evening the Trojans were celebrating victory, and a few hours later the Greeks were hurling Hector's baby son, Astyanax, to his death so Troy could never rise again.

Yet the story makes it clear that Troy's fundamental failing was not a military one. Troy would not have saved itself with higher walls or better spears. Better intelligence might have helped, but above all Troy was destroyed by its refusal to listen to warnings about the wooden horse.

So, by Zeus, that third lesson from Troy is the paramount need to listen to skeptical voices. Virgil suggests that the Trojans rashly brought the wooden horse inside their city despite the alarm of two early pundits -- Cassandra and Laocoon, who warned against Greeks bearing gifts. If the Trojans had just thought it over for a week, by which time the Greeks inside would have died of thirst, then the Trojan War might have ended differently (and we could all be speaking Luvian, the ancient language possibly spoken by Trojans).

But the Trojans dismissed the warnings as "windy nonsense" and sealed their fate. We Americans are the Greeks of our day, and as we now go to war, we should appreciate not only the beauty of the tale, but also the warnings within it.

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