when warriors refuse to fight

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston, 1965In The War That Killed Achilles, author Caroline Alexander makes the same comparison I think of every time I read Book I of the Iliad.

First she quotes Achilles’s speech to Agamemnon. She quotes her favorite translation, by Richmond Lattimore. I will instead use my own favorite translation, by Stanley Lombardo:

Achilles looked [Agamemnon] up and down and said:

"You sorry, profiteering excuse for a commander!  
How are you going to get any Greek warrior
To follow you into battle again?
You know, I don’t have any quarrel with the Trojans,
They didn’t do anything to me to make me
Come over here and fight, didn’t run off my cattle or horses
Or ruin my farmland back home in Phthia, not with all
The shadowy mountains and moaning seas between.
It’s for you, dogface, for your precious pleasure —
And Menelaus’ honor — that we came here,
A fact you don’t have the decency even to mention!
And now you’re threatening to take away the prize
That I sweated for and the Greeks gave me.
I never get a prize equal to yours when the army
Captures one of the Trojan strongholds.
No, I do all the dirty work with my own hands,
And when the battle’s over and we divide the loot
You get the lion’s share and I go back to the ships
With some pitiful little thing, so worn out from fighting
I don’t have the strength left even to complain.
Well, I’m going back to Phthia now. Far better
To head home with my curved ships than stay here,
Unhonored myself and piling up a fortune for you."

Alexander comments:

It is a great gauntlet-throwing speech, particularly remarkable for occurring at the very outset of the epic. What Achilles is challenging is the bedrock assumption of military service — that the individual warrior submit his freedom, his destiny, his very life to a cause in which he may have no personal stake. In modern times, the speech finds its counterpart in Muhammad Ali’s famous refusal to fight in Vietnam:

I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong… No Viet Cong ever called me nigger… I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people.

Like Ali’s, Achilles’ words are particularly dangerous in that one can assume he is speaking aloud words that other, less charismatic men had long thought.


2 Responses to when warriors refuse to fight

  1. James says:

    Unfortunately, you fail to take Homeric culture into account and make the modern mistake of assuming the Greeks to have been modern enlightened liberals.

  2. david miller says:

    Thanks for the quotes. The comparison seems apt to me. I haven’t read Ms. Alexander’s book, but I have read Homer’s and I think what he’s doing is showing us that Achilles has no reason to stay. He came for glory, but Aggamemnon is leaching all the honor from this war against the Trojans. Achilles returns to the fight for vengeance. His motivations don’t seem particularly modern or liberal (where liberal= american political left in the 1960s). He is a man who has reasons for being at war and Homer makes it clear in this speech at the beginning of the story that support of Agamemnon is not among his list of reasons to fight.
    This seems directly analogous to Ali – not a liberal from the 1960’s; well acquainted with violence and its uses; radically opposed to war for the aggrandizement of the Hegemon. It is important that these great warriors can articulate the code by which they decide to fight. And I believe that Homer is asserting that the greatest warriors are the ones who have a deep understanding of why they are at war and what they are fighting for.

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