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The lesson is that the consequences of war don't end when the fighting stops. The Greeks hammered this point home for centuries, but it still hasn't sunk in with a lot of non-Greeks.



November 16, 2001


Greek Thoughts

by Joseph Sobran

ONE of those ancient Greek fellows, King Pyrrhus, is said to have commented, after winning a costly battle, "One more victory like this and we're done for." Hence the phrase "Pyrrhic victory."

From Homer on, the Greeks found mordant ironies in their wars, especially the Trojan one. It began over one loose woman and went on for a decade; then it kept spawning all sorts of unpleasant aftermaths. King Agamemnon, for example, led the winning side, but it played havoc with his family life. When he got home, his wife did him in. Then she got hers, from their son, who then suffered from guilt feelings, and so on. All very dysfunctional.

The lesson is that the consequences of war don't end when the fighting stops. The Greeks hammered this point home for centuries, but it still hasn't sunk in with a lot of non-Greeks.

War generally results in devastation for one side and Pyrrhic victory for the other. It's seldom worth it even for the winners. But this fact is often disguised by the interests of the victorious rulers, who assure their subjects that "we" won. The war is officially celebrated, the veterans are decorated, monuments erected, the dead commemorated; and later, as the dead are forgotten, the war may even become a remote and romantic memory for millions who didn't have to live through it.

In 1939 Joseph Stalin, the Soviet monarch, helped Adolf Hitler rape Poland, launching World War II. It was a rocky patch for Stalin; his German ally turned against him and invaded Russia. Luckily, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill came to the rescue, and Stalin wound up winning the war, adding ten countries, including Poland, to his empire.

True, millions upon millions of Russians died along the way, but Stalin bore this with equanimity; before the war, after all, he had killed millions upon millions of Russians himself. An unsentimental man, he wasn't unduly disturbed even by the death of his own son, captured by the Germans. Since he came out alive and on top, he considered that the Great Patriotic War, as he called it, was well worth the cost.

From the standpoint of its ruler, Russia's wartime losses were more than compensated by the results. Russians who shared Stalin's point of view, which was the viewpoint he strongly encouraged them to take, could rejoice too. England's share in the victory was a bit more ambiguous.

It lost many lives, along with its global empire; but Churchill himself, though he was soon voted out of office, emerged from the war a revered figure in the English-speaking world. Fortified by brandy and cigars, he had given fine speeches and later wrote a huge memoir. Forever after, he has received far more honor than the men who had done the actual fighting and is still considered a role model for wartime rulers. From his point of view, the war -- which England had entered to save Poland -- was a net success. Never mind what happened to Poland.

The United States still celebrates the victory -- and Roosevelt's leadership -- in books, movies, and presidential speeches. No dark Greek reflections cloud its official memory. But here again, the results remain a little murky and may yet turn out to be costly enough to make Pyrrhus gulp hard. True, America became a global superpower; but this has been a mixed blessing, since the Soviet Union soon acquired not only the aforementioned real estate, but nuclear weapons that hadn't existed when the war began. And Stalin turned out to be a less genial friend than Roosevelt had deemed him.

From the perspective of the U.S. Government, the war may have ended happily. From that of ordinary Americans, there is room for a second opinion -- and second thoughts.

Furthermore, nuclear weapons, the chief technological fruit of World War II, may soon fall (or may have fallen already) into the hands of fanatics who aren't too happy about America's global power -- and who, unlike the Soviets, don't have to worry about retaliation, or are too crazed to care. Even if these fanatics are frustrated, there may be others later.

So, for Americans, the final result of "the good war" may be a permanent condition of nuclear terror. Who knows what our new war may produce? The Greeks may offer a hint or two.

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Joseph Sobran is a nationally-syndicated columnist, lecturer, and author. For 21 years he wrote for National Review magazine, including 18 years as a senior editor. He is now editor of the monthly newsletter Sobran's (P.O. Box 1383, Vienna, VA 22183).

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