Bolton’s Preventive War, Greek Style

Edouard-Théophile Blanchard, “Death of Astyanax”


When even American hawks describe incoming national security advisor John Bolton as too hawkish, it’s time to be really frightened. Listening to them decry Bolton’s love of preventive warfare, one of literature’s most shocking instances of the practice comes to mind: the Greeks killing Hector’s child in Euripides’s The Trojan Woman.

Political scientists distinguish between preemptive war and preventive war. The first is a response to a direct threat—like punching someone just before he or she punches you—whereas preventive war is attacking even though the threat isn’t imminent. Otto von Bismarck famously said that “preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death.” According to Michael Lind,

In his memoirs, Bismarck considered “the question whether it was desirable, as regards a war which we should probably have to face sooner or later, to bring it on anticipation before the adversary could improve his preparations.” Bismarck argued that the uncertainties were too great—“one cannot see the cards of Providence far enough ahead.”

Instances of preventive war include Japan’s Pearl Harbor bombing and America’s Iraq invasion. Max Boot, one time hawk, writes of Bolton,

The failure of the Iraq intervention has soured me on preventative wars in general. Not so Bolton: He remains an advocate of bombing Iran and North Korea. Anyone who favors a “war of choice” against a nuclear-armed state belongs in a psychiatric ward, not the White House —  although, admittedly, the difference between the two may no longer be consequential. Bolton has also become notorious for bashing the European Union and Islam. He has been chairman since 2013 of the Gatestone Institute, an Islamophobic think tank that has propagated the myth that parts of Europe and North America are “no-go zones” for non-Muslims.

In Trojan Women Odysseus, whose slippery tongue Euripides frequently attacks, is the John Bolton character. Priam’s wife Hecuba has just persuaded Hector’s wife Andromache to accept her slavery, but that is before Andromache learns her son Astyanax is to be killed. The Greek messenger Talthybius reluctantly delivers the news:

Talthybius: The news is bad. I don’t know how to find the words.
Andromache: At least you show some scruple, if you bring no joy.
Talthybius: Then know the worst: the Greeks are going to kill your son.
Andromache: Oh, no, no! This is worse than what they do to me.
Talthybius: Odysseus in a full assembly made his point–
Andromache: But this is horrible beyond all measure! Oh!
Talthybius: That such a great man’s son must not be allowed to live–
Andromache: By such a sentence may his own son be condemned!
Talthybius: But should be thrown down from the battlements of Troy.
Now accept this decision, and be sensible.
don’t cling to him, or tell yourself you have some strength,
When you have none; but bear what must be like a queen.
You have no possible source of help.

All experts agree that a strike against North Korea would instantly result in millions of deaths in Seoul. Through his depiction of Hecuba receiving the corpse of her grandson, Euripides helps us imagine the plight of the survivors:

   You Achaeans are fine fighters; but where is your pride?
Did you so dread this young boy that you must invent
A new death for him? Were you afraid that he one day
Would raise Troy from the dust? When Hector held the field,
With thousands fighting at his side, even then we fell
Before your swords; today, with Troy a ruined heap,
And every Trojan dead, did you so shake with fear
Before this babe? Are you not cowards? Fear is bad;
But fear lacking all ground or reason is far worse.

And further on:

Poor little head, your soft curls were a garden where
Your mother planted kisses; oh, how cruelly they
Were shorn by your own city’s god-built bastions!
Now through the shattered skull the blood smiles, tempting me
To unseemly words. Your little hands—how like your father’s!
But when I lift them they hang limp. Dear, lifeless lips,
You made me a promise once, nestled against my dress:
“Grandmother, when you die,” you said, “I will cut off
A long curl of my hair for you, and bring my friends
With me to grace your tomb with gifts and holy words.”
You broke your promise, son; instead, I bury you;
I, an old, homeless, childless woman, bury you.
All my fond kisses, anxious care, and wakeful nights–
All end in this. What would a poet write for you
As epitaph? “This child the Argives killed because
They feared him” An inscription to make Hellas blush.

Americans were goaded by their dread of Saddam Hussein to support preventive war in Iraq, and now Bolton is goading them—and worse yet, will be goading the president—to do the same elsewhere. Half a million people died as a result of the Iraq War, and those figures would be dwarfed by war with North Korea or Iran.

Euripides wrote Trojan Women after the Athenians perpetrated a 5th century May Lai massacre. The island of Melos wanted to remain neutral in Athens’s long war with Sparta, but democratic Athens, demanding loyalty, massacred all the men while enslaving the women and the children, horrifying Athenian citizens such as Euripides.

In Trojan Women, Greek carnage so appalls Greek-supporting Athena that she gives the Troy-supporting Poseidon full permission to wreak vengeance upon her favorites. Her priestess Cassandra, a Trojan princess whom the Greek’s violate within Athena’s holy sanctuary, predicts the wretched future that lies is store for Agamemnon, Odysseus, and other Greek warriors—and in doing so, all but predicts the future of the Athenian war against Sparta. A year after Euripides’s play, Athens’s Sicily expedition would end catastrophically, and ten years later (after Euripides had died) Athens would become a Spartan slave state.

The United States is too strong a military power to suffer such defeats if it embarks upon preventive wars, but, along with the mayhem that it visits on other countries, it will suffer a blow to its standard of living. The decline set in motion by the Vietnam War and accelerated by the Iraq War will continue. Meanwhile silver-tongued orators, in the tradition of Odysseus, will call for the slaughter of more innocents.

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