I had just finished Elizabeth Samet's thought-provoking article, “When is War Over?”, when I learned that Chuck Hagel had resigned under pressure. A Vietnam veteran, Hagel is the only former enlisted man ever to serve as Secretary of Defense. He leaves amid questions about his ability to manage America’s endless war – even as President Obama was once again extending the exit date for American forces from Afghanistan, the longest war in American history. Samet is a professor of English at West Point, and she poses her question through the unusual prism of a course on world literature. It’s reassuring, in an age when the humanities have been deemed irrelevant, that our future military leaders continue to study them.
Samet focuses on Alexander the Great’s 13-year military campaign, which ended with his death at the age of 32. He assured those soldiers who balked at spending all their lives at war that “it is sweet to live bravely and die leaving behind an immortal fame.”
The only person who gained immortal fame from those interminable wars, of course, was the young emperor, and while his troops – and their victims – lived short, hard lives, the exploits of Alexander continue to nourish the glories of war two millennia later.
Chuck Hagel, whatever his shortcomings at the Pentagon, understood war from its underside – as did Coenus, a loyal Macedonian who dared tell Alexander, “If there is one thing above all others a successful man should know, it is when to stop.”