One-hundred-one years ago today began the Gallipoli campaign, a devastating eight-month battle that produced over half-a-million casualties and yet remains the defining national myth for both sides: Turkey and Australia and New Zealand. Such is war, a time of carnage and valor – and the central reality of human history. “If we were to take any random hundred-year period within the last five thousand years,” writes Caroline Alexander in the introduction to her new translation of the Iliad, “we would find on average ninety-four of that hundred to have been occupied with large-scale conflicts in one or more regions of the globe.”
By chance, I was reading her words when an old friend sent me “My Vietnam Song,” his 46-year journey home from Vietnam, where he had arrived as a Marine 2nd lieutenant not long after his college roommate had been killed. It’s a moving story of his struggle to understand himself and make sense of his war, a poignant antidote to today’s reflexive “Thank you for your service,” five words he never heard. Achilles would understand, writes Alexander. Far from “glorifying war’s destructive violence,” the Iliad “makes explicit the tragic cost of such glory, even to the greatest warrior.”
“I am tired and sick of War,” said William Tecumseh Sherman, a warrior who scorched the earth from Atlanta to the sea. “Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have never fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
And it endures.