October 22, 2011

Review: "The War That Killed Achilles" by Caroline Alexander

Caroline Alexander says in her Preface to The War That Killed Achilles that "this book is about what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the Iliad says of war."

I loved this book!  It is extraordinarily well-written, and to the point at 225 pages in length (plus another nearly 50 pages of end-notes).  While scholarly, it reads very well.  Alexander takes us through the Trojan War's cast of characters in chapters that cover topics like "Chain of Command", the "Terms of Engagement", "In God We Trust", "Man Down", "No Hostages", "The Death of Hektor", and the last chapter "Everlasting Glory".  Alexander's book hones in on the seven or eight months that are covered in Homer's Iliad, and while it speaks to the historical context of Troy, Mycenaean Greece, and the Trojan War itself, I think the real message of her book is the psychology of the War and the psychology of the humans involved in it.

It is perhaps easy to come to the conclusion that the Iliad is really the story of the "rage" of Achilles.  I don't know if it is that simple though, and I don't think Alexander does either.  She spends a lot of the book discussing why Achilles is 'angry' with Agamemnon, and it is much more complicated than Agamemnon having forcibly taken Achilles' concubine, Briseis, from him.  She postulates that Achilles had reached the conclusion that Agamemnon is an inept and incompetent military commander, and that this war between the Trojans and Achaeans was unjust, and that he--Achilles--really 'doesn't have an axe to grind' in this fight.  All of this was very thought-provoking for me, and caused me to carefully reread the Iliad and rethink my feelings about Achilles' actions (or, inaction, as the case may be).

Alexander makes a strong case too, that both sides in this nasty little war were just plain worn out.  The Greeks and the Trojans had been fighting for nearly ten years, with little in the way of tangible results other than seeing hundreds of their comrades killed or maimed.  That can't be good for your overall mental health.  The psychological toll of losing friends in combat must have been huge, and anger and guilt (i.e., 'survivor's guilt'), and post-traumatic stress disorder must have, by this time, affected all of the combatants.  When Achilles' best-loved friend, Patroclus, is killed by Hektor, one can begin to understand how Achilles could have simply 'snapped' and just gone berserk with 'rage'.  Particularly as one knows from Homer that Achilles, in essence, facilitated Patroclus' death at the hands of Hektor (i.e., Achilles let Patroclus borrow his armor and lead the Myrmidons into combat against the Trojans).  Combat is violent, combat is horrific--whether it is in the Bronze Age on the Plain of Troy, or in 2011 in the Korangal River Valley in Afghanistan--and the human cost is always incalculably high.

Finally, Alexander finishes her book with a discussion about Achilles coming to terms with his own role in the Trojan War, and his acceptance of his own destiny and what Fate ultimately had in store for him, and the choices involved.  Could Achilles have really packed up his 2,500 Myrmidon warriors and sailed back home in his 50 'black-hulled' ships to a peaceful and quiet obscurity?  Could he have left without avenging the death of his beloved friend, Patroclus?  Alexander is compelling as she lays out the case that Achilles was able to, as Homer alludes to in the poem, sort through the pros and cons of what faced him, and was able to 'make peace' with himself.  Alexander, I think, believes that it was through Achilles reaching a resolution to these issues that freed him to fully embrace the warrior ethos of his time and meet his destiny and fate with honor and integrity--on the battlefield, or late at night in the parley with the Trojan king, Priam.  Maybe the great Lycian warrior, Sarpedon, a Trojan ally said it best in describing the warrior's code when he tells his friend, Glaukos--
"Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle,
would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal,
so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost
nor would I urge you into fighting where men win glory.
But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them,
let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others."
That's powerful stuff, and this is a very powerful book that Caroline Alexander has written.  She's right too.  This book is about "...what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the Iliad says of war."  The War That Killed Achilles is a wonderful complement to a reading of Homer's The Iliad, and gets a solid 4/5 stars from me.

The War That Killed Achilles
By Caroline Alexander
Viking, 296 pp., 2009.




    Silence said
    truth needs no eloquence.
    After the death of the horseman,
    the homeward-bound horse
    says everything
    without saying anything

    Mourid Barghouti (Trans:Radwar Ashour).

    PS. Have you come across Alberto Manguel's - Homer's The Iliad & The Odyssey. This book demonstrates how Homer's work has resonated through the canon of world literature.

  2. Great review, Chris. I have this one on my shelf waiting to be read and I'm now encouraged to move it to the top of my to be read pile. Of course, it will have to wait until I'm in the mood to read some non-fiction.

  3. Melissa, it really is a very good book, that reads so well that you'd think you were reading a novel. I'd love to know what you think of it when you do read it. Thanks for your visit and comments! Have a great weekend, Melissa! Cheers!