Ancient Greeks Did It – Empathizing with an Enemy

Japan Times
Friday, January 26, 2007
By C. L. Max Nikias

LOS ANGELES—In a resonant scene from film director Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” soldiers find a letter on the person of a just-deceased enemy. Upon learning that the letter is from his mother, sharing her hopes and fears and wisdom, they are haunted by their shared humanity with this enemy.

The scene is doubly poignant in that the soldiers making this discovery were Japanese soldiers discovering that we Americans were in fact human. A Hollywood film’s protagonists for once are not “us” in all our glory, but rather those whom we opposed in one of the most grueling wars in history.

In this manner, “Letters” gives a nod through nearly 25 centuries to a grand tradition in which artists confronted Athenian citizens, challenging them to carefully calculate the moral paradoxes, tradeoffs and consequences involved in successfully defending liberty.

In times such as theirs and ours, in which democracy is in battle with other ideologies, such a tradition is vital to our societal well-being.

As the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta raged on for years that piled into decades, Euripides created two tragedies from the vantage point of the Trojans. “Hecuba” examined the Trojan queen’s disintegration as her family fell to war. In “The Trojan Women,” Euripides asked Athenians to clothe themselves with the tears and griefs of Troy’s women, mourning lost husbands and lost homes, and becoming slaves alongside their children.

Euripides could make even the most legendary enemies of Athens appear human. He could make Athenians feel the pain of their adversary, even when Athenians sensed their own cause was right.

In a fitting irony, when a later Athenian invasion of Sicily ended in disaster, the Syracusans spared the lives of Athenian soldiers who knew the life-affirming values of Euripides well enough to teach them to Syracusan’s children.

In most works about war, the artist portrays the opposition as an amorphous entity—a generalized evil beast, or headless hordes of a grossly stereotyped character. Euripides, and now Eastwood, portrayed the opposition as flesh-and-blood mortals with the full range of human hopes and fears.

Eastwood’s Japanese general is conflicted by duty to his nation and admiration for an America in which he received training. His soldiers are a mix of zealots and reluctant warriors—humans with strengths and foibles and varying extremes.

Aeschylus authored perhaps the earliest and most audacious work within the great artistic tradition of democratic dialogue. The world’s first experiment in democracy had almost been crushed in its infancy by the Persians, after Xerxes’ troops torched Athens to ashes and forced Athenians into exile. In 480 B.C., the Athenians battled back and shocked the Persians in the Battle of Salamis—the ancient equivalent of the American Revolution and World War II combined.

Only eight years later, Aeschylus presented Athenians with “The Persians,” a play that did not celebrate the Persians’ loss as much as it called Athenians to identify with the hubris, the arrogance that triggered the Persians’ downfall. Aeschylus asked the Athenians to learn from the Persian reaction to their own defeat.

Aeschylus himself had fought in the Battle of Salamis eight years earlier. In the audience were men who had fought alongside him as well as many who helped rebuild the young democracy of Athens after the victory.

To replicate the context in our age, imagine that, instead of John Wayne’s triumphant “Sands of Iwo Jima” being released in 1949, Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” was released instead. It was politically risky for Aeschylus to depict the humanity of the enemy; nevertheless, the audience awarded him their top prize for drama.

This artistic tradition of democratic dialogue, whether in the golden age of Athens or in our own golden age of America, can seem too unflattering and unpatriotic in the eyes of some. But as Pericles noted in his legendary Peloponnesian War funeral oration, such openness—especially in times of war—is the very emblem of democratic patriotism.

Maintaining timeless democratic values during national strain is precisely what makes an open society worth the tragedies and consequences that war entails.

The Athenian experience proved that the right of artistic dissent and free speech strengthened their citizens, because even when they disagreed with an artist, they were reminded how healthy disagreement demonstrated their advantage over closed societies.

In our era, Eastwood has stepped forward as the next in the great line of classicists who understand the full power of the arts to display the humanity of an enemy and to energize the DNA of democracy.