My Anti-War Theme…

I would like to make some comments on a basic anti-war theme I strove for in writing my novel.  War is my story’s true antagonist, pitiless in inflicting its misery on the lives of everyone caught in its vicious grip.  I tried to portray the war in its starkest terms, without glory or redeeming virtues, exacting its toll on victims, irrespective of their complicity or innocence in its cause, but mainly on how its cruelty prevails in Polyxena’s life, inflicting grief and suffering on her.

Although having undergone deep sorrow over the loss of her brothers, especially Hector, it is not until Polyxena accompanies the Amazons on their operation against the Greek-occupied cities that she experiences the full gravity of war, up close and personal, in all its savage fury.  When she witnesses the execution of young Greek captives on orders of Penthesileia, the Amazon queen, after the battle at Otrea, she is horror-stricken, unable to conceal her shock -even angrily denouncing Penthesileia for it. “They surrendered to you!  They placed their lives in your keeping.  You owed them your protection…” To which Penthesileia storms back, “Do not try to lecture me, foolish woman….I asked you to accompany us because I believed you had what it takes to be one of us.  I was wrong.  You will never be an Amazon.” Polyxena then sulks in her tent, upset and suffering the worst misgivings over what she had done.

I did not know how to face Penthesileia after my emotional outburst and tried to rationalize my conduct as appropriate although now beset with much doubt over it.  The reason for the queen being here was to assist Troy in winning the war -what she did favored us- and I was out of line to condemn her actions and possibly jeopardize her helping us.  I was so appalled over the killings, the sheer cruelty of it, that I could not erase the image from my mind.

Like any good commander concerned about the welfare of the troops, Penthesileia comes into the tent and, after a heart to heart talk, accepts Polyxena back in her good graces. Polyxena next experiences an even bloodier battle at Pedasus, and her aversion begins to be supplanted by the grim realities war entails:

I also learned during this time that my outburst at Otrea over the fate of the captives was not as clear an issue as I then thought.  We were an army on the move and had no means by which we could hold prisoners, that is, without encumbering ourselves with burdens we could hardly afford.  We had no way of feeding them or even guarding them if we were to go into battle; I suppose we could have disarmed them and then let them go, but that guaranteed no security for us that they would not fight us again.  Penthesileia was right in censuring me; the matter was problematic at best….I hated war, for it imposed exceptions on us that contravened our better moral judgments, sacrificing these for the sake of the expediency that featured paramount under battlefield conditions……War is cruelty.  In its harshness, it reduces us to compassionless participants, stealing from us our benign tendencies, and hardening our nature to the savagery that defines it.

When she returns to Troy, Polyxena learns that all her efforts with the Amazons were for nothing.  Her father, Priam, could not implement his grand strategy because he had been deserted by one of his major allies; he tells her:  “Such are the fortunes of war, my dear. All the planning, the spying and scheming, the maneuverings, can disintegrate in an instant.” Polyxena becomes physically ill hearing this:

Everything we did was for absolutely nothing.  The battles we fought, the casualties we sustained, the slaughter of a thousand Greeks at Otrea, Penthesileia’s death, all for nothing…. Everything was a waste.  I felt myself getting sick.

As the siege at Troy continues, with one inconclusive battle after another, Polyxena grapples with the futility of it all.  After one particular costly engagement, she tells us:

I remained by the gate, looking out across the field, horror-struck at the extent of the slaughter that had taken place.  The dead were all about, littering the expanse in front of me, greater in number than in any battle the Amazons had fought while I was with them, and all for no gain.

She then thinks the unthinkable:

I found it incomprehensible how the leaders who decided to wage this war could still hold their units together after such an inconclusive bloodbath…..I would have expected, at some point, the warriors to have rebelled over the uselessness of their exertions.  The personal motivation of each of them had to suffer on that account.  Yet they persisted, allowing themselves to be guided into one disaster after another, with no reward in sight for any of them, facing no other reality than deferring the death that eventually might come to them.  Could it be that they now so personalized this war that no other priority existed for them except victory, even if it meant their death?  How could any sane person still have hopes of winning after the magnitude of today’s carnage?

What Polyxena is suggesting here is military heresy, questioning why soldiers do not mutiny when badly led (officers of every military in the world will cringe when reading this).  She also tells us of her continued difficulties in coping with the endless killing:

If ever I came to believe that eventually I would get accustomed to the slaughter and inure my sensibilities against its horrors, this notion was eclipsed every time the reality of the situation confronted me.  It always impacted with severity upon me, never easier the next time around, afflicting me with the same pain and dismay I felt after my first introduction to the cruelty of war.

These are sober contemplations; my novel was not written to be just another story; it was meant to be thought-provoking.

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