Weather Updates

Our Trojan War in Afghanistan rages into a second decade

Updated: November 16, 2011 10:17AM

In the thoughtful introduction to his sharp new translation of Homer’s The Iliad, Stephen Mitchell lists some of the Greek words applied to war in the ancient epic poem: “ainos (dreadful), argaleos (gruesome, cruel, bitter), deios (deadly), duseleges (bringing much grief), kakos (evil), leugaleos (wretched), lugros (miserable), oloos (ruinous) . . . ”

The list goes on, but you get the idea. In that light, war has not changed much in 3,200 years. Troops go into battle to kill or be killed, wound or be wounded. Yes, they held bronze swords and spears back then, while now they brandish M4 carbines and rocket-propelled grenades. But the results are the same.

A dull story doesn’t remain popular for thousands of years, and The Iliad thrillingly recounts a big war, filled with big armies, masses of men and horses, tall black ships, a walled city scraping the heavens, jealous, deathless gods, the clash of divinely inspired heroes and women unequaled in beauty.

Another outsized aspect of the story is the length of the Trojan War — the action begins in the 10th year of the Greek siege of the city of Troy, and since the poem was written 500 years after the supposed facts that are being celebrated, it’s safe to assume that, along with Troy’s topless towers, this particular span of time was chosen by the poet to amaze by outlining a very long time to fight a war, to convey just what a legendary undertaking this struggle was. Ten long bloody years.

The savvy reader will get where I’m heading by now, since today marks the 10th anniversary of the war, our struggle in Afghanistan, dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom” in that regrettable habit we have of coining inspirational monikers for our national bloodlettings, as if that helps.

And if matching the length of the Trojan War doesn’t register, then let me put it another way: If you add the time the United States spent fighting the Civil War (four years) the time it spent fighting World War II (three years, 10 months) and the Korean War (three years) you get a war a little longer than this one, a mark we will pass — since we are certain to still be there — next August.

A major reason the war could linger so long is that we pay so little attention to it. I would be ashamed to admit that I easily know more about the Trojan War than I do about the war in Afghanistan, if I weren’t so certain that many readers, if not most, know as little as I, or less. Should we see? OK, think of everything you know about the war we have been fighting for the past 10 years. (“Oh man!” I imagine you saying, “I would have paid closer attention if I knew there’d be a test!”)

Don’t feel bad. I’ll go first. Here’s what I know, off the top of my head: We sent troops there. They took the capital of Kabul very quickly, drove out the Taliban, who fled into Pakistan where they now operate. Most of the war is a kind of cat-and-mouse game, where our soldiers go on patrol, trolling themselves as bait, and wait to be attacked or blown up by roadside bombs — this is what amounts to battle. Plus there are raids and assaults of insurgent strongholds, all to prop up Afghan leader Harmid Karzai, who is at best corrupt and at worst in league with our enemies.

Did I miss anything? I almost said that the best result was liberating the Kurds, but that’s Iraq, the other war we’ve got going on.

The Trojan War was a waste fought over wounded pride — the perfect Helen, King Menelaus’ wife, seduced by his guest, Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy and stolen away.

I won’t say the war in Afghanistan is also a waste prompted by an injury — though half the post-9/11 veterans polled by Pew Research say the Afghan war wasn’t worth the cost. Surprising candor, because typically the logic is: We’ve lost comrades; therefore, the war has to be worthwhile, and to suggest otherwise is to question their sacrifice.

The American vets are actually echoing Achilles, who at one point says, “Nothing is worth my life.” And though Afghanistan seems a better place now than it was 10 years ago, any progress there is fragile, and I can’t imagine there are many in this country who wouldn’t trade away in a heartbeat whatever improvements have come to Afghan society if it meant the 1,300 American soldiers killed there could magically return to the living.

In The Iliad, there is no Trojan horse, the city does not fall — that’s in The Aeneid, by the Roman Virgil. The Iliad covers a few weeks in the 10th year of the war. The story continues in Homer’s second epic, The Odyssey, as one Greek commander, the wily Odysseus, the “man of twists and turns,” tries to get home.

We’re set to depart Afghanistan in 2014. It took Odysseus another 10 years after the war to reach home. Let’s see if we can do better.

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