Like English professors everywhere, I suppose, I love to teach “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle about “the art of losing.” I teach it to first-year cadets at West Point every spring, even though I have the impression that the poem’s deepest anxieties are largely lost on 18-year-olds. They tend to fixate on Bishop’s first few examples of things lost—misplaced keys and forgotten names are proof to them only of their elders’ tedious muddles—while passing over the losses that follow: the “realms,” the rivers, the continent, the beloved “you” of the final stanza. The dread of metaphysical loss is alien to them. As a result, they tend at first to miss the gradual amplification of the speaker’s insistent refrain, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” until it becomes impossible to ignore the catastrophe of accumulated deprivation. Bishop’s alchemy turns loss into literary gain, but the mastery achieved by the poem’s end is not in any obvious way a victory. The villanelle is a form of stalemate, a testy negotiation between despair and the need to carry on. It is a blueprint for the inconclusive.
Then, too, I suspect my problem is exacerbated by the fact that I teach this poem about loss to a bunch of winners. My students are learning how to live and work within military culture—how to figure out exactly what it is—a culture that seems unable, by virtue of both temperament and circumstance, to contemplate the possibility of losing: noble sacrifice, betrayal from within or sabotage from without, yes—losing, no. I’m not sure it could be otherwise, nor do I think it would be prudent to nurture defeatist attitudes in those who are preparing to be soldiers. The stakes of war are too high, the odds of survival too low, for that. But there is a grotesque cost to imagining that every scenario is winnable or that the troubles of this world can be distilled into wins and losses, its people into winners and losers. And the failure to acknowledge that cost on the part of those institutions that bear authority for sending people to war strikes me as the height of irresponsibility.
Of course, war seems to many observers the arena in which such winnowing is easiest to do, but that’s no longer the case (if it ever really was). War, an increasingly murky activity that has its own perilous momentum, unfolds a story with an end that seems, maddeningly, to be in constant retreat. This was clearly the case in Afghanistan, where the opening gambit to destroy al-Qaeda and punish its Taliban protectors drifted, almost haphazardly, into a series of ill-fated priorities, all of which have now been abandoned in the wake of the American withdrawal from the Kabul airport, concluded at the end of August. Subsequent missteps led many in uniform and out to believe that the original mission might have had a discrete, achievable end, but the intervening years have obscured even that certainty. My colleagues and former students used to measure victory by not losing anyone in their commands; the new metric seems to be the number of people we were able to evacuate. Anything to avoid calling the whole enterprise a defeat.
Among the many revelations contained in the Afghanistan Papers, the cache of interviews and memos The Washington Post began to publish in 2019, was the fact that military and civilian officials continued for years to prosecute a war some privately acknowledged to be unwinnable. The reasons behind this apparent mendacity must have been many and various: cynicism, delusion, self-preservation, a desire for advancement, ideological zeal, perhaps even a strange kind of naïveté. But underneath them all lies what might be described as a psychological compulsion—strong in Americans but overwhelming in American military culture—to perform optimism.
“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” On my way to work the day after Colin Powell’s death was announced on October 19, I drove by a digital billboard tribute emblazoned with this quotation, one of his favorites. It appears at the end of his autobiography, My American Journey, as one of “Colin Powell’s Rules.” Perpetually optimistic leadership, Powell once explained to an audience at Whitworth University, can make a “force more powerful than the design of the force would suggest it is.” Americans seduced by the idea that optimism is magic can find Powell’s maxim for sale everywhere on the Web: on refrigerator magnets, T-shirts, aluminum signs, coffee cups, totes, bottle openers, even facemasks. I don’t doubt that Powell’s faith in optimism was genuine. I have heard less eloquent versions of this philosophy from countless military officers over the years. In part, it is informed by old codes of masculine honor and prowess, but it also reflects a mentality that must prepare itself to meet apparently insuperable odds. The cult of optimism makes failure seem, always, a matter of will or choice.
And as much as the military seeks refuge in its legal status as an instrument of civilian policy, don’t think for a minute that all that optimism doesn’t have policy consequences when it infuses the advice given to civilian leaders. As Mark Mazzetti, Julian E. Barnes, and Adam Goldman reported in The New York Times in August, “Part of the problem, according to former officials, is that the can-do attitude of the military frequently got in the way of candid accurate assessments of how the Afghan security forces were doing. Though no one was blind to desertions or battlefield losses, American commanders given the task of training the Afghan military were reluctant to admit their efforts were failing.” On the subject of this reluctance, one friend who served in Afghanistan observed, “Do you think anyone was going to get promoted if they ‘left Afghan forces worse than they found them,’ even if it amounted to just correcting a report? My suspicion is that something like that logic played out a thousand times. We had no great battlefield loss, just death by a thousand little lies and omissions.”
The mid-20th-century cultural critic Robert Warshow illuminated American optimism from a different angle when he examined the phenomenon of the gangster film in a 1948 essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” The genre offered a tragic counterpoint to what Warshow regarded as a national commitment “to a cheerful view of life,” common to all modern egalitarian political systems. “If an American … is unhappy,” he argued, “it implies a certain reprobation of his society, and therefore … it becomes an obligation of citizenship to be cheerful; if the authorities find it necessary, the citizen may even be compelled to make a public display of his cheerfulness on important occasions.”
Warshow recognized that an anxiety lurked beneath the forced smile of American optimism: “Whatever its effectiveness as a source of consolation and a means of pressure for maintaining ‘positive’ social attitudes, this optimism is fundamentally satisfying to no one, not even to those who would be most disoriented without its support.” Warshow read the gangster film as part of “a current of opposition,” expressive of the “sense of desperation and inevitable failure which optimism itself helps to create.”
Warshow’s anatomy of the gangster picture suggests the depths of self-deception necessary to preserve American optimism. Nowhere is this need more powerful or more potentially tragic than in military culture. The Post’s series on the Afghanistan Papers accused officials of “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” I would suggest a more complicated dynamic: that some officials knew or could admit in certain circumstances that the war could not be won but felt it their duty to say otherwise—that it would have constituted a betrayal of those who had already died to conclude that they had “died in vain.” In some cases, the blindness might have been willful, but in others, I believe, it was simply a product of successful cultural indoctrination.
To the perpetual optimist, war is a deadly endurance sport that can be won if only we possess the virtue and stamina to keep on playing the game. “Winning Matters,” Army Chief of Staff James C. McConville likes to say: “We win with our People doing the right things the right way.” After all, the army’s mission is “to fight and win our Nation’s wars.” In 2019, shortly after being sworn in, McConville told the Army News Service, “When we send the United States Army somewhere, we don’t go to participate, we don’t go to try hard. We go to win. That is extremely important because there’s no second place or honorable mention in combat. … We’re a contact sport,” in which soldiers “need to make sure that they can meet the physical and mental demands.”
Analogies between sport and war have become commonplace in U.S. military culture. Americans borrowed this idea from the British. One popular expression of it can be found in Sir Henry Newbolt’s terrible 1892 poem “Vitai Lampada.” Newbolt takes us from a public-school cricket pitch to an unspecified desert of the Empire. Each situation calls for the same refrain: “Play up! play up! and play the game!” This is the kind of sensibility that turns certain descriptions of war, to borrow the military historian John Keegan’s phrase, into “jolly genre scene[s].”
It is the Duke of Wellington, the victor at the Battle of Waterloo, who is most often thought of in connection with this sentiment. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, several formulations are attributed to him, and even though they are generally considered to be apocryphal, they have unequivocal staying power. The first attribution dates from 1856, when Wellington is said to have declared on a visit to Eton, “It is here that the battle of Waterloo was won!” The sentimental musings of old Etonians have always been ripe for ridicule, and the Dictionary traces a line of critics from Matthew Arnold to George Orwell.
Arnold alluded implicitly to Wellington in “An Eton Boy,” an essay on the “harm” of English secondary schools published in 1881 in The Fortnightly Review. Among the products of these schools Arnold describes is a figure he calls the “aged Barbarian.” This hidebound, uncultured traditionalist was in his “far more amiable stage” a beautiful, exuberant Eton boy who excelled in the steeplechase or became Master of the Beagles. Should he survive into old age, this man will “mumble to us his story how the battle of Waterloo was won in the playing-fields of Eton. Alas!” Arnold laments, “Disasters have been prepared in those playing-fields as well as victories; disasters due to inadequate mental training—to want of application, knowledge, intelligence, lucidity.” During World War II, Orwell, discerning “the decay of ability in the ruling class,” pulled on the same thread: “Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.”
Jan Willem Pieneman’s painting of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. The Duke of Wellington is in the center of the canvas. (Prisma Archivo/Alamy)
At West Point, the connection between sport and war is epitomized in former superintendent Douglas MacArthur’s observation: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.” I most recently saw this old saw on an academy social media account accompanying the photograph of a football player. Those who employ the analogy are oblivious to its original connections to class and empire, although I’m quite certain the aristocratically minded MacArthur well understood them.
And for those who do not find congenial the orotund sentiments of a MacArthur, there is always the earthier style of George Patton, preferably in the version to be found in the 1970 biopic, at the beginning of which George C. Scott, as Patton, appears before a giant American flag to harangue the troops in his unforgettable baritone. Some of my acquaintances remember watching the film’s opening scene during their first West Point summer. In the midst of the Vietnam War, thousands of moviegoers witnessed Scott deliver these lines:
Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war, because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.
I cannot omit a counterpoint, all the more surprising because it comes from another American proponent of sport, war, and winning, Theodore Roosevelt, who always proves to be more complicated than he seems. Despite his boyish zest for sport, cultivated during a sickly childhood, and an often-unseemly enthusiasm for war, Roosevelt did not, at least privately, confuse the two endeavors. Indeed, he expressed a certain mistrust of the primacy of sport in a 1903 letter to his son Ted, who had written urgently to report his being cut from the second squad of the Groton football team (and who would go on to a successful military career). “I am delighted to have you play football,” the president told his son. “I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one’s existence.” The father continued:
I need not tell you that character counts for a great deal more than either intellect or body in winning success in life. Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master. Did you ever read Pliny’s letter to Trajan, in which he speaks of its being advisable to keep the Greeks absorbed in athletics, because it distracted their minds from all serious pursuits, including soldiering, and prevented their ever being dangerous to the Romans? … A man must develop his physical prowess up to a certain point; but after he has reached that point there are other things that count more. … I am glad you should play football; I am glad that you should box; I am glad that you should ride and shoot and walk and row as well as you do. I should be very sorry if you did not do these things. But don’t ever get into the frame of mind which regards these things as constituting the end to which all your energies must be devoted, or even the major portion of your energies.
This is not a Roosevelt most at West Point would immediately recognize. It is not the Roosevelt of the centennial commencement address at the military academy in 1902, in which the president chose to include a jolly genre scene with a happy ending that demonstrates the magical power of optimism. A cadet “having his holiday” from the academy had joined Roosevelt’s regiment in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Shot in the stomach before an assault, the cadet declared, “ ‘All right, Colonel, I am going to get well.’ I did not think he was,” Roosevelt continued, “but I said, ‘All right, I am sure you will,’ and he did; he is all right now.”
“Winning Matters.” Of course it does. But what happens when you lose? And I’m not talking about losing your spot on the football squad at Groton.
West Point’s rhetorical emphasis on winning intensified during the war on terror and seems only to have increased since our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq began increasingly to look like failures. People used to speak of pursuing excellence; now all the talk is about winning. Fostering “a winning culture” is a prominent part of the academy’s character development program. We are enjoined to help cadets learn how “to pursue excellence and win in a manner consistent with Army Values and good sportsmanship.” Pursuing excellence seems to me a far richer, more expansive (even Aristotelian) idea than winning. But the obsession with winning—especially with winning in athletics—has become all the more energetic as a strategy for not talking about losing.
Everything has become something that can be won. Devotees of the cult have long signed their emails, ended their speeches, and greeted each other with “Beat Navy!” “Beat Someone!” or “Beat Everyone!” Nor is this rhetoric confined to sporting events, where it has at least the potential to create esprit de corps. It bleeds into other realms, a reflexive coda even in those circumstances when such exhortations seem at best sophomoric, at worst inappropriate. Cadets are encouraged to do well academically, as if studying itself were a kind of sport, with the phrase “Beat the Dean!”
During the pandemic, a virus, too, has been turned into something that can be beaten the way a conventional adversary might be: “Stay Positive! Test Negative! Beat Everyone!” read one mass email I received. Another praised cadets for adhering to safety protocols by likening their situation to that of Joshua Chamberlain making his stand at Little Round Top. They were instructed to remain vigilant against a lurking enemy. “As Chamberlain did at Gettysburg,” it closed, “we must hold the line!”
A great deal is eclipsed by a worldview that imagines we can always secure a win, for it confuses the ambiguities of life with the clarity of sport. Commentators have often remarked on our inclination to turn every problem into a war: the war on crime, the war on poverty, the war on cancer, the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on Covid-19. As the philosopher Rebecca Gordon notes, this tendency isn’t unique to the United States. But it is very strong with us, and it carries with it a host of implications, ranging from the ethical to the practical.
What licenses this rhetorical move in the first place is an understanding of war as a deadly sport that can always be played to a decisive conclusion, rather than a violent, indeterminate collision of vast and uncontrollable forces. Some wars end in draws; others in Pyrrhic victories; still others, as seems to be the case with our recently concluded expedition in Afghanistan, almost where they began, with little to show but losses: of life, treasure, reputation, and moral standing.
But almost no one is talking about that. When acquaintances ask me what my students and colleagues are saying about events in Afghanistan, I have little to report. Sometimes it almost feels as if it never happened, so deep is the silence, which runs all the way to the top.
Around the time of our nearly coincident late August departure from Afghanistan and the 20th anniversary of September 11, senior Department of Defense leaders sent the force-wide messages customary on such occasions. Billed as opportunities for “reflection,” these messages typically end up in self-congratulation. They can begin on a somber note, but they must always end in optimism. They take pride in sacrifice: “The sacrifices you’ve made,” declared one, “will be a lasting legacy of honor and commitment for all to remember.” The September 11 “attacks,” it continued, “reminded us of the true strength of our Nation and our military.” Sensitive to the fact that some “teammates” might “be struggling with the unfolding events,” it urged solidarity in a “tough time,” but it also reminded readers that they had joined “the best Army in the world.”
Another message to the force also alluded to “challenging times” before turning attention to patriotic achievement: “Together, wrapped in the cloth of our Nation, you project strength, safeguard peace, and carry compassion throughout the globe.” An emphasis on “compassion” and protection is characteristic of such letters, which tend to divert attention away from the fundamentally destructive nature of the military’s work. Declaring that “our military mission” in Afghanistan “has come to an end,” this message assured its readers that “you can hold your head high” by asserting unequivocally (and without evidence) that the military had “prevented an attack on the United States homeland.” A third missive similarly called attention to the humanitarian aspects of the military’s work: “Our service members … provided medical care, food and water, and compassion to people in need. They flew tens of thousands of people to safety, virtually around the clock. They even delivered babies.”
It is safer to abstract particular “acts of bravery and sheer determination” from the longer narratives of which they form a part. By focusing on the heroic efforts of military personnel during the evacuation itself, these messages didn’t have to address the many missteps that landed them there: “Your actions honor the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters in arms who lost their lives or were wounded in Afghanistan.” The success or failure of the larger mission becomes beside the point when the purpose of every military action is defined as honoring a previous soldier’s sacrifice.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin came the closest to admitting that something went wrong: “As we look back as a nation on two decades of combat and struggle in Afghanistan, I hope that we will do so with as much thoughtfulness and humility as we can muster. And I know that we will wish for a brighter future for the Afghan people—for all their sons, and for all their daughters.” But then came the obligatory coda: “I am proud of the part that we played in this war.”
Animated by a faith in American exceptionalism and a belief in the inherent virtue of democracy’s military might, validated by our victory in World War II, Americans will one day weave stories about Iraq and Afghanistan similar to those that have grown up around Vietnam, which some construe as a winnable war betrayed by a lack of American will, squeamishness on the part of civilian leaders, or a disloyal press. Congressional oversight hearings on the withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer have already started to shape that narrative. For example, Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma seized on the revelation that the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, informed his Pentagon superiors of the need for additional troops on the ground. “Clearly,” Inhofe concluded, “President Biden didn’t listen to all the military advice.”
Explanations of failure tend to conclude that Afghanistan simply wasn’t ready for democracy. In September, Secretary Austin told Congress that despite the bravery of many Afghan soldiers, “in the end, we couldn’t provide them with the will to win. At least not all of them.” Here, too, was a celebration of the quantifiable success of the evacuation itself: Although plans had been made for the evacuation of between 70,000–80,000 people, the number of evacuees eventually exceeded 124,000. “At the height of this operation, an aircraft was taking off every 45 minutes. And not a single sortie was missed for maintenance, fuel, or logistical problems. It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history, and it was executed in just 17 days.” Such enumeration focuses on the local at the expense of the systemic.
A friend who served in Vietnam anatomized the winner’s tragic predicament this way:
The Army avoids talk of loss by never leaving the battlefield. The Army lost lives but never a battle. In Vietnam the Army lost its reputation but never a battle. In the last 20 years, the Army lost the strength to tell itself the truth and to tell that truth to the civilian leadership, but the Army never lost a battle. Endless military victories cannot prevent losing. They perversely prolong the fighting and magnify the loss. I fear that the Army will forever welcome the opportunity to prove its prowess and will avoid the Washington truth-telling that may—just may—prevent otherwise inevitable loss, truth-telling that puts Army leaders at far greater risk than they would ever face on the battlefield. And, of course, the Army has no medal for that kind of courage.
Fostering a “winning culture” is a prominent part of West Point’s character development program. (World Politics Archive (WPA)/Alamy)
Is this inevitably what happens to a culture consumed with winning when it is confronted by loss? Must it search for wins wherever it can? Does a sort of shock set in? I cannot help but think of the Athenians after their disastrous Sicilian Expedition, undertaken in 413 BCE during the war with Sparta. Thucydides, a participant in and a historian of that war, records that the Athenians were ignorant of the terrain as well as of the nature of the island’s inhabitants, both Hellenic migrants and (non-Greek) barbarians. They were also too ready to believe in reports of the magnificent spoils awaiting them. Thucydides notes their confused, even disingenuous motivations: “The Athenians were now bent upon invading; being ambitious in real truth of conquering the whole, although they had also the specious design of aiding their kindred and other allies in the island.”
Thucydides paints the Athenian decision to go to Sicily as a contest between an optimist, the charismatic, unscrupulous Alcibiades, and a pessimist, the experienced commander Nicias. The glory-seeking Alcibiades reassures his countrymen of the unworthiness of their prospective opponents, the Syracusans, while the dour Nicias reminds his countrymen that they have only just had “respite” from both a plague and an intense phase of the war with Sparta. Too far away to be a threat, the enemy, he explains, is likewise too numerous to be conquered.
Plutarch, a Greek writing in a Roman world 500 years later, notes that Alcibiades convinced the Athenians that Sicily was the key to expanding their empire to Carthage, Libya, and—most appealing to a city whose pride was its navy—“the seas as far as the Pillars of Hercules.” Once these conceits of glory had fired the Athenians’ imaginations, Nicias’s warnings that Alcibiades was embroiling the city in “foreign dangers and difficulties, merely with a view to his own private lucre and ambition … came to nothing.” Roused to war, the Athenians prove incapable of hearing reason. Alcibiades’s cavalier attitude sorts perfectly with their blind self-regard. And Nicias ultimately miscalculates. Thinking to dissuade his countrymen by emphasizing the expedition’s magnitude, he succeeds only in obtaining carte blanche to organize as large a force as he requires. And for his pains, he is appointed alongside Alcibiades as joint commander of the expedition.
Before the Sicilian Expedition, Nicias’s success as a commander had been considerable. He had proved himself strategically astute and devoted to his country. In Sicily, however, he makes a series of poor decisions and exhibits a superstitious overreliance on soothsayers. The Athenian military disintegrates over the course of the expedition. Regarding the invasion as the watershed event of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides calls it “the most brilliant of successes for the Syracusans,” “the most calamitous of defeats” for Athens, and altogether “the greatest action that we know of in Hellenic history.” Athens would never be the same, nor would the balance of power between it and Sparta.
A series of miscalculations leads to the complete demoralization of the Athenians. After losing a naval battle to the Syracusans, the Athenians, “defeated at sea, where defeat could never have been expected,” are “plunged deeper into bewilderment than ever.” Eventually the sailors are “so utterly overcome by their defeat as no longer to believe in the possibility of success.” They won’t even obey Nicias’s orders to reboard their ships to attempt an escape. As a result, the entire force is condemned to retreat overland.
On the march, the debilitated Athenians left behind not only the dead but also the wounded, who, according to Thucydides, cried out and clutched desperately at the retreating survivors so as not to be abandoned. Repeatedly attacked on the march by the Syracusans, an exhausted remnant of the Athenian force meets its gruesome and chaotic end at the Assinarus River. Eager to escape their attackers, the Athenians trample and drown one another in their attempts to ease their thirst at the river and then to ford it to safety. They make easy targets for the enemy, positioned atop the steep bank, and Athenian bodies ultimately lie in heaps in the streambed.
By the end of this expedition, the Athenians no longer know who they are; they began it by failing to understand whom they were fighting. For the first time, the people they were trying to subdue did not want what they were selling—namely, Athenian democracy as opposed to Spartan oligarchy. “These were the only cities that they had yet encountered, similar to their own in character, under democracies like themselves, which,” Thucydides explains, “they had been unable to divide and bring them over by holding out the prospect of changes in their governments.”
When I read this passage recently, I could not help but think of something the friend who served in Afghanistan shared with me. He told me about an insult frequently thrown around by Americans there: “You can’t buy an Afghan,” it ran, “but you can rent one.” This insult about Afghan ethics—about the fickleness of their loyalties—entirely missed the point while also ignoring our own corruption in trying to buy loyalty. “Why should it be the case,” my friend asked, “that the Afghans should want what we were selling in the first place? Why should we condemn them for refusing a bargain they never asked for?”
There is a coda to the tragedy of the Sicilian Expedition. It may not be factual, but it has the undeniable virtue of human interest. The survivors of the Athenians’ calamitous retreat were penned in stone quarries by the victorious Syracusans. Exposed to the elements, forced to subsist on a daily ration of half a pint of water and a pint of grain, the Athenians had to endure the stench of the piled-up bodies of those who succumbed. It is Plutarch, trying to come to terms with Athens’s transformation from republic to deluded empire, who appends the coda. He records that some Athenians were sold into slavery—branded, too, with the image of a horse on their foreheads—yet some
were saved for the sake of Euripides, whose poetry, it appears, was in request among the Sicilians more than among any of the settlers out of Greece. And when any travelers arrived that could tell them some passage, or give them any specimen of his verses, they were delighted to be able to communicate them to one another.
It is just like Plutarch to provide us with this piece of information—and it is the promise of such gems that keeps a literature professor reading him so enthusiastically—but, also characteristically, he doesn’t tell us what to do with it, what to make of the fact that the enemy’s love of Greek poetry is the means to Athenian salvation:
Many of the captives who got safe back to Athens are said, after they reached home, to have gone and made their acknowledgments to Euripides, relating how that some of them had been released from their slavery by teaching what they could remember of his poems, and others, when straggling after the fight, had been relieved with meat and drink for repeating some of his lyrics.
Absent a larger point, it is difficult to explain Plutarch’s digression. The tale has no organic significance to the narrative beyond highlighting a symptomatic difference between the Athenians and those peoples they would swallow up. In political as well as military disarray by the time of the Sicilian Expedition, the Athenians have allowed ambition to lead them far away from themselves and from the potentially instructive mirror of their own cultural achievements, while their enemies manifest at once military superiority and sophisticated literary taste. Plutarch wants his reader to know that it was to the writer of tragedies, the exiled Euripides—and not to the city, by then engulfed in its own tragedy—that the Athenian survivors owed their eventual repatriation.
The Sicilian Expedition is on my mind not because it provides a perfect analogy to Afghanistan—it emphatically does not—but because it anatomizes a psychology of loss. The narratives of Plutarch and Thucydides dramatize the shock of defeat and its potential for producing not only a military but also a social, cultural, and political unraveling. When I read them now, in the wake of our losses (different in degree and kind), I cannot help but wonder whether there is some middle course between the paralysis of the Athenian forces, on the one hand, and on the other the present-day insistence on salvaging wins from the wreckage.
An 1890 print depicting “The Retreat of the Athenians from Syracuse,” in “the most calamitous of defeats” for Athens (The Print Collector/Alamy)
The Sicilian Expedition is also on my mind because I’ve been reading it with cadets in a seminar. As it happens, this class, a survey of ancient to early modern literature organized around the idea of barbarians and borderlands, is all about loss. The collisions it creates for me almost daily between the ancient world and our own are so many and so various that I have felt exceedingly self-conscious all semester because I don’t normally gear my teaching to current events, and I have always rejected choosing texts solely for their direct relevance to the news as a shortsighted strategy that does not play to my discipline’s strengths. Early last spring, when I was designing this course, I didn’t know what the summer would bring.
I have long been aware of the pedagogical (to say nothing of the political) limits of analogy. When things are going well, we like to think we have outstripped the past. But analogies always return with a vengeance in eras of change and upheaval. And nothing attracts the analogists like a crisis: Afghanistan is like Vietnam, war is like a sport. Analogy is a natural way to connect our own particular experience to someone else’s. But analogies are slippery, and the flaw is that such tests often yield a false positive for universals. We can hardly avoid drawing analogies; it seems to be part of our hardwiring. Yet we can be on our guard against being misled by them. The ancients themselves depended on the process of reasoning through analogy to make sense of their universe, but they also recognized its limitations. Plutarch, whose own biographies were predicated on the idea of analogy—of parallel Greek and Roman lives—acknowledged the ease with which historians misconstrue accidental resemblance as evidence of meaningful “design.”
And so I understand the texts I selected—Thucydides, Plutarch, Sappho, and Virgil among them—as presenting a world full not of analogies but of imperfect parallels, which, when read in a thoughtful rather than a superstitious way, show us to ourselves in an unfamiliar mirror if only we have the courage to look. It is the Aeneid, more than any of these texts, that haunts me. I first worked to understand this poem at school in the original Latin, and while my translation skills have deteriorated over the years, my connection to the poem has only intensified.
I have never found it at once so difficult and seductive as I have on this encounter because it discloses with a clarity unmatched by anything I have ever read what it means to lose. Throughout much of the poem, the Trojans’ labors are almost entirely profitless. Despite occasional infusions of intelligence and treasure from sources human and divine, the Trojan enterprise operates at a nearly constant loss. Aeneas himself must lose everything—honor, family, friends, an entire city and with it his cultural identity—before he can gain an empire for his descendants. In the end, it is by no means clear to me that this victory in prospect offers anything like adequate compensation.
Winning is inextricable from losing. My students have been particularly struck with Aeneas’s transformation in the second half of the poem from a dutiful, rather cool and restrained protagonist to an enraged berserker who adorns his chariot with the decapitated heads of his enemies. Virgil’s feat, as the critic David Quint has eloquently argued, is to turn losers into winners. But the emblem of Aeneas’s victory is a sword plunged “in fury” into the chest of his enemy, Turnus, and the poem’s last line is devoted to the indignant flight of Turnus’s soul from his groaning body to “the gloom below.”
Aeneas is harried throughout by the supernatural wrath of Juno, who while unable to derail destiny does her utmost to delay its fulfillment and to increase its price. He is confronted repeatedly with tantalizing prophecies that are misread, partially understood, or somehow true in unanticipated ways. Robert Fitzgerald, whose translation we have been reading, repeatedly uses the word baffling to describe the world in which Aeneas operates.
I find my world baffling just now, and periodically, prompted by one ancient text or another, I have tried to discuss that fact with my students. But they do not—or cannot—immediately hear all those resonances that strike me so profoundly. Each day in the classroom this semester, after a year of remote teaching, I have had to navigate an alarming silence about all that has recently transpired. The military establishment writ large has signaled its reluctance to speak of it. The cadets, for their part, certainly have questions and concerns, but some seem reluctant to ask their instructors, many of whom have spent so much of their careers engaged in this war, while my colleagues, as several have confirmed, need to talk about it but feel constrained and thus do so privately, almost surreptitiously, absent institutional support or context for such discussions. The consequences of not talking about what has just happened—of making it seem less like a loss and more like the triumph of military virtues over circumstance—strike me as grave.
One friend who remembers watching the opening of Patton when he first arrived at West Point as a new cadet also screened Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers together with the entire corps in the early 2000s in the largest auditorium on post. Black Hawk Down in particular, he notes, “fed something in cadets who were struggling to imagine what their futures might look like. Of course, the point of making us watch films that dramatized these tactical and strategic losses was that they weren’t actually losses,” he adds.
They sublimated loss into moral victory, romanticizing the Shakespearean band-of-brothers mythology. … It’s a point that eluded many of us for a long time (some still haven’t caught on). It’s a very insidious—and sentimental—form of indoctrination. I didn’t fully apprehend the extent to which it had captured my imagination until my third deployment, when I finally saw that “mythology” for what it always was, and I discovered that this consoling narrative had been a fiction all along. It’s why I’m so skeptical of the rhetoric surrounding the Afghanistan withdrawal. So dangerous. It’s not hyperbole to say that it almost destroyed me—was a greater trauma than any of the death or violence I encountered.
Few of us have the poet’s ability to reckon with the loss that inevitably surrounds us. We live now amid even greater loss than usual—losses tangible and intangible; losses permanent and temporary, which will nevertheless leave enduring traces; losses occasioned by a pandemic; losses brought about by two decades of bootless warfare. And so when I teach Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” again in the spring to a roomful of the military’s newest members, it will be with a consciousness of the need to grapple with loss and our almost total incapacity to do so. We are confronted with an opportunity to speak honestly and openly about the truth that there are things that cannot be won, losses that cannot be undone by calling them victories. And in the process, maybe we can reduce the odds of finding ourselves once again in this particular game, in which nothing but poetry can help us find our way home.
The editorial views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
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