A Coward’s War

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J.L. David, The Love of Paris and Helen, 1788, Louvre Museum (public domain)

Literary Lessons

In Book III of The Iliad, Paris shows up for battle clad in a lion skin and brandishing a bow, a sword and two bronze spears. His armor and weaponry are replete – too replete. So, when he challenges the bravest of the Achaeans to a duel, we know what to expect. Menelaus, aggrieved husband of the abducted Helen, springs from his chariot, Homer tells us, “like a hungry lion that lights on the carcass of some goat or horned stag and devours it then and there.” But Menelaus doesn’t get to enjoy his meal. Paris is a lover not a fighter, as J.L. David’s painting shows, and he flees the battlefield for the boudoir.

Reproached by Hector for his cowardice, Paris finally agrees to the duel. Whoever wins, can claim victory in the war, preventing further bloodshed. Menelaus easily defeats Paris, but before he can administer the coup de grace, Aphrodite spirits away the vainglorious Trojan. The war resumes and many more die in place of craven Paris – who himself is finally killed.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius tries to persuade Marcus Brutus to turn against the Roman dictator by exposing Julius’s disability, his epilepsy:

How he did shake: Tis true, this God did shake,
His coward lippes did from their colour fly…
As a sicke Girle: Ye Gods, it doth amaze me,
A man of such feeble temper should so get the start of the Majesticke world
And beare the palm alone.

A little later, Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia, echoing the warnings of a soothsayer (“Beware the Ides of March”), tells her husband one evening not to venture out. She’d had terrible dreams and vivid premonitions: a lioness that gave birth in the streets of the city, graves that opened and yielded up their dead, and ghosts wailing and lamenting. But Caesar, sensitive to any perception of weakness, insists he will go forth. He tells Calphurnia, pompously: “Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once.” Soon, he is murdered by a group of plotters, including Caesar’s credulous friend, Brutus. “Et tu Brute,” says Caesar as he collapses and dies.

The killers then persuade Caesar’s ally, Marc Antony to speak at his friend’s funeral, just so long as he does not denounce the murderers: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears: I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” But by sly deceits and dexterous rhetoric, he turns the tables and condemns the killers, Brutus especially: “This was the most unkindest cut of all”, Antony says with redundance. There follows a plebian uprising that kills the conspirators, but also many innocents. Antony however, is content, saying to himself: “Now let it worke: Mischeeff, thou art a-foot, / Take thou what course thou wilt!”

The poet and artist William Blake was disdainful of military heroism. War was just the corporeal manifestation of moral and social ills: cruelty, jealousy, slavery (physical and mental), enclosure of land and resources, and blind obedience to sacred or secular law. Consequently, military heroism in the name of Britain and King George was a form of cowardice, a failure to break free of “mind-forged manacles.” And fearfulness in the face of the unknown was wisdom. “Fear & Hope – Are Vision,” is the legend beneath Blake’s engraving of a family gathered around the body of an old man whose spirit ascends to heaven.

In a satiric poem called “Let the Brothels of Paris be Opened,” we are introduced to Nobodaddy, who “farted and belched and coughed,” and “loved hanging and drawing and quartering/Every bit as well as war and slaughtering.” Nobodaddy was the satiric alter-ego of Blake’s ultimate coward, Urizen who uses the subterfuge of reason to direct armies, legitimize slavery and restrain desire. In The Book of Urizen (plate 22) he is shown as captive of his own infernal logic: “Frozen doors to mock the World; while they within torments uplock.”

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William Blake, “Fear and Hope are Vision,” 1788. Yale Center for British Art (public domain)

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William Blake, The Book of Urizen, plate 22,” 1794  Yale Center for British Art (public domain).

Different as they are, the three texts by Homer, Shakespeare and Blake all offer a similar understanding of cowardice: Putting yourself before another. More specifically, sacrificing others to achieve personal wealth, power, or fame. The current war in Ukraine offers ample evidence of cowardice.

Vladimir Putin as Paris

Like Paris, Putin is vain. He’s more buff than any head of state has a right to be, and while Nicole Kidman uses botox treatments because of her close-ups, (though I think she’d look better without them), Putin sits alone at the end of a 50-foot table with sycophants and courtiers at the other end. I doubt they can see his lips move, much less explore the lines around his mouth. He doesn’t wear a lion skin around his shoulders, but he’s an advocate for hunting and fishing; he doesn’t brandish swords and bronze spears, but hypersonic missiles and thermobaric rockets.

I’m no psychologist, but I doubt Putin is diagnosable. He’s likely no more narcissistic or sociopathic than most U.S. presidents. Like them, he uses federal agents to harass, arrest and imprison dissidents, though Putin lately does it on a much larger scale. He assassinates enemies in foreign nations, like they do, and undertakes wars of aggression (re-defined as defensive or humanitarian) that kill large numbers of civilians, just like they have. The U.S. body count in the more than 20 years since Putin came to power exceeds Russia’s by orders of magnitude, though with the war against Ukraine, he’s quickly catching up.

Nor is Putin more cold-blooded than American corporate leaders who giddily count-up profits from fossil fuel and weapons sales, killing off future generations even while ravaging the present one. He is said to be one of the richest men in the world, but U.S. corporate heads and their political toadies are no slouches when it comes to greed. They accept bonuses even when their businesses flounder; bribe each other with board seats and collect campaign contributions from PACs; earn obscene speaking fees and book advances; make money from stock options instead of salary, thereby evading taxes; engage in insider trading; and maintain mansions, yachts, and offshore bank accounts. Putin, like them, is a moral coward. With his war on Ukraine, however, he has exceeded even his own record of cravenness by bombing hospitals, schools, theaters, and apartment buildings.

Jilted by beautiful Ukraine (Helen), Putin (Paris) blew his chance for reconciliation. During the build-up of troops on Ukraine’s border prior to invasion on February 24, he had the world’s undivided attention. He could have accepted Ukraine’s demurral and asked if she would consider just being friends. NATO could have blessed the arrangement by promising not to admit Ukraine into its ranks for the foreseeable future. Putin could have asked the U.S. to immediately begin talks to revive the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty abrogated by Trump, and resume negotiations for START III (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), meant to drastically cut each nation’s nuclear arsenals. He could have tried to accelerate negotiations with the U.S. to prevent NATO from installing new, intermediate range conventional missiles in Poland or the Baltic states in exchange for non-intervention in Ukraine.

But rather than continue admittedly slow and frustrating negotiations with the U.S. over NATO membership and the disposition of arms and troops in Central and Eastern Europe, Putin leapt into the arena of war and sought to take Ukraine by force. That effort failed, and now we witness the slow, deadly slog of war.

Zelensky as Marc Antony

Many Americans now know more Ukrainian than American history. But in case a few readers haven’t paid attention, here’s a summary of developments since independence: in 2004, an “orange” revolution installed Victor Yushchenko who favored close ties with the EU; six years later, Victor Yanukovych replaced him – he was more Russia oriented; in 2014, a coup (supported by the U.S.) toppled Yanukovych and installed Petro Poroshenko, who was more Western directed. That year, Russia invaded the Crimea, and a civil war broke out in the Donbas region. It was still smoldering when Zelensky, a former TV actor and comedian, was elected president by a landslide in 2019. He promised to end corruption but didn’t. Three years later, his country was invaded.

The following isn’t so well known: Ukraine’s frontline troops in the Donbas in 2014 were from the Azov Battalion. They were a neo-Nazi militia founded by Andriy Biletsky, who in 2010, said it was Ukraine’s mission to: “lead the white races in a final crusade against Semite-led Untermenschen.” Last week, Zelensky, a Jew who claims to have ancestors killed in the Holocaust, publicly praised the Azov battalion for fighting to protect Mariupol. I suppose in wartime, any enemy of my enemy is my friend, but perhaps not when your enemy has justified their war against you by saying they are fighting Nazis.

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Richard Westall, Marc Antony and the Body of Caesar (detail), Boydell Gallery, 1802. British Museum.

Volodymyr Zelensky is handsome, silver-tonged and media savvy. He has by now spoken to half the parliaments in Europe as well as to the U.S. Congress, Canadian Parliament, and Japanese National Diet: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Americans and Brits think of Zelensky as the child of Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, an impression he cultivates. He begins his addresses by quoting notables from the nation whose representatives he’s addressing. He then speaks about the sufferings of his people and shows heart-wrenching videos to prove his point. He tells them his countrymen, like theirs, cherish freedom. After that, he asks nations to “close the skies,” meaning establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The phrase has an inviting naivete, as if it was a matter of zipping closed a tent and snuggling inside. (The expression appears to date from the revival of commercial aviation following the second world war.) But the demand to close the skies is nothing less than an invitation to all-out war — probably thermonuclear — against Russia. A similar rhetorical recklessness was in evidence when Zelensky told the Israeli Knesset that the attack on Ukraine was like the Holocaust. That didn’t go over well.

Ukraine is in a terrible circumstance with its people being killed or forced into exile. Zelensky has shown remarkable composure in the face of great personal danger. But is it heroism or its opposite to presume that global Armageddon is a reasonable risk to protect Ukraine’s independence? After each of Zelensky’s addresses before a national parliament, and each call for a no-fly zone, I hear the echo of Marc Antony: “Now let it worke: Mischeeff, thou art a-foot, / Take thou what course thou wilt!”

Biden as Nobodaddy

For decades, Joe Biden has been at or near the center of American political and military power. He was a U.S. Senator for more than 35 years and chaired the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. He supported the bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War and voted for both the Afghan and second Iraq wars, claiming that Saddam Hussein had to be “eliminated.” He enthusiastically repeated the bald lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. To his credit, he later regretted his support for the war in Iraq. But not content to be correct in hindsight, he continued to support Bush administration appropriations to fund the war. He resisted Obama’s ill conceived “surge” of troops in Afghanistan in 2009, but did so silently, consistent with the U.S. tradition that vice-presidents should neither be seen nor heard.

In the late 1990s, Biden was a key supporter of NATO expansion. He claimed in 1998 that the Senate vote adding Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to NATO would assure “another 50 years of peace.” That was the vote famously described by George Kennan, the very architect of America’s strategy of containment, as “a tragic mistake.” Kennan added:

“This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. NATO expansion was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”

In January 2022, as Russian troops massed on the border of Ukraine, Joe Biden did little to diffuse the crisis. He neither expressed regrets about past NATO expansion, nor agreed to preclude Ukraine’s future membership. In fact, he said very little. “Why dost thou,” old Nobodaddy, “hide thyself in clouds/From every searching eye”? Instead, Biden tasked his bellicose Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to goad vain Vladimir into battle against TV star Volodymyr. By publicly exposing every troop movement, missile placement and diplomatic feint and dodge, the U.S. administration made it difficult for Paris to back down without losing face. Now, a month into the war, Biden watches from the sidelines, piling on sanctions, and insulting Putin and Chinese President Xi, the one leader who could stop the war with a word. (He’s another profile in cowardice.)

The war in Ukraine is a proxy battle. Biden’s U.S. (and that fictional construction called “the West”) is Putin’s real adversary. NATO is Biden’s hapless chorus. Brave Zelensky is the schlemiel who walked into Putin’s fist. The fastest way to end the war would be for Putin and Biden to talk, joined by Zelinsky, who needs to allow vain Putin to claim victory while losing. But for all that to happen, more courage would be needed than has been demonstrated so far in this coward’s war.*

*Many thanks to WJT Mitchell and Peter Linebaugh for their generous answers to my Blake question. They can’t be blamed for any errors of fact or interpretation.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. His next book with the artist Sue Coe The Young Person’s Illustrated Guide to American Fascism‘will be published late this summer by OR Books. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu