Image, Courtesy of
The Democratic Underground
Ever since George Bush led us into this dreadful war, we've heard occasional references to
Shakespeare's Henry V from the punditocracy.
Allusions to the play also appear in our media and our politics. "Band of
brothers," the title of the HBO miniseries and the name given to John
Kerry's "fast-boat" crew, comes from Henry's speech to his army before the
battle of Agincourt.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile.
I first heard the comparison of Bush with Henry from Chris
Matthews about the time of the carrier-deck "Mission Accomplished"
extravaganza. Like the unpromising wastrel Prince Hal, Matthews told us, the
shallow frat-boy, George, had been transformed into a great and inspiring
leader. This was the same Chris Matthews who was also capable at the time of
favorably comparing George Bush with Winston Churchill.
A very different assessment was recently offered by Arianna Huffington, in her
"Shakespeare turns a spotlight on Bush and Iraq."
Well worth a read.
Henry V and I go way back. It is the Shakespeare play that I know best. This
shouldn't be so, for there are surely more important plays, but that's just
the way it turned out.
My first encounter with the play was when I saw Laurence Olivier's great
1945 film -- I was about ten years old at the time. In those days before
VCRs I didn't have an opportunity to see it again until a decade later,
when I was an undergraduate.
Those who have seen the Olivier film are likely to agree: it is a
masterpiece. It is also a propaganda piece, produced in England during the
war when the Churchill government had an urgent need to remind the British
people of their historic capacity to prevail over hardship and overwhelming
military might. For this purpose, Henry V was the perfect choice.
The acting, the directing, the staging, William Walton's score (to my mind
the finest film music ever composed), and above all Shakespeare's words,
convey the heroism of Henry, his irresistible leadership quality, and the
With time and acquired maturity, I eventually came to realize that it was an
indefensible moral message. Henry launched a war of conquest -- what we now
call "a war of choice." As Shakespeare tells it, Henry did so after the
Archbishop of Canterbury provided the King with an elaborate and concocted
argument to "justify" what Henry had already essentially decided on his own:
to go to war -- "no king of England, if not king of France."
Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version was less thrilling, more nuanced, and more
morally ambiguous. There we saw an arrogant and cruel side of Henry. The
slaughter on the field of Agincourt, obscenely "clean" in the Olivier
version, was correctly portrayed by Branagh as the awful butchery that
history tells us it was.
General William Sherman had it right: "War is Hell!" And Branagh
wanted us to be reminded of it.
As I write this on June 6, sixty years to the day after "D-Day," I am struck
by how the contrast between the Olivier and Branagh films is replicated in
"The Longest Day" (1962) and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). I have seen "The
Longest Day" several times -- who can avoid it on TV? I saw "Saving Private
Ryan" just once. I am glad that I did, for from that experience I gained
moral insight and sensitivity. But I simply cannot bring myself to see it
again -- so vivid is the depiction of the horror of Omaha Beach and the
battles that followed.
Fortunately, war movies now are less about heroics and the triumph of good
over "evil-doers," and more about the cruelty, horror and absurdity of war.
George Bush appears to be stuck in the fifties and sixties, with John
Wayne and "The Sands of Iwo Jima" -- "Good v. Evil," "you are either for us
or against us." War to George Bush is a glorious spectacle as one watches
brave men fight the evil-doers and die for glory -- as one watches all this
from the safety and comfort of the theater seat, or of the Oval Office.
Shakespeare has a broader view of warfare, as he factors in the human
costs, the anguish of leadership, the moral dilemmas and conflicts, the
radical uncertainty of the outcome.
In the scene set at the English camp, the night before the battle of
Agincourt, Will, a common soldier, says to the disguised King:
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a
heavy reckoning to make; when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped
off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all 'We
died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon
their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon
their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in
a battle: for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is
their argument! Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black
matter for the king that led them to it...
Later the King, alone, reflects upon the enormity of his
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition!
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heart's ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not too.
Save ceremony, save general ceremony!
. . .
What drink'st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison'd flattery? O! be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure.
Can you, for a moment, imagine George Bush troubled by such reflections? I
know I can't.
When it was time to take up arms in defense of his
country, did he answer the call? We all know the answer.
Later, as President, was Bush, like Henry, burdened by the weight of his
decision to go to war? Did he reflect upon the American and Iraqi lives that
would be lost -- "some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their
wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left?" Did he think of the bodies about to be horribly and
permanently disabled and disfigured?
Did he, like Henry and like Dwight Eisenhower on June 5, 1944, walk among
and look into the eyes of the troops he was about to send into battle, and
in all too many instances, to their deaths?
Was he willing to face the consequences of this sorry business by honoring
with his official presence, the coffins ("transfer tubes") as they arrived
at Dover Air Force Base? Or by attending a funeral of a young soldier killed
as a result of Bush's decision to go to war?
On the contrary, his pre-war sentiment boiled down to
Saddam, we're taking him out." And, as he was about to announce
his war to the nation and the world, he struck his fist against his palm and
Missing from all this was any conspicuous awareness by Bush of the suffering
that his decision was about to cause in Iraq and the United States.
This is a man who jokingly mimics the pleas of a woman whose death warrant
he has signed.
This is a man who signs the death warrants of 154 additional condemned
prisoners without bothering to read the summaries of their appeals.
No, Chris Matthews, this is no Prince Hal transformed into King Henry.
Copyright 2004 by Ernest Partridge