Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- June 8, 2004

Image, Courtesy of The Democratic Underground

Ernest Partridge


Ever since George Bush led us into this dreadful war, we have 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 "swift-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.

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 1944 film -- I was about nine 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 moral message.

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."

Sound familiar?

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 responsibility:

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 "f--k 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 said "feels good!"

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

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .