I have one word: Do not fight them on their terms. They are our Achilles-Nemesis. They seek the arena of single combat, of mano-a-mano, of sacrifice and supplication. Do not let them dictate to us their passionate Homeric battlefield, for these reasons:
We will lose that battle, in the act of losing ourselves.
We are civilization, which is a precious creation only ours to lose.
Let us not go into battle against Achilles then, as “Hector slayer of men” — but rather as the true sons and daughters of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.
Vlahos seeks a contrast between ourselves and the Greeks of the Heroic Age, or the Greeks of the Heroic Age as depicted in Homer, but that second difference, between history and fiction rather than putatively between us and them, presents problems, since Achilles and Hector may have only as much, or less, to do with the men who fought on either side during the destruction of ancient Troy as John Rambo had to do with the soldiers who fought, one suspects more often in uniform than stripped down to muscle Ts, in Vietnam.
The idea that 3,000 years of technological and social-political progress, or civilization, separate us essentially rather than merely outwardly from our actually barbaric progenitors, may have a stronger foundation in vanity than in proof, and Vlahos himself produces ample counter-evidence for his own thesis, not least in his concluding lines – unless we are somehow to imagine that the stature in American national lore of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt has nothing do with their having commanded armies of, as we still say, “supreme sacrifice” – and finally glorious lethality. I won’t commit the civil blasphemy of comparing any of them to Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or of comparing our own “Special” man-killers to the sociopathic performance artists of Daesh, but in the end as in the beginning, no matter how many layers of technology, law, and self-flattering discourse are placed between the “sharp end of the spear” and the vast majority of us, the call to kill and die remains absolute in relation to the one who kills or dies, and no republic nor any other civilization arises or survives independently without being able to summon that which, from the perspective of any individual, cannot be reasonably supplied, a readiness very precisely to “lose oneself,” or to discover one’s own mortality and mortality itself as not simply any single individual’s possession to save or lose.
We have discussed before the claim that the Iliad should be understood as designed to produce the very revulsion evident in Vlahos’ post and that Vlahos seeks to turn to his own purposes, with the Trojan War to be understood already as “The War that Killed Achilles,” the title of Caroline Alexander’s re-reading and re-consideration of the Iliad (linked here to Amazon, which most of us including its founders probably persist in thinking was named for a river), but for the sake of that turning away we never turn away completely. If we are “true sons and daughters” of our glorious father-commanders – “true” sons and daughters, not mere descendants but recognizably heirs – then we are true sons and daughters of sacrifice, as commemorated not just in our own heroic monuments done in the ancient, eternalizing style, but in the “the world’s most iconic building,” a tribute in stone to Western civilization at its hallowed origins, depicting in its own time and as far as we know for all time, or at least so the case is persuasively made, the myth of a family insisting on its right to sacrifice itself for the city’s god.
As for our Achilles-Nemesis, what reason is there to believe, along with apparently the professor, that it is our decision alone, or within anyone’s ability, to define the fight in some essentially different way, and still to fight at all?