One major theme of Homer’s Iliad – which somehow seems as fresh and as vivid today as when first written – is its description of how even the greatest of states in Western civilization fail to reclaim what they lose. “Attempts to repair one loss lead only to more losses,” Emily Wilson writes in her introduction to the Iliad (2023). “Loss can never be recouped.”
As Wilson sets out her story, one cannot escape the analogy to today – to a Biden seeking to recoup the American “reputation” (Kleos in Greek). In the case of leaders of the ancient world too, the goal of achieving undying kleos runs through the poem.
Today, we might refer to it as one’s “legacy.” In the Iliad it is definitional and gives mortal leaders the chance to live on after death with honour and glory. For Team Biden, Ukraine was supposed to be their Troy. Russia, like Hector, was tricked into a fight and (and as Team Biden had hoped) is killed under Troy’s walls.
But in today’s world, it didn’t work out that way. And now the U.S. faces the humiliation of a clear Russian victory in Ukraine, and a collective Russian leadership that says it intends to retrieve all lands and cities that were culturally Russian. Western Ukraine, they say, can go “wherever it likes.”
The military facts on the ground are relentless and cannot be undone. But the White House hopes to keep a morsel of kleos by simply having Ukrainian forces ceasing to fight, falling back onto defensive lines – yet never saying “defeat.” The kinetic component to the conflict barely would “tick over” at low revs. And, as Gideon Rachman has written in the Financial Times, to “flip the narrative to one of [repeatedly insisting] that Putin has failed.” The aim being that Washington quietly can “steal away.”
Well, there are two big problems: First, Russia doesn’t agree; it doesn’t agree at all. And secondly, Zelensky and his associates were grievously tricked. Not in this case, by the goddess Athena, but by the mortal Messrs Johnson and Blinken.
In March 2022 in Istanbul, Zelensky and his negotiators had reached an accord with Russia. But that agreement “was killed” by Boris Johnson urging Zelensky to fight on, and to gain his portion of the “honour and glory” by participating in the slaying of the Russian aggressor.
“As long as it takes – and whatever it takes” was the solemn “oath.” That is, so to speak, Zelensky was promised an open cheque and whatever weaponry would be needed …
So, what happened to that which is now gone?
If this were the Iliad, the storyline would at least, in part, focus on Zelensky’s disappointment at his tiny “portion of life.” Wilson writes:
“Many of the words in the Iliad are often translated as fortune or fate – literally, these suggest we get a portion or share … It’s as if there is a whole side of beef that is a quantity of human life and each of us gets a particular portion of it, both how long we get to be alive and also our portion of honor and glory.”
Zelensky will have wanted a portion of honour to compensate him for fate having dealt-out his present portion of life in an unfair way (i.e. by having been tricked by British and U.S. assurances).
The public humiliation Zelensky now suffers will no longer be balanced by a large share of glory gained through a vanquished Moscow. In the Homeric vein, this lays the ground for an act of revenge on Biden – publication of the “deal.”
When these details emerge – as surely they will (echoing perhaps, the mysterious and reputationally explosive war-time Churchill letters hinting to Mussolini at some ultimate kleos-esque outcome) – then the “victory narrative” may become soured by the insistent question: Tens of thousands of Ukrainian young men had to die between March and now – for what?
The other theme in the Iliad is that of the prized facility of mêtis. It could be thought to be the “wiliness” (or long-experienced cleverness) on which Biden is known to so pride himself: Should something unexpected happen and you react (subconsciously) just right in the moment, then by displaying mêtis, you receive a special kind of glory, as compared to that gained from the trudge of geo-political campaigning.
On 7 October, Hamas exploded out from its’ Gaza enclosure.
Biden reportedly regards himself as having “the smarts” over Netanyahu. He knows Netanyahu thinks to manipulate Biden, but the latter believes he both is containing Netanyahu and pre-empting his plans by keeping them under close U.S. surveillance.
But a “green light” is a green light.
And in essence the Biden embrace ends by giving the Israeli Cabinet a conditional “green-light” for almost all its projects, bar the Settler arsonists in the West Bank.
Israel’s Gaza military operation is visibly failing, though the aerial bombardment is set to continue through the coming weeks. It never had a military logic, and this is becoming evident to many Israelis. Gaza is already a monument to callous inhumanity and suffering. It will get worse – yet the Gazans will endure and remain defiant.
And the Israeli military operation against Hizbullah also stands “green-lighted,” albeit only when Hochstein’s diplomatic effort to push a disarmed Hizbullah back behind the Litani River (predictably) fails. What is the White House thinking? Do they recall the 2006 war? Do they understand how formidable an adversary Hizbullah has become? Do they not see how Israel is provoking Hizbullah and Iran?
Can Biden recoup America’s standing in this way – with the “cleansing” in Gaza; eruptions in the West Bank; and war brewing with Hizbullah? Biden clearly wants some portion of honour to accrue to him that compensates for the humiliation he suffers from Netanyahu. So he has to keep going.
Emily Wilson reminds us: “Attempts to repair one loss (such as Ukraine), historically lead to more losses: Loss can never fully be recouped.”
U.S. policy of “embrace and question” nonetheless is driving Israel towards a binary choice: three internal military wars in which Israel risks humiliation, or a resort to population displacement (the Naqba option – one favoured by increasing numbers of Israelis). The two-state “solution” is not an option for the present (or ever).
As for the Naqba option, the moral enormity of such a policy would require the Jewish nation to be absolutely sure of its ground. Is it? In spite of raised levels of anger, works such as The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand, Emeritus Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, must at least raise a current of unease and debate.
The situation however is not one of ratiocination, but of all-consuming irrationality.
Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.