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The Odyssey Revisited

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“So how long will it take us to get home?”

Due to a series of coincidences, the Odyssey attributed to Homer has come up recently, and I decided to read it for the first time. A couple of days after beginning, I realized how appropriate the timing of my project was. The Odyssey is the story of Ulysses’ journey home at the end of the ten-year Trojan War. After fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for ten years, the United States is trying to get home. It took Ulysses ten years. I hope we can make much better time.

The Trojan War has always been considered a story of great heroism. However, at this remove, more and more questions have begun to arise about whether our engagement in the Middle East will ever enjoy a similarly gratifying summation. Contradicting perspectives are beginning to show up even within the military.

We lost about 3,000 people in the terrorist attacks of September 11. About 6,000 American service people have died in the war since then, and we have spent about $1 trillion on it. The day before Memorial Day, The New York Times ran an article quoting two officers at West Point with opposing views about whether it has all been worth it. The author, Elisabeth Bumiller, pointed out that West Point prides itself on “academic freedom and challenging orthodoxy.”

Colonel Gian P. Gentile, the director of the school’s military history program who had commanded a battalion in Baghdad in 2006, said the engagement  was “Certainly not worth the effort. In my view.” He takes issue with the counterinsurgency strategy that involved a huge number of troops not only in fighting but also in building infrastructure, schools, and government to win over the people.

Colonel Michael J. Meese has the opposite view. He was a top advisor to General Petraeus and is now head of West Point’s social sciences department. Colonel Meese sees wisdom in counterinsurgency, in the effort to protect and engage with the population of the country invaded in order to ensure long-term benefits.

It now seems that inevitability was afoot from the beginning. President George Bush had just emerged from a disputed election that caused many to question the legitimacy of his presidency. The liberal media, which attributed his inarticulate moments to an impoverished intellect, had ridiculed him mightily from the very beginning. With the terrorist attack, he suddenly had an opportunity to transform his presidency, to lead an outraged nation in the pursuit of vengeance.

I recorded in my journal the sound of shields being beaten everywhere. There was the refusal to discuss anything except retaliation and a rush to define the enemy. “Saddam’s ass is grass, and we’re going to mow it!” was a later battle cry. I also recorded the night in the spring of the following year when the nation tuned in to “Shock and Awe” through embedded cameras, watching the bombing of Baghdad as though it were a form of entertainment.

We’re more sober now, but we’re faced with the challenge of extricating ourselves from a land of deadly political quicksand that wasn’t on any of our maps. Another challenge is to learn from the absence of triumph without also dishonoring all those who served, who did their duty, who lost their lives, and who may be returning injured in mind as well as body.

So how long will it take us to get home? For seven years after the fall of Troy, Ulysses’ homeward journey had been thwarted by Neptune, whose son the Cyclops he had blinded.  Inspired by compassion, the goddess Minerva finally decided to help him.

I like that. The intervention of the feminine. Minerva was known as the goddess of wisdom, and she was represented as grave and majestic, a helmet on her head, a cloak draped over a coat of mail. Perhaps she is an idea whose time has come again. With her in mind, perhaps we will think more deeply before sounding another battle cry.

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