In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of Saint Mary's Integral Program, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass '63 argued that themes from Homer's Trojan War epics are as relevant as ever given the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"Mythmaking begins with the celebration of masculine warrior culture," explained Hass, a UC Berkeley professor and an Integral Program graduate. "We see it in the Iliad, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Book of Kings in the Old Testament. We prefer the dead lion to the living lamb."
Fast-forward several thousand years, Hass says, and societies still find the idea of war ennobling. He suggested that U.S. political leaders appealed to this notion to gain support for an invasion of Iraq, which he called a "stunning and appalling victory of the war party in Washington."
"The television newsreaders dutifully read the government's propaganda on the air, the TV screens were full of images of rippling American flags and rolling tanks accompanied by the strains of stirring martial music and official opposition to the war -- even official caution about its prudence -- was limited to a single elderly senator in the opposition party," Hass said.
While the literary imagination often draws inspiration from themes of war, Hass noted it can imagine peace and provoke laughter as well. He explained that literature, especially poetry, imagines peace by finding preciousness in the most ordinary experience.
Poetry often emerges "from a moment of withdrawal from worldliness and the violence of the world," said Hass, citing William Butler Yeats and Henry David Thoreau as writers who described the beauty they found in nature.
Humor, Hass said, can come from observations about the absurdity of war, whether from Theristes in the 2nd book of the Iliad or Bob Hope's characters in World War II-era "service comedies."
"Euripidies' Trojan Women and Aristophanes' Lysistrata show war to be absurd," he continued, noting that it is significant that "both are from men writing from the point of view of women."
Hass also discussed Immanuel Kant's essay "Project for Perpetual Peace," a nine-point proposal from the Napoleonic Era that more than 50 Integral students and alumni had spent the afternoon discussing.
Kant's notion of a world comprised of republican governments that allow the free exchange of people and ideas, Hass said, represented a "remarkable moment in the history of human consciousness" where the philosopher was able to think beyond the ingrained mental habit of war.
Kant, however, could not foresee how the increasing technology of war in the 19th and 20th centuries would affect noncombatants, Hass said.
"In the first 20 years of the 20th century, 90 percent of casualties in war were soldiers. In the last 20 years of the 20th century, 90 percent of the casualties were civilians," Hass said.
Hass said this trend has played out in Iraq with tragic consequences, citing estimates of 100,000 to 500,000 civilian deaths that occurred because of the invasion.
"Even taking the conservative number of 100,000, if you laid those people end-to-end on Highway 80, it would reach from here to Truckee or Reno."