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Aeschylus to Afghanistan, When Will We Ever Learn?

Now President Obama tells us that the oil wars have cost us $10 trillion. If we believe the most strident Republican critics, just $1 trillion would pay for a decade of real health reform and care for everyone.

To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, it seems that President Obama has decided to play Aeschylatio with the Afghanis.


Aeschylus was born in Greece about 2,500 years ago. When he died, grateful neighbors put up a funeral monument that still stands. It praised his heroism in the wars against the Persians. Aeschylus stood in the woefully outnumbered band of Greeks on the battlefield at Marathon and turned back the vastly larger army of invading Persians.

A decade after Marathon, he went back to war, to turn back another Persian horde in the battle of Salamis.

Today, scholars study Aeschylus as a playwright. After helping save his country on the battlefield, Aeschylus made a career writing plays. Five hundred years before the Roman Empire was formed, he wrote about the human condition in ways that retain meaning for our modern times. He is credited with changes in the format and style of play scripts which gave dramas structures that Shakespeare used and that we use today in plays, films, and television.

Modern scholars focus on Aeschylus’ playwriting. But the monument his neighbors raised when he died praises only his service in saving Greece from the invading Persians. The neighbors could not know, 2,500 years ago, that his plays would survive the test of time. They did know that his sacrifice, like that of many other Greek young men, saved their nation from being absorbed as a colony of the greater Persian empire. So they honored him for risking his life to beat back an invading foe.

The model set by Aeschylus’ neighbors has been repeated through human history, including in the history of the making and defending of our nation. The Bunker Hill memorial in Boston commemorates one of the earliest battles of the American Revolution, as does the Minuteman National Park which contains both the rude bridge at Concord, Massachusetts, and many of the fields and rural roads down which British Redcoats retreated after the battle on Concord Common.

Our history is littered with heroes like Aeschylus, from the Minutemen and the Swamp Fox to the men who laid General Custer low. In the last century, unarmed citizens in our southern states stood up against nightriders, police dogs, ax handles, and lynch mobs to proclaim their right to participate in their own governance and economic lives.

As much as we like to see ourselves as unique, our commitment to freedom has been a model and a beacon for people around the world. A tiny band in Warsaw’s ghetto inflicted terrible losses on the invading Nazis. The Irish have campaigned for centuries for independence from England. France’s professional, experienced Legionnaires were driven from North Africa by untrained, under-armed, but highly motivated Algerians. Lightly armed Cubans toppled the brutal, corrupt, and American-supported Batista regime.

Struggling for decades, impoverished, starving Vietnamese peasants threw off first their French colonial rulers and then the massively armed U.S. military. This last example has been misinterpreted as a model for Afghanistan. But it should provide important lessons.

A desire for freedom motivates individuals in the 21st century as it motivated Aeschylus 2,500 years ago. The Persians tried for decades to conquer Greece. Irish, Algerian, and Vietnamese nationalists carried on decades-long struggles, against overwhelmingly more powerful armies to assert their right to self rule.

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The Afghanis have fought, not for decades but for centuries, against invaders. The British, with the world’s most powerful army at the time, were beaten back by Afghan tribesmen. More recently, the Soviet Empire lost thousands of lives and billions of dollars to disorganized, squabbling, lightly armed Afghan tribesmen. Why should we think we can conquer them?

Why should we want to? Why should we want to pour American soldiers’ lives and taxpayers’ dollars into a war to prop up an openly corrupt, inefficient, and unpopular regime?

Although shortsighted pundits have started imagining Afghanistan as a quagmire of the Vietnamese sort, such comparisons only distract from the greater similarity and the worse harm. What was thrown away in Vietnam, and what threatens to be lost in Afghanistan are parts of our soul, our example to the world, and the promise of our leadership to a better world.

When he played escalatio with the Vietnamese, President Johnson lost his chance to succeed with his Great Society programs. Those programs could have greatly reduced poverty and educational failures and put us on a road toward greater national and international progress. But that chance was lost as budgets were diverted to pay war profiteers for new and ever more expensive weaponry.

While money was poured through the Pentagon to companies with no quality control or budget oversight, we gave up technical leadership in electronics and automotive design to the Japanese. Names like Altec, Ampex, and Studebaker slipped into history because war spending became more attractive than a competitive consumer marketplace.

Now President Obama tells us that the oil wars have cost us $10 trillion. If we believe the most strident Republican critics, just $1 trillion would pay for a decade of real health reform and care for everyone.

We are told that we have to slash our budgets for schools, infrastructure, new energy sources and new medical research because we need to spend that $10 trillion, and more, on continuing colonial wars against peasants who will never surrender, never give up resisting. But that $10 trillion doesn’t go to Iraq or Afghanistan. It flows to pockets at Haliburton to pay for $5 cans of Coke. It pays for no-bid contracts to build armored Humvees that can’t stop small arms fire. It pays for a few war profiteers to get rich while our social structure crumbles.

Tom Hall

By playing Aeschylatio with the Afghanis, President Obama ignores the lesson of those who fought at Marathon, in the Warsaw ghetto, and in the rice paddies of Vietnam. He ignores the loss of the Great Society social programs. And he gives up the chance to deliver the progress for which so many had the audacity to hope for when voting for him.

Tom Hall