happy xmas (war is never, ever over)

timothy edward kane, playing the role of "the poet" in "an iliad"

timothy edward kane, playing the role of the poet in “an iliad” at the court theatre in chicago

war is hell.

how many times have i heard that phrase?  just from hollywood movies alone, it must be dozens.  but rarely, if ever, did it provoke an emotional response from me.  which is probably as much my fault (for not really thinking about it), as it is hollywood’s fault (for employing the phrase with so little care or conviction).  and yet, if there ever was a true statement, that may well be it.

war is hell.

i might just be projecting my own thoughts on the entire country here, but i think that this phrase, this cliché, this particular bit of Truth, has lost its power—and its meaning—in america.  the concept of “war.”  the concept of “hell.” for so many people, they’ve become just that: concepts.  abstractions.  things we can think about almost like a mental exercise, without any real/emotional/psychic connection to our own, actual lives.

war is hell.

i was thinking about that phrase, and about how i’m often haunted by dfw’s belief in the “great and terrible truth” that lurks beneath clichés, when i was driving home after seeing a stage production of “an iliad” last week: after i’d sat through that one-man show & cried—cried like a faucet turned all the way on, complete waterworks, silent-but-absolute-and-unstoppable weeping—so much in 90-some minutes that i really did lose track of how many times i cried.

war is hell.

timothy edward kane, playing the role of “the poet” in that production, made me think about the horror of war in a way that no one, or no thing, had ever made me think of it before.  not live coverage and/or analysis from some 24-hour news network, not david simon’s “generation kill,” not even any of the truly excellent firsthand accounts i’ve read from soldiers via short stories, nonfiction, and poetry.  that play’s premise is simple: a man who saw the events of the iliad (i.e., the trojan war) has been telling that story to audiences ever since the war happened, up to & including today.  he saw that war, and the syrian war happening right now, and all the wars that happened inbetween, and he’s still telling the same story.  as you can imagine, this is a weary man—someone exhausted by retelling the iliad‘s story—but he is also someone who cannot *not* tell that story.

war is HELL.

it feels like the individual hell(s) that come from war—the personal losses—have become so ubiquitous as to have diminished impact on our culture.  every sunday morning on this week, abc news reports the names of fallen soldiers which were released by the pentagon.  i don’t mean to belittle those individuals’ lives, but the very routine nature of the segment makes it easier to gloss over, to accept (or even ignore) like the rolling credits at the end of a movie.  it took ted koppel reading the names of 721 service men & women all at once to actually get anyone to sit up & take notice.  and even then, what change followed it?  we’ve become so disconnected from the literal human cost of war that i’d bet most americans don’t personally know anyone who’s given their life in battle.  less than 1% of the country has been on active duty this century (compared with 9% who served in wwii).

WAR is hell.

maybe i knew this before.  maybe someone (like seth marlin) straight out told me, and i just wasn’t hearing the message.  but the thing that devastated me the most about “an iliad” was accepting the inevitability of war.  it was partly hearing that list of wars in human history.  it was partly hearing the story of hector and achilles and seeing so. incredibly. easily. how that story still resonated in the modern world.  it was partly how seamlessly kane’s character moved from despair to rage to empathy to vengeance to emptiness to pride.  but it hit me like a bomb when i realized how inextricably related war is to being human.  we can mitigate it.  lessen it.  make it less cruel.  or more anonymous.  or less frequent.  but war is never, ever, ever going away.  ever.

war is hell.

i remember trying to listen to the radio in the car on the way home.  i could only have it on for a few seconds before feeling sick and needing to turn it off.  i can’t remember if the station was playing a holiday promotion with john lennon’s famous christmas song in the background, or if i just imagined it being on the air.  either way, the lyrics were rolling around in my head, and i felt nauseated.  like that tune was candy-coating a bitter pill whose sharpness we all needed to taste.  holidays be damned.

war is hell.

i’d forgotten about kane’s hilarious impression of helen.  and achilles’ compassion preceding hector’s funeral pyre. and kane’s singing(!) in greek(!!).  i was so focused on fury, directed at stupid hippies who thought they could actually end war that i completely blocked out the fact that stupid hippies actually have helped stop war (even if it was only for a brief reprieve).

war is hell.

sitting in that dark theater, i was utterly consumed by the sisyphean nature of the tale, and of war.  i cried for all the men and women who died, and for all the families who grieved.  i cried for all the men and women who will die, and for all the families who didn’t yet realize their loved ones will perish in battle.  but mostly i cried because i thought that there was absolutely nothing i could do about it…  as it happened, after kane closed his performance, and graciously accepted our standing ovation, he made a plea to the audience.  he told us there were people in the theater’s entrance.  they were collecting donations for charities—one which supported actors who suffered catastrophic illnesses & injuries, and one which supported veterans who suffered catastrophic illnesses & injuries during their service.  all donations would be evenly split between the two.  there was something i could do after all.

war is hell.

it’s true.  there will be more war.  and it will be genuinely horrific.  even if the word “horrific” becomes a word we can swallow so easily, like it was tasteless water.  but as long as we can remember that it is not the whole story, i feel a decidedly odd sense of hope lingering.  as long as we can remember, as tribune critic chris jones put it, “the brilliant central device” of “an iliad”—that the story is told at great cost to the teller—i think we’ve got a chance.



  • Amaris Amaris says:

    Wonderful post, Jason.

    So is there a great truth under “winning the hearts and minds of the people?”

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    This is powerful. I want to see the production.

  • Melissa says:

    Great post, Jason.

    The clip you linked to was incredible: a device within the larger storytelling device that does so much work in three minutes. I wondered about its effect on the actor himself, how much of an emotional toll it would take simply to memorize and process and evoke that passage, much less perform it again and again…which of course gets meta because of the overall structure of the play and that being the point and all. But still, thinking about him, Timothy Edward Kane, reciting even just that three minute passage every night for a week…wow.

    Seems like this is the perfect time for yet another rewatch of “In Excelsis Deo,” wouldn’t you say?

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