Donald Trump’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan highlights once again the disastrous, persistent consequences of militarism and imperialism. However, rather than repeat the usual litany of horrors that are sure to result, I will instead recall a discussion of war by Trump’s literary opposite, William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare can be extremely cynical (or is it realistic?) when it comes to politics, especially in the history plays, which tend to revolve around struggles over the monarchy. Some early scenes in Henry V, for example—as well as many others, such as the famous scene with the two priests in Richard III—reveal that the Bard had a deep appreciation of political theatre, and what his characters say is often very different from what a particular scene shows. The result is that when Shakespeare’s works superficially praise kings and their actions, they’re often more subtly condemning them.
A good example comes from Henry V, a play that has long been a sort of touchstone for English national pride. Shakespeare’s account of the events is fictional, of course, but like much great literature, it offers insight into the real world. In Act 4, Scene 1, Henry V has taken his army to France to make good on his utterly contrived claim to the crown. The invasion campaign culminates in the battle of Agincourt, in which the underdog English forces defeat the vastly superior French.
On the eve of the battle, Henry disguises himself as a simple soldier and wanders through the camp to hear what his men are saying. He enters a conversation between several soldiers who are discussing the approaching dawn and the likelihood of their own deaths. They wonder how the King feels about what is sure to be a military disaster. Henry suggests that for the sake of maintaining the army’s morale, the King must keep his doubts to himself. The conversation then turns to questions about the moral responsibility for the war and the people fighting it. The soldiers reveal their own doubts about this, but more importantly, they question the reason why they’ve been sent to fight and die so far from home in a conflict that doesn’t obviously concern them:
Bates[The King] may show what outward courage he will, but I believe, as cold a night as ’tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.
By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the king. I think he would not wish himself anywhere but where he is.
Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives saved.
I dare say you love him not so ill to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s minds. Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honorable.
That’s more than we know.
Ay, or more than we should seek after, for we know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.
Henry responds by arguing that the King can’t be blamed for the spiritual condition of his men when they die. But he avoids the question of whether he bears responsibility for sending these men to die at all, which he clearly does. It’s telling that his reply drones on for many lines but says very little. Rather, it’s the soldiers who are asking the important questions. They have no idea why they’re in France, cold and starving, and are rightly skeptical about whether it’s their duty as subjects to give their lives, especially when the King won’t have to, even if he is defeated. Throughout the play, Henry repeatedly observes (even when he is alone, which is also telling) that there isn’t much difference between a king and his subjects save for Ceremony. Yet he persists in waging what most people believe is a doomed war that serves only his own ends and those of his court.
Shakespeare’s account of the battle of Agincourt, which follows the above, has since helped to sanitize and glorify it to modern audiences, especially through Henry’s famous “band of brothers” speech. Yet as John Keegan explains in his study of Agincourt, the battle itself was a horrific slaughter, even by medieval standards (in more recent popular culture, the Battle of the Bastards in Game of Thrones seems to have taken some inspiration from a contemporary account of Agincourt).
As it happened, “All those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle” turned out to be mostly French, and so Henry was not called to much of a public reckoning, as perhaps he would have been if the battle had gone as predicted. Then again, given that the war in Afghanistan has been a human and economic disaster for sixteen years, it seems unlikely that any US leader will be either.