Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Henry the Fifth and Cap'n Crunch: A St. Crispian's Day Meditation

October 25th is St. Crispin's Day, a holiday which the English remember chiefly because it's the anniversary of King Henry V's victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415. On this day of historical military significance, I'm noticing the correspondence between some challenging questions recently put to the U.S. military commander-in-chief (pictured left) and the ones faced by King Henry on the eve of his most famous battle. At least, they were faced by him in Shakespeare's play about the event, aptly titled Henry V.

You don't have to be a news junkie like me to know that Trump recently embarrassed himself in what he surely meant to be a consoling phone call to the widow of one of the four Green Beret soldiers recently slain in Niger. To put the best face (for Trump) on what happened: having been challenged by reporters on why he had not yet publicly acknowledged these soldiers' sacrifices or contacted their families to express sympathy, Trump claimed that he had written letters which hadn't yet been
mailed, then, later, consulted with his chief of staff, former Marine commander John Kelly, on the type of thing he should say to the grieving family members when he called them. Kelly shared with him the story of how, when he himself was contending with the loss of his son in Afghanistan, one of his son's fellow combatants comforted him with the reminder that his son had gone into a dangerous situation fully aware of what he was risking and had died doing exactly what he wanted to do. In Kelly's account of that conversation, the remarks do sound comforting.

What happened then? Trump called one of the Green Beret widows and tried to reproduce the kind words Kelly had reported, but blew it. How do we know this? We don't, but it seems almost certain. Though we are naturally skeptical of the account of a Trump-hostile Democratic congresswoman who overheard the call on speakerphone, we should be persuaded by the confirmations of the widow herself, as well as another family member who overheard the call. Both of them felt insulted rather than consoled by Trump's comment that the slain soldier knew what he'd signed up for, and, even more so, by Trump's inability to remember the name of the soldier who had died, whose wife he was addressing. (It was La David Johnson.)

It occurred to me a few days ago, as I was thinking about St. Crispin's Day (as, in late October, Shakespeare professors sometimes do), that Shakespeare had eloquent things to say about this very problem: the degree of a commander-in-chief's responsibility for the deaths of his soldiers, and his obligation to justify those deaths verbally in a way that is both truthful and consoling. Henry V contains an extraordinary dialogue between the king and one of his private soldiers who, on the eve of the Agincourt battle, declares that "it will be a black matter" for Henry if all the Englishmen who are bound to die the next day  -- "some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them" -- rise up on Judgment Day and demand a reckoning. The private -- whose name is Williams -- sees battlefield death in an eternal context. He imagines a slain soldier being not just killed but damned, for how can soldiers die in a state of grace "when blood is their argument"? What if the war isn't just? Does "obedience to the King" really "[wipe] the crime of it out of [him]"?

King Henry is stung to the quick. He scrambles for an answer, seeming to know there's no good one, jumping from one flimsy rationalization to the next, as he tries to wash prospective blood and suffering from his own hands. First, the slain soldier will be like a purchasing agent who suffered an unforeseen accident while on a commercial mission for his dad. (Really? Was the wool trade so dangerous in 1415 that it could be compared to soldiering?) Second, there's the practical argument that any king just plain needs soldiers to fight his wars, and if some of them get cut down in an untimely way, well, those are the breaks. Third comes the argument that "Every subject's duty is the King's, but every subject's soul is his own." Ergo, if the soldier confesses his sins before going into battle (England was Catholic in 1415), his soul will be spotless and he should fear no damnation. This is the answer to the "just war" question. Soldiers are advised not to think about the worth of the cause for which they kill and die. As for the desolate widow and her children, Henry doesn't pick up on that point.

My students aren't generally convinced by any of Henry's arguments (and don't think Henry is, either). They don't need my help to topple them. But then, they've never talked to Shakespeare's most silver-tongued king directly. In the play, baffled by the king's "honeyed sentences" (as one character calls them), Williams concedes the argument. (And if you're wondering how a private was so bold as to challenge a king in the first place, let me explain that throughout this whole conversation, Henry is disguised as a fellow infantryman.) A few lines later the dialogue between Henry and Williams ends. But the questions the plain soldier has raised are left hanging in the air, and Henry broods over them in isolation, in an anguished soliloquy which culminates in a prayer.

I describe this scene not to disclose a similarity between Trump and King Henry, but to point out a contrast. Of course, Henry's common soldiers are conscripts, not volunteers, like the slain Green Berets. Henry has an additional weight of responsibility (like presidents in times of the draft) when his men have not "signed up" but been "signed up" for service. But the most striking difference between the modern and the Shakespearean situation lies not between the soldiers' statuses, but between their commanders' characters. Unlike Trump, Henry is actually interested in war's moral implications. Shakespeare's commander-in-chief, unlike ours, takes seriously the responsibility of sending his men into battle. He understands and struggles with the terrible fact that men will die in a war he has begun. He can't find the right answer, and he worries about it. The gravity and importance with which he regards his war is registered not just in his methodical conversation with Williams, his subsequent anguished soliloquy, and, finally, his prayer, but in his presence at the battle alongside them. He risks his own life, too. He's not just their commander, but their fellow soldier.

In all these ways, Shakespeare's Henry stands in the starkest contrast to our present commander-in-chief, who could never have offered true words of comfort to La David Johnson's wife because of his glib, thoughtless attitude about the stakes of war. Consolation cannot come from such a man. Trump avoided serving in the military himself, but remains childishly fascinated by its destructive power: by its capacity not to protect but to defeat. His immaturity was most shockingly evidenced last year, when, despite his own lack of a service record, he insulted the decorated soldier John McCain on the grounds that he "got captured" in Viet Nam. McCain served five-plus years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, because he and his father, a Navy admiral, refused to bargain for his release. Here there's an instructive parallel with Shakespeare's King Henry, who swears that if captured, he won't let himself be ransomed (that is, treated better than the ordinary soldiers he is ordering into battle). Williams doesn't believe him. But we can believe the McCains.

Trump's glass house was in shards even before the election, but he keeps throwing stones. He maintains that soldiers with PTSD are weak (unlike, presumably, tycoons' sons who can't serve because they have "bone spurs"). These days, he recklessly hurls taunts at North Korea, undercutting his own secretary of state's attempts at diplomacy with childish comments which suggest his eagerness to go to war. To the shock of his more-informed generals, he proposes ridiculous increases in our nuclear armament, showing, again, a boyish fascination with firepower for its own sake, and a lack of concern for the millions of lives that could be destroyed as a result of the renewal of this particular arms race. Summoning reporters for an awkward photo op with his generals, he brags about the military expertise present in the room as though he is more than formally associated with it, and grinningly hints at the possibility of a coming "storm." For this non-introspective president, as I've said in an earlier post, we get, in place of the anguished soliloquy, the belligerent Tweet, designed to raise hackles -- and perhaps to tempt a North Korean attack to which he could, in a display of flaming pseudo-ballsiness, respond. In all things military, Trump's enthusiasm and level of knowledge match that of a kid playing Call of Duty on X-Box. I fully expect him one day to appear before the press, Michael Jackson-like, in a self-designed military uniform, like Shakespeare's ridiculously boastful, ostentatiously garbed coward Captain Parolles in All's Well that Ends Well. Or like Cap'n Crunch.

Though little is known of Shakespeare's life during the first half of his twenties, it is unlikely that he himself ever had personal experience of combat. What he had instead was an imagination large enough to intuit and put into words the sufferings and fears of both ordinary soldiers and their military leaders. Maybe evidence of such empathy wouldn't be a bad threshold requirement for a president, next time -- if there is one.

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