March 27, 2003
By The Plaid Adder
Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my comman,
Whiles yet the cool an temperate wind of grace
O'erblows the flithy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil, and villainy.
If not, why in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid,
Or, guilty in defense, be thus destroyed?
--Shakespeare, Henry V, III.iii
The Iraqi army is not surrendering after all, and has, as
our military spokesmen put it, "chosen" to fight back instead.
What a surprise.
I fell in love with the Kenneth Branagh film of Henry
V as soon as I saw it. I saw it four times during its
first run and dragged in other people who otherwise wouldn't
have gone near it. And so, every time I hear someone on American
television expressing surprise or concern at the fact that
the Iraqi army is not folding like a house of cards, and that
unfortunately this will mean further loss of life, which would
be preventable if they would only give up now, I think of
That passage up above is the end of what they call the "rape
of Harfleur" speech, in which Henry, before making yet another
assault on this walled town, calls up to the walls to offer
the inhabitants a choice. They can, he says, surrender now
and be treated with restraint and mercy; or they can hold
out and be taken later, at which point his army will be so
enraged that he can't be responsible for what they might do.
This comes shortly after the more famous "Once more unto the
breach" speech, in which Henry tries to psych up his demoralized
army. The implication is that his army is disheartened, outnumbered,
on the verge of defeat, and all that's keeping them going
is the force of Henry's personality and the strength of his
rhetoric. Branagh's film bears this out; as he delivers the
ultimatum to Harfleur, the strain of the battle shows on the
face that his enemies can't see, and when he describes the
horrors of that final assault it's clear that he knows they
will be horrible to him and his army too. When the bluff works,
and the governor capitulates, Henry is visibly relieved, and
enters Harfleur still disbelieving his own good luck.
Going back for the quotation I realized that Branagh cut
a fair bit of that speech when he made the film. At least
I think he must have, because I don't remember him declaiming
this particular bit:
What is it then to me if impious war,
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?
What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
That part dropped out--either in Branagh's adaptation, or
in my memory--because it doesn't fit with the fiction created
by that scene: that the invading army is the one that's vulnerable,
that the aggressor is the party trying to limit the damage
to innocent civilians, and that really it would be much easier
on everyone if towns that were attacked didn't defend themselves.
The "what is it to me?" makes the reality of the situation
too explicit: that actually Henry and his army have the power
here, and it's the town that will suffer most when they finally
enter it. That section reveals the "rape of Harfleur" speech
for what it is: a disingenuous rhetorical trick designed to
reverse the ethical and power relationships and make the victim
responsible for the carnage that the attackers are about to
Shakespeare, and Henry, are good with language; Branagh is
good with a camera (or was, anyway, before he made Mary
Shelley's Frankenstein and, apparently, lost his mind).
So in the film, the trick works, not just on Harfleur but
on the audience; we empathize with the sweating, muddy, struggling,
and frightened invading soldiers, not with the shadowy Frenchman
at the top of the wall. Bush and his cronies, on the other
hand, cannot put a sentence together without doing themselves
an injury, and anyone who wants to can always see through
the trick. The regret constantly being expressed over the
Iraqi army's failure to save the lives of its own people by
laying down its weapons and refusing to fight is just the
latest example of a strategy they have been using all along:
making this war Iraq's fault.
The inspections pretext was supposed to accomplish
that; but even there we couldn't really make the pretense
convincing. Every time there was an example of compliance,
the U.S. raised the bar. Things became fairly bizarre when
Colin Powell started arguing that what Saddam Hussein ought
to be doing is cheerfully and freely offering up every single
thing he had with a smile, a song, and an interpretive dance
expressing his joy at finally submitting to our will. Powell
knew damn well that no country's government would do that,
especially not a regime like Hussein's. We certainly would
never make ourselves that transparent to a U.N. commission,
especially if we were under the constant threat of attack
by one of the U.N. security council's most powerful members.
Bush, true to form, burlesqued this tactic in his "press conference,"
where he said that if Hussein really wanted to disarm, he
would "take all his weapons out to a parking lot and destroy
them." A parking lot? The image of Hussein just backing up
a truck into a lot and dumping a huge pile of missiles onto
the tarmac is amusing before you start to feel that familiar
"good Christ, either the world is insane or I am" panic.
Now, the message is that the Iraqi army has to surrender
before we defeat it--for the good of the Iraqi people. If
they don't, of course, what we do to the people of Iraq when
we have to take Baghdad will be the Iraqi army's own damn
fault. And we don't have to promise restraint, now that the
Iraqi army has the affrontery to actually try to defend the
country against us. Part of the point of publicizing the "Shock
And Awe" strategy is to make it seem like putting up any military
resistance to our onslaught would be irrational: we have the
capacity to grind the whole country into the dust, so if they
have any brains at all they'll just give up as soon as the
first bombs hit. If they don't, hey, we got more bombs; and
if those don't work, well, we have the ground troops. We can
wreak as much destruction as we want; and it's all their fault
for trying to get in our way. What do we care how much damage
we do? What is it to us, when they themselves are cause?
It's a lie, of course; it was lie then and it's a lie now.
Our government, our army, our weapons are going to be the
cause. We are the ones who will be guilty. Iraq could never
have avoided this by yielding. Even if Hussein had cooperated
fully and freely, we would have found a reason to attack.
Like Henry, we are in this for the territory; and like Henry,
we don't care how twisted our justification has to be. Henry
V opens with a deal being struck between Henry and the Church:
he will protect them from legislation that threatens their
property if they will give him the moral justification he's
looking for to go to war with France. Accordingly, the Church
does--in a long speech which I remember my Shakespeare professor
saying in her lecture was convoluted enough on paper and "on
stage, would have to be incomprehensible." Much like the Bush
administration's reasons for getting us into this war.
Every day of the war, I expect, we will hear the American
commanders repeating that last question, which I suppose may
turn out to be one of history's earliest recorded psy ops.
"Will you yield, and this avoid?" But don't let it fool you.
We are the ones responsible here. It is through our offense,
and not their defense, that Iraq is being destroyed.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an
equally demented online readership since 1996. If you would
like a daily dose of demented anti-war raving, try Plaidder's
War Journal at http://www.livejournal.com/users/plaidder.