Guilty In Defense
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 Harfleur.
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 inflict.
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.