By Ernest Partridge, The
since George Bush led us into this dreadful war, we've heard
occasional references to Shakespeare's Henry V from
Allusions to the play also appear in our media and our politics.
"Band of brothers," the title of the HBO miniseries
and the name given to John Kerry's "fast-boat" crew,
comes from Henry's speech to his army before the battle of
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile.
I first heard the comparison of Bush with Henry
from Chris Matthews about the time of the carrier-deck "Mission
Accomplished" extravaganza. Like the unpromising wastrel
Prince Hal, Matthews told us, the shallow frat-boy, George,
had been transformed into a great and inspiring leader. This
was the same Chris Matthews who was also capable at the time
of comparing George Bush with Winston Churchill.
A very different assessment was recently offered by Arianna
Huffington, in her excellent article,
"Shakespeare turns a spotlight on Bush and Iraq."
Well worth a read.
Henry V and I go way back. It is the Shakespeare play that
I know best. This shouldn't be so, for there are surely more
important plays, but that's just the way it turned out.
My first encounter with the play was when I saw Laurence Olivier's
great 1945 film -- I was about ten years old at the time.
In those days before VCRs I didn't have an opportunity to
see it again until a decade later, when I was an undergraduate.
Those who have seen the Olivier film are likely to agree:
it is a masterpiece. It is also a propaganda piece, produced
in England during the war when the Churchill government had
an urgent need to remind the British people of their historic
capacity to prevail over hardship and overwhelming military
might. For this purpose, Henry V was the perfect choice.
The acting, the directing, the staging, William Walton's score
(to my mind the finest film music ever composed), and above
all Shakespeare's words, convey the heroism of Henry, his
irresistible leadership quality, and the moral message.
With time and acquired maturity, I eventually came to realize
that it was an indefensible moral message. Henry launched
a war of conquest -- what we now call "a war of choice."
As Shakespeare tells it, Henry did so after the Archbishop
of Canterbury provided the King with an elaborate and concocted
argument to "justify" what Henry had already essentially
decided on his own: to go to war -- "no king of England,
if not king of France."
Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version was less thrilling, more nuanced,
and more morally ambiguous. There we saw an arrogant and cruel
side of Henry. The slaughter on the field of Agincourt, obscenely
"clean" in the Olivier version, was correctly portrayed
by Branagh as the awful butchery that history tells us it
General William Sherman had it right: "War is Hell!"
And Branagh wanted us to be reminded of it.
As I write this on June 6, sixty years to the day after "D-Day,"
I am struck by how the contrast between the Olivier and Branagh
films is replicated in "The Longest Day" (1962)
and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). I have seen "The
Longest Day" several times -- who can avoid it on TV?
I saw "Saving Private Ryan" just once. I am glad
that I did, for from that experience I gained moral insight
and sensitivity. But I simply cannot bring myself to see it
again -- so vivid is the depiction of the horror of Omaha
Beach and the battles that followed.
Fortunately, war movies now are less about heroics and the
triumph of good over "evil-doers," and more about
the cruelty, horror and absurdity of war.
George Bush appears to be stuck in the fifties and sixties,
with the John Wayne and "The Sands of Iwo Jima"
-- "Good v. Evil," "you are either for us or
against us." War to George Bush is a glorious spectacle
as one watches brave men fight the evil-doers and die for
glory -- as one watches all this from the safety and comfort
of the theater seat, or of the Oval Office.
Shakespeare has a broader view of warfare, as he factors in
the human costs, the anguish of leadership, the moral dilemmas
and conflicts, the radical uncertainty of the outcome.
In the scene set at the English camp, the night before the
battle of Agincourt, Will, a common soldier, says to the disguised
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 any thing 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...
Later the King, alone, reflects upon the enormity
of his responsibility:
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition!
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heart's ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not too.
Save ceremony, save general ceremony!
. . .
What drink'st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison'd flattery? O! be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure.
Can you, for a moment, imagine George Bush troubled by such
reflections? I know I can't.
When it was time to take up arms in defense of his country,
did he answer the call? We all know the answer.
Later, as President, was Bush, like Henry, burdened by the
weight of his decision to go to war? Did he reflect upon the
American and Iraqi lives that would be lost -- "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?" Did he think of the
bodies about to be horribly and permanently disabled and disfigured?
Did he, like Henry and like Dwight Eisenhower on June 5, 1944,
walk among and look into the eyes of the troops he was about
to send into battle, and in all too many instances, to their
Was he willing to face the consequences of this sorry business
by honoring with his official presence, the coffins ("transfer
tubes") as they arrived at Dover Air Force Base? Or by
attending a funeral of a young soldier killed as a result
of Bush's decision to go to war?
On the contrary, his pre-war sentiment boiled down to "f--k
Saddam, we're taking him out." And, as he was
about to announce his war to the nation and the world, he
struck his fist against his palm and said "feels
Missing from all this was any conspicuous awareness by Bush
of the suffering that his decision was about to cause in Iraq
and the United States.
This is a man who jokingly mimics the pleas of a woman whose
death warrant he has signed.
This is a man who signs the death warrants of 154 additional
condemned prisoners without bothering to read the summaries
of their appeals.
No, Chris Matthews, this is no Prince Hal transformed into
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer
in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He
publishes the website, The
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The