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Dr. Larry Arnn on the Iliad, and how it compares to Afghanistan today

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HH: The last hour of each week, we slow down and look up, and try to get to 30,000 feet above the pressing news of the day with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, or some other key figure on Hillsdale. And you can always visit the Hillsdale website at, or remember Dr. Arnn, a good Friday to you.

LA: Good Friday to you, too, Hugh.

HH: In the first segment, we cover the news of the week before we go to one of the great texts, today the Iliad, Chapters 1 and 24. But I want to begin by asking you about guns. Now this is not something you and I have spoke much about, but last night on Piers Morgan, Ben Shapiro made an argument to Piers Morgan about why the 2nd Amendment existed, and how it was intended to stop tyranny from ever having a chance to take root in the country. What did you, what do you make of that argument, and about that approach to the 2nd Amendment?

LA: Well, that’s true. It is true. That’s one of its purposes. The 2nd Amendment is like the rest of the Constitution. The Constitution is a document of self-government. It creates a powerful government, but a government that depends upon the people. And because it’s a limited government, very many vital things are carried on by the people themselves. And so the revolution itself that preceded the Constitution, that was an exercise in turning a militia, and that’s every able-bodied man who are hunters and defenders against raids from Native Americans, and defenders of their property against criminals. That militia was turned into a military force. And that was a very painful and difficult process. And everybody was aware of that process. And the militia, that is to say all the men, and you know, sometimes women, too, they were the defense force of the rights of the colonies. And also, guns had to do with the procurement of food, and the defenses, against enemies foreign and domestic, and that means invaders, like the British became, or criminals. And so there’s a wide variety of reasons why it’s in there. But all of them reflect the general way of the Constitution, that is this is a document of self-government.

HH: Now Piers Morgan was absolutely incredulous because Ben brought along and gave him a copy of the Constitution. He referred to it as this little book of yours, dismissively. And if people haven’t seen it, I talked to Ben last hour. They can go watch this exchange on YouTube. But what really perplexed him, absolutely flummoxed him, is that Ben Shapiro said people need guns, because tyrannies arise. Sometimes they arise 50 or 100 years down the road. My grandparents and their parents are ashes in Europe because there was no ability to resist tyranny. And so there’s this, and Piers Morgan couldn’t conceive, Larry Arnn, it was truly like talking to Martian, that this person was sitting in front of him talking seriously about the possibility of needing to organize self-defense at some time in the future in the United States.

LA: Well see, and that’s a failure of imagination, right?

HH: Yes, absolutely it is.

LA: …because any, by the way, any group of people, and you know, his own country, because Great Britain, at the time of the American Revolution, was one of the best governments not just in the world, but in human history. But what they were doing was evincing a design to reduce the colonies to, the Declaration says, absolute despotism. But what that meant practically was, they were organizing things so that they could do to the colonies whatever they wanted without recurrence to the will of the colonies. And they were using armed force to do that. And they were, by the way, extracting taxes from the colonies to pay for the armed force. Now that was a very moderate government of the time. And look about the world today, by the way. Is freedom everywhere established? Are governments everywhere responsive to those that they govern? And you know, that’s a string of rhetorical questions. I’ll ask one more. Isn’t it true right now that there is a set of doctrines in America that posit that elite and highly-trained people are the natural governors and arrangers of the government? And does the government not become such a large force that it is difficult for the people to control it?

HH: Absolutely, it is true. And that’s not rhetorical. And of course, people don’t think of controlling it vis-à-vis weapons, or rising up, but they ought to think about the need to do something about it soon, because it is becoming oppressive. And that brings me to the next issue, which is the series of appointments the President has announced this week. You have John Kerry going to the Department of State, and we have Jack Lew going to Treasury, and he’s an apparatchik, right? That’s what he’s always done.

LA: Yes.

HH: He’s been a Democratic operative for people like Joe Moakley. And he started his career with Bella Abzug, and a not very distinguished, but long-serving Democratic operative to be the Secretary of the Treasury, take Hamilton’s chair. And then you have Chuck Hagel, who’s an isolationist from the Plain State, sort of a Williams Jennings Bryant throwback. What do you make of this selection? And do you find yourself shaking your head and saying this is it? This is the best we can do?

LA: Well, first of all, it’s a different, you know, Obama is going for it, right? Everything about his administration…one quick word about the gun thing, they’re getting ready to issue a bunch of executive orders, as they say, about gun control. And you know, the 2nd Amendment is a Constitutional thing. So a statute passed by the Congress, and signed by the President would not be sufficient to undo it. The Constitution, remember, is the one law ever made by the people of the United States. And so the point is, Obama and the way he’s conducting himself in these financial negotiations about the fiscal cliff, and soon about the debt ceiling, is he’s just going to have an aggressive, single-purpose, ideological administration. And he’s putting people in place who will do that with him, and for him.

HH: And that is alarming. I don’t know, though, that people who ought to be alarmed quite realize how radical this next four years is going to be, Larry Arnn. Do you?

LA: No, and you know, we’re in, the campaign for the Congress in 2014 is well underway now. And if he wins that, then you know, we’re have two rapidly, two years of very rapid change. And Lord knows what they’ll do.

HH: Also today, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was at the White House. And Obama sprung a surprise. We’re getting out of Afghanistan even quicker than he promised to before. And if you read between the lines, we might be gone by the end of this year in all likelihood. But all’s going to be well, the President tells us today. They’ve had surprising advances in security there. What do you make of that?

LA: Well, he wants out of there, and you know, Afghanistan, there’s a strategic question that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have answered, and that is, you know, we adopted a strategy in the Bush years, and we have carried it out to some extent in the Obama years, and that strategy was we’re going to build democracy in some of these terrible places. And Afghanistan is one of them. And there’s an alternative strategy, and the alternative strategy that’s opposed to it is bomb them from afar, or do nothing. But my own view is that there’s some middling strategy you could follow, and that would be to establish bases like in Kuwait, and places where we can have them, and where our troops are not in danger. And then if somebody causes us some harm, whack ’em. And you know, I favored a strategy more like that at the beginning of the Iraq war. And I don’t say that to criticize George Bush. The successes in Iraq have been beyond what I thought we would win. And I don’t know about Afghanistan, because that’s a series of long, impenetrable valleys where you know, they astonished the British in the 1890s when Winston Churchill was fighting there. And he wrote a brilliant book about this. They can unite for one purpose alone, and that is fighting any foreigner in their midst. And they never do get along with each other, not as a nation, because if you just look at the geography of the place, you can’t get from one of these valleys to the other, hardly.

HH: If you have not had a chance to read Jake Tapper’s book, The Outpost…

LA: No.

HH: It is really a remarkable three year chronicle of one little outpost that we’ve abandoned, which is now covered with sand. You can see the footprint of it from the air. But it’s a very poignant story of the total cost in blood and tears of that one little base, forwarding operating base, I believe, Chapman.

LA: War, by the late Sebastian Junger, is the same kind of thing.

HH: Right.

LA: And that’s, by the way, a heroic story.

HH: Yeah.

LA: The American soldiers are amazing. And then the questions arises, what do you get for that? And you know, the last chapter of Winston Churchill’s first book he ever wrote, called the story of the Malakind Field Force, it’s called The Riddle Of The Frontier. And he says there’s this great place, we’ve got India, and its northern border is Afghanistan, and there’s only two things to do, and neither of them will work. You can either go in there and fight them when they attack you, or you can try to defend the whole long frontier, and both of them are unsatisfactory.

– – – –

HH: Last week, we began, and this week, we are continuing talking about the Iliad by Homer, Chapters 1 and 24. And it’s interesting, Larry Arnn, that in the first segment of the hour when we were doing current events, we were talking about the war in Afghanistan. And the same sort of warriors are there in Homer from hundreds and thousands of years ago as we were talking about Churchill confronting in the Malakind Field Force.

LA: 1,200 BC, and that’s right, very tough. The Trojans were Hittites, which later came under the sway of the Persian empire, who fought the Greeks in much more modern times, that is to say the times of Aristotle and Plato. And you know, there’s something about war fighting in that part of the world that has a persistence.

HH: Now last week, you mentioned, and I just repeat for people who did not hear this, that we walk into the Trojan war in the Iliad in mid-war. It’s been nine years of war. It’s in the tenth year of the war, and the Greeks have fallen out among themselves. And explain to them why, and again to remind people, why the gods are so interested in this group of people, and their particular role with them.

LA: Well, this is the age of heroes, and it’s different than the age of Plato and Aristotle. The heroes are all descended from the gods, and they have aspirations of joining them in their immortality. And the gods throughout the Iliad, the gods are always having big councils, and they’re divided among themselves. And Zeus, the head god, can rule them, and does from time to time, but he can’t rule them with an iron fist or perfectly, because the other gods are divided, including Zeus’ own wife, who is pro-Greek. And Zeus likes the Trojans better. And so they all have councils, and decide who gets to win. And the whole action, because you have to understand that the Iliad is a tragedy, it’s a magnificent tragedy. Achilles is the chief subject, the chief tragic figure, and he is of course one of the greatest characters ever imagined in literature. But his tragedy, as in the later great Greek tragedies, stems from faults within himself, for all his greatness. The Iliad opens with Achilles’ rage. And the reason Achilles is enraged is that Agamemnon, another, and perhaps greater king, a Greek king, has seized his mistress. But Agamemnon has done that because Zeus has taken Agamemnon’s mistress. So the gods are, it’s a chain reaction, right?

HH: Yup.

LA: And so Achilles is descended from the goddess of the sea, Thetis. And Achilles is angry. His woman has been taken. And so he refuses to fight, and that means his force, the Myrmidons, also will not fight. And they’re the greatest warriors on Earth, and he, the greatest of them all. But in addition, he calls on his mother, a goddess, to curse his brothers, the Achaeans, so that they lose the war. And that is the opening of the Iliad.

HH: There is also a plague that’s underway. And the reason Agamemnon ends up losing his girlfriend is because the plague is going to keep going until he gives her over, because he picked the wrong guy’s daughter to steal.

LA: That’s it, and see, that’s…and so these heroes, right, they are the descendants of the gods here on Earth, and they are living for a glory that is immortal. They are living in the hope of immortality. But there’s a kind of immortality they can surely have in the doing of great deeds. And if you can imagine people who walk around with a mind like that, and you know, we have modern versions of, I don’t know about heroic, but certainly pseudo-heroic types in Hitler, or Stalin, who did, by the way, imagine themselves remaking the Earth and nature and history. Well, these are guys who are seeking the greatest possible things for themselves. Achilles relates in the middle of the Iliad that he may, if he wants, go home and live a long and happy life with his family, or he can stay and fight the Trojans, and be remembered forever. And guess which one he chooses?

HH: Sure. Last week, you said to people if you know warriors, and those of us who live in the margins of news, know a few warriors. And you’ve trained a few at Hillsdale. I’ve met them.

LA: We have.

HH: I’ve met them at the Kirby Center, on the roof of the Kirby Center, and so I know you’re acquainted with them, and I’m acquainted with them, and I married into a family of them. They’re different from civilians, and they have different codes. And as I went back through the Iliad per your prompts last week thinking about…do you know these people? And in fact, you do know people like this.

LA: Yes.

HH: And that’s what’s remarkable about it, is that they are, they’re in it for a completely different set of values than, say, the Piers Morgans of the world would imagine. But the contrast, Larry Arnn, it used to be that they ran everything. Now, they are run by what I think Lewis would call men without chests often.

LA: Yeah, and it’s a precious thing. We were talking about the 2nd Amendment at the beginning, and just think of the amazing fact of the character of the military of the United States of America. It’s original atmosphere, or moral thrust, was established in large part by George Washington. It was fierce in battle, but obedient to the civilian authority. And also, the military, by the way, used to be a much larger part of the society than it is today. It used to be that in our fathers’ generation, Hugh, just about everybody had been in the army.

HH: Right.

LA: And now, that’s rare. And it’s also true that the government has changed its nature. It’s less a common sense undertaking like, here’s a terrible fact. It some demented person walks into a school full of kindergarteners, he can do a lot of damage in a hurry. And it’s hard to think of a way perfectly to prevent that. And if you’re trying to think of ways to prevent it, one good way would be if some trusted and responsible person were there with a weapon, they could shoot that person. And that makes as much sense as the attempt to restrict the number of shells that can go in, sorry, bullets that can go in a magazine, right?

HH: It actually makes much more sense.

LA: Yeah, what’s that going to do for kids? And it’s a kindergarten. What if he took a baseball bat?

HH: Right. It is, the so-called solutions that are being brooded about here are just so stupid as to defy…there was a picture that went out on the internet of a Marine who put on, a retired Marine who put on his cammies and went and stood in front of his child’s school, just stood there.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And it has an impact. It does.

– – – –

HH: Larry Arnn, General McChrystal, Stanley McChrystal, great warrior, incredible American, has a new book out. He’s been making the rounds. And of course, he was brought low by the Rolling Stone. Here you have this amazing warrior who spends his life in the service of his country, and of the West, doing everything he can in that forlorn place called Afghanistan that you referred great warriors from the West have gone off and failed for years. But he is ruined not by the Taliban, but by a man without a chest, you know, a know-nothing named reporter from the Rolling Stone who in essence eavesdrops, betrays his trust, and brings him down. And I was thinking as I read through Chapters 1 and 24 that the vagaries of fate are not all that different 2,600 years later for McChrystal as they were for Ulysses.

LA: Well, that’s right, and they’re, you know, around a big action of any kind, there’s all kinds of people who have all kinds of motives. And you know, McChrystal is a fighting man. And you want to talk about Ulysses, Ulysses and Nestor, a wise, old man, are really the two people in the Greek camp who keep their minds on the problem of winning this war, and coming to some successful conclusion, or, by the way, sometimes they think going home. And McChrystal is that kind of guy, right? There’s an enemy out there, right? There’s something out there, and it’s an enemy, and I’ve been sent to kill it. And I’m good at that. So other people around, you know, this war, it would be a very, it was a very different atmosphere in the 12 months that followed September 11th, 2001, because this hit home, right? Think what it was like in London in 1940. Churchill would go look at bombed out sites, an people would say are you giving it to them back? And you know, Churchill was a very moderate man about things like that. And he was horrified by the bombing of Dresden, which he didn’t order, and put controls on that kind of thing in the future. But the people who were directly subjected to the violence of Great Britain, they didn’t feel that way. And so you need your warriors, and especially if they’re the kind, by the way, who will obey civilian authority, that’s an act of justice. That’s the weak being in control of the strong. And McChrystal is very much such a man. So it was a shame what happened to him.

HH: It’s also interesting, Ulysses is not the supreme commander. Would you say he’s under the yoke of inferior men?

LA: Sure, and that’s common.

HH: It is, but he doesn’t do well with that. And he’s also allowed the option to sulk in his tent. And the Greeks just get slaughtered. They get beat around the ears repeatedly, and they’re all getting down. And I’m not quite sure I understand the relationship with Patroclus, but I want to cover that briefly, because to explain the story. Next week, we’ll move on. But tell people about this friendship between Patroclus and Ulysses.

LA: Well, the Greeks have an expression, two going together. And it’s very often a war bond. It’s people, two close friends who love each other. And their love for each other, I mean, you know, by the way, do you have people in whose company you delight?

HH: Of course, yeah.

LA: Of course you do. And people you’ve just liked for years. I mean, I’m ashamed to confess it on the radio, but you are among my people…

HH: And that is reciprocal. The shame as well.

LA: I’ve always liked you, you know, and you’re an interesting guy. And imagine that bond sealed by courage and struggle in war. And so these two love each other. They’re very close. And Patroclus is an expression of Achilles. And Achilles permits him, he begs, Achilles has this armor that is prepared by the gods for him, and it’s very special. And Patroclus begs him, let me go and fight. And let me go and fight in your armor, because that, just think, you know, thousands of people on a battlefield, and the appearance of one man. What kind of man would that be to be so strong? And Patroclus is allowed to do that. And then because of the intervention of Apollo, Hector is able to kill Patroclus.

– – – –

HH: The rage of Achilles opens the book, but I wonder, Larry Arnn, in the Iliad, if the rage of Achilles isn’t even greater after Patroclus is killed by Hector, the great Trojan warrior, who as you said last week, is a good man.

LA: Yeah, and see that, and the way that works out, because it’s the interference of the gods, by the way, that makes that happen. And now, you know, Achilles’ pride is wounded at the loss of his mistress. And that’s why he has this long war, fight, quarrel with Agamemnon, which is really a quarrel with all the rest of the Greeks. But that is heeled by the destruction of Patroclus. And Achilles rejoins the war. He’s of course stricken by the destruction of Patroclus, and by legend, after the Iliad, we think that they were buried together. But Achilles’ mother, the goddess, makes him new armor, and he goes back to battle. And he’s very powerful. And he calls out Hector, and he kills Hector. But of course, by killing Patroclus, Hector gets control of the armor that Patroclus was wearing. And so Hector starts to wear the armor of Achilles, because Patroclus was wearing Achilles’ special god-made armor. And so when Achilles strikes Hector dead, Achilles is killing himself, because they’re the same kind of people. And Achilles requires Hector, because Hector is so great, that he’s great enough to establish a greater greatness than Achilles, and that’s great, great, greater great. That’s hero talk. And so when Achilles kills Hector, there’s nothing left for him to do. And then by defacing Hector, because he drags Hector around in the dirt for days around the Trojan walls, Hector is still wearing Achilles’ armor. Achilles is destroying himself. And he’s doing that because of his inability to control his rage. And that is the driving thing that runs through the Iliad, this great warrior, made by the gods, an unprecedented and never to be equaled fighter, cannot control his temper. And one point in the Iliad, Achilles gets angry with a river, and attempts to fight it. And so you need, you see, Odysseus, or Ulysses, is the one who’s presented in the Iliad of the Greeks with a balance of reason and calculation to stop him from going insane. And you know, the story of Odysseus, or Ulysses, does not end in tragedy as the story of Achilles does.

HH: We’ll have to talk off-line about whether or not we’re going to do Odysseus next, but I want to close this by talking about hero talk. The West is uncomfortable with this, Larry. This is not, they’re not supposed to be…today, the modern, postmodern West, does not like this. Do you think as a result the eclipse of these epics, and the eclipse of these tales is partially because we’re very uncomfortable with warriors who are as capable of destruction as Achilles, and has been from the beginning of time forward?

LA: Do you watch football?

HH: Of course.

LA: And you know, it’s still there. But also, it depends on the times, right? You know, I happen to be fond of, and know pretty well, Don Rumsfeld. And when Don Rumsfeld, you know, after the 9/11 attacks, Don Rumsfeld was kind of a rock star for a while. And you know what he’s really like. He’s a former wrestler. He’s a very assertive human being. That’s a fact, and a very capable human being.

HH: He’s a very tough interview, by the way.

LA: Is he?

HH: I’ve interviewed him hours and hours and hours in front of live and recorded audiences. He’s a very tough interview, because he challenges everything you say.

LA: Oh yeah, he’s awful. The first time I ever met him, and I know him well, and I like him a lot, the first time I met him, he made fun of me for 30 minutes because I’m from Arkansas. So he’s awful, but in those interviews, because he’s also an extremely disciplined public servant and very skillful, and he said the thing that needed saying, right? He said well, we’re over there in a war because there’s a bunch of people that need killing, and we’re going to kill them. And that’s what he did. And you know, he liked the kill word. And I thought that George Bush made a mistake in the middle of that war in not explaining, like a golden opportunity in my opinion was, it rose up for a couple of months that we were attracting more terrorists to Iraq, and wasn’t that a shame. And I thought that George Bush should have said well, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I certainly hope so. Indeed, the government is prepared to subsidize travel arrangements for them to go there.

HH: Oh, you’re so right. I had a conversation, along with a couple of other journalists, about this subject with former President Bush in the Oval Office about why weren’t we publicizing the number of bad guys we were killing. It was an interesting, it was a fascinating conversation. Let me conclude this, Larry Arnn, by asking you, the action picks up in the Iliad ten years into the war, and it ends before the twelfth year, the book, though, not the war. We’ve been in Afghanistan eleven years. Do you think that epic wars just go on, we’re just not used to this in the West, that you just wear out?

LA: Well, it’s different what we’re doing now, because the Trojan war is the kings are there, right? These are regime wars. Our wars in the Middle East have not been like that. They don’t affect most people on a daily basis. And that’s a shame, you know, because they are terribly important things. Look, if you want to name what the strategic problem is, there is a very large force with millions of people behind it, at least living in these countries, and they are fundamentally hostile to the idea of the West of freedom of religion, for example. They are against that. And so…and we live in an age where it’s getting cheap to kill people. And what Churchill thought about Afghanistan was you’ll never fully solve the riddle of the frontier, but because of the way the world has changed, we face the riddle of the frontier, even though it’s thousands of miles away.

HH: Another reason, perhaps, we ought to be reading the Iliad. Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you for joining me on our Friday hour of Hillsdale. I’ll talk to you again next week, or another of the sages from the lantern of the north, Hillsdale., or

End of interview.


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