"Take pity of your town and your people": Sarah Skwire on Henry V and War
Liberty Fund’s own Sarah Skwire is one of my favorite people, and by reading some of her columns in The Freeman I’ve been able to catch up on the classical education I thought I had and always claimed but eventually realized was of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.*
In her most recent column, she takes a new look at pro-war and anti-war themes in Henry V and cautions the reader to note that there is a lot more subtlety in the play than might immediately be apparent (or that is apparent from the St. Crispin’s Day Speech, which I tell my students to remember every time they want to mumble an answer toward the ground during a class discussion).
Instead of summary, I’ll let the good Dr. Skwire’s last few paragraphs speak:
Just as it’s hard to read the St. Crispin’s Day speech without being stirred into a martial frenzy, it’s hard to read the Harfleur speech without being sickened by the horrors of war. Add to that the Duke of Burgundy’s painful meditations on a conquered France where all husbandry and industry have been destroyed by war, and it becomes very difficult indeed to read the play as whole-heartedly pro-war.
As Tyler Cowen notes, “Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.”
Literature is not for clear answers. Literature is for complicated questions. That’s why it’s useful. That’s why it’s important.
With sabres rattling and drums beating and the prospect of yet another military adventure on the horizon, Skwire’s article is worth reading. A few times. And after that, check out Bryan Caplan’s posts on pacificism (1, 2, 3, just for a few). Reject the arguments if you will, but at the very least, consider them.
*Award yourself a bonus point if you catch the allusion!