A special installment of Dear Jon Letters.
Over the week-end I saw the movie Troy, an excellent epic filmed by Wolfgang Peterson. Eric Bana plays Hector, the Prince of Troy. Orlando Bloom, lately of the blockbusters Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, is Hector’s younger brother Paris. Peter O’Toole plays their father, King Priam of Troy. Brad Pitt is Achilles and he is phenomenal, but this article is not about Achilles.
This article is about Hector, played with sympathy and conflict by Eric Bana. It is about the movie’s Hector, not Homer’s Hector, although from what I recall there is significant overlap. Anyway, Hector’s sympathy and conflictedness, and even the cultural milieu of bronze age heroism, still cannot permit any conclusion other than that Hector is a blooming idiot.
Hector’s folly begins in Sparta, when he sees his little brother sneaking off with Spartan’s Queen, Helen. Yes, it is true that we see Spartan’s King Menelaus getting very familiar with one of the serving wenches. It is true that Paris, for being 30 years younger than Menelaus, would be more to Helen’s liking: After all, he is Orlando Bloom, and she is herself not past her early twenties and may be younger. Helen’s sorrow at being a trophy wife with no rights makes her passion for Paris understandable, and in a certain contemporary liberated sense, even excusable.
No matter. Hector is an idiot. He allows this illicit romance to flourish. He should have chased Paris into Helen’s bedroom, boxed his ears, and if that all came to the attention of the Spartans, willingly hand Paris over for the punishment.
But wait. Why were Hector and Paris in Sparta in the first place? This is important: They were attempting to conclude a separate peace deal with the Spartans. By creating a mutual non-aggression pact with Sparta, Troy would effectively evaporate the coalition Agamemnon has struggled to build as a means of unifying Greece.
In other words, Troy is deliberately tampering with the internal affairs of the Union of Greek City States. So Hector is unethical for trying to subvert internal Greek unity, and then he is an idiot for letting his adolescent brother run wild.
This pattern for unethical idiocy continues for Hector. He discovers that Queen Helen is a stow-away on his ship. At first Hector insists they turn around. Paris makes all kinds of lame, adolescent excuses about romance. Hector decides, apparently, that his brother’s sexual infatuation is worth all the wrath of Greece. He orders the ship to continue for Troy. So he is aiding and abetting the unethical conduct of his brother in stealing away another man’s wife. Dumb move. Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb.
Brother or not, sail back to Sparta, and hand Paris over to be drawn and quartered and fed to the birds. There is a lot more at stake than a boy’s testosterone rush.
The Spartans appeal to Agamemnon, the Greeks launch a thousand ships and yada yada. Then Hector proves the extent of his unethical stupidity. Paris finally offers to do something at least partially noble: he will challenge King Menelaus of Sparta to single combat before the walls of Troy.
Menelaus kicks his butt. Every man over the age of 45 who has either a wife or pubescent girls in the house fawning over Orlando Bloom are going to love this scene. The gray-haired old veteran wipes the sand with Paris’s face. It is a great sequence.
And then Paris crawls to Hector. He is defeated, but he is too scared to allow Menelaus to finish him off and end the whole invasion. What does Hector do? He pulls Paris up by the scruff of his neck, and pushes him back into the ring, just as all the conventions for Parlance, Treaty, and Single Combat command to be done. Right?
Wrong. Hector draws on Menelaus and kills him before he can finish Paris off.
Dumb. Dumber. Dumbest.
Hector says all the things that make him sympathetic in his stupidity. He fights for Troy, he says. He fights for his brother, he says. In the process he breaks international law, first by aiding and abetting a kidnapping, and then by committing murder against all conventions of parlance.
I have brothers and sisters. We are a close family, what most would call “functional.” I believe we all know where we stand with each other. If I become guilty of an ethical monstrosity, I will still expect to be loved in my family. I will expect to be supported through the course of my punishment and redemption. Yet I cannot expect nor would I desire anyone in my family to defend my ethical monstrosity as a means of showing love to me. If I had been Paris, I would have expected my older brother to turn the car around and drive me back to face the music.
In Robert Redford’s movie Quiz Show with R. Fiennes, the lead character, a game show contestant, finally owns up to his Dad that he has been cheating. His Dad is heart-broken and filled with remorse. He is also unflinching in his love. He is also uncompromising that his son will go public with his disclosure. Great movie. That is the kind of Dad Dear Jon has, and personally, that Dear Jon hopes to be.
When the defense of one’s family or country is bound up in the defense of an ethical monstrosity, the honorable course is to realize that some ties are thicker than blood, and some loyalties are deeper than national. So often we read or hear commentary about the so-called “tragic figures” in history, the honorable people who, for love of family or country, defended the ethical monstrosities of their family or country. Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox” played by James Mason in a couple movies, is seen as such a figure: a good Wermacht Field Marshal, a man of honor, caught on the wrong side.
Think about that for a moment. He led panzers through Poland and then through France. He was given the impossible mission of protecting Axis interests in North Africa after the United States entered the war. And then he was given the defense of France just prior to the invasion of Normandy. Yet it was not until after the allies had a firm foothold that Rommel chose to join the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He turned against Hitler when the course of Nazi Germany was leading to inevitable defeat. When victory seemed possible, Rommel was blitzing foreign countries.
Or to really strike a nerve, let us talk for a moment about the Confederate Officer’s Corps. Family, home, the “state” as the entity to which fealty is owed, these are all given as honorable reasons why so many West Pointers chose the southern cause in the Confederate War to Protect Slavery.
Oh, wait, you want to call it the War of Northern Aggression?
But if you are not going to fight for your family right or wrong, or for your country right or wrong, then when are you going to fight? What reason is ever good enough?
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that is why peacemakers are called the children of God.
The movie portrays Agamemnon as an evil genius. That is fine. Yet it was the Trojans breaking the rules with successive acts of provocation. When the perpetrators of ethical monstrosity provoke a war, that may be the one time that it becomes ethical to return violence for violence. So for all the criticism that Agamemnon deserves, or Abraham Lincoln deserves or Franklin D. Roosevelt deserves in their power-mad efforts to centralize, we need to remember two issues: Where is the indefensibile ethical monstrosity, and, who fired first?
If you are of the conviction, 140 years later, that the Union represented an indefensible ethical monstrosity of a different sort than the Confederacy, that is fine. As one coming into a Libertarian world-view, I am more sympathetic to those voices critical of Abraham Lincoln. So hold fast to your conviction. But do not ever defend the patently, ethically absurd cause of the Confederacy to my face, or the conversation will end.
However much we might sympathize with Hector’s predicament, I hope that we all learn from him. May we choose the thicker bonds and deeper loyalties than he chose, and so avoid his stupidity.