But our morality has moved on from the time of the Iliad, though foreign policy largely has not. Warriors in war no longer carry automatic heroism. Their weapons are too lethal, their causes too unjust.
Today, the great cause is not in fighting the good fight in war; there are no good sides in wars. Perhaps not every armed conflict in the world today is entirely a clash of the equally bad; the world is plagued with enough violence that among them a few less-evil causes can be found — perhaps even one or two good ones. Among every thicket of bleeding thorns there is a rose whose struggle one may cheer on, depending on one’s inclinations. But the general fact remains.
The great cause in war today, in almost every case, is not in winning the war, but stopping the war, preventing the war, civilizing the vengeful and callous impulses of the great leaders of the world. The great cause is ending the senselessness of death and destruction among groups having no good reason to kill each other, and in crushing the nonsense that justifies it, whether claims of ethnic or religious superiority, national exceptionalism, or murderous foreign-policy cynicism.
The drama and the poignancy of the Iliad — which, like all ancient texts, comes at once from a cultural origin now buried in the collective subconscious, speaking in the language of a darker and simpler age — reverberated to Weil writing in the midst of Nazi occupation in 1940. One can only imagine, now, how force and violence then hung in the air, turning the world to stone and rubble — the stone no longer then the body of the vanquished, or the suppliant to Achilles with their life in his hands, but the citizen before the air raid siren signalling random sky-drawn death-blows, the village lined up before the machine gun, the Jew facing industrial extermination, the family in the wooden firebombed house, the Japanese schoolchild splattered into atoms.
For those in the global north, the west, Europe, North America, Australia, even there in the supposedly richest, cleanest, privileged nations, force remains today. Just causes still often retain the character of a struggle involving violence. Nothing, of course, compared to those actually facing war. But it is a different type of force; or rather, it is a type of restraint that turns us to stone.
Struggle leads, in one direction, straight into the streets where it is met with, if it is at all effective, force. And it leads, in another direction, straight into a pit of snakes. A media, a trolling ground, a culture that functions as one head with a thousand snakes lunging, biting and spitting venom.
It is not Achilles, but it is enough to turn the contemporary citizen — weakened, compromised, ashamed, guilty, knowing too much, doing too little — to stone. We have seen the medusa.