Views and Reviews

The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Views and Reviews: Charles Knott

A Look at James Hillman's A Terrible Love of War

For Veteran's Day this year I wanted to write a review of James Hillman's A Terrible Love of War. However, this book is so rich and so profound that an intellectual summary is, for me, impossible to write. Virtually every paragraph is enough to send my brain spinning off into an endless meditation. So, my purpose here will not be so much to summarize the book as to introduce it and to praise and recommend it. I was really surprised at how much I learned from Hillman about war! I thought I already knew a lot about the subject and that I was not likely to find exciting ideas I had never heard. Not so.

I will digress for a moment and pay homage to my belief that anyone writing about war should declare the personal experience from which he writes. A person who has not been to war, yet writes about it anyway, should be humble. There are those who have "been there" and those who haven't. I'm one who hasn't. At age 12, I was too young to go to Korea. I remember one day at school my teacher was called to the door and told that her fiance, a GI in Korea, had been killed. I watched out the window as she left the building and drove slowly away in a cloud of grief. That night I went outside and looked as far as I could see, imagining that the war was just beyond the horizon. I told myself that the uniforms our soldiers wore protected them from enemy bullets and that they were all safe. I had to believe this, despite having just heard of a soldier's death.

In the 1960s, I was the right age to go to Vietnam and was about to be drafted. Instead, I joined The Federal Reserve--basically, the federal equivalent of the state national guard--and served six months of active duty at Fort Jackson; I then attended Wednesday night meetings in the basement of Atlanta's old Sears building for six years and watched training films of GIs driving front-end loaders in quartermaster warehouses.

I am still bewildered that war exists and has been a constant throughout human history. There are so many other ways to spend one's life. Of course, I speak not as a warrior but a scholar/actor/teacher who derives meaning from engaging with others through discourse rather than fighting. Why, among the choices available, do we resort so often to this catastrophe called war? This question calls to mind Oscar Wilde, who has his character Lord Henry (The Picture of Dorian Gray) say, "I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal. It was the most premature definition ever given. Man is many things, but he is not rational." On the other hand, I talked once to a professional soldier who seemed quite rational. He told me the only thing he was afraid of when growing up was that the Vietnam War would be over before he could get there. He joined the Marines at 17 and took up the profession of arms. After serving in Vietnam, he spent two decades performing special combat missions throughout the world. I met him shortly after he had retired, and he told me he was very disturbed by the fact that, through the years, he'd gradually realized that his government had him fighting to protect the interests of a few of America's richest and most powerful families and that he had spent much of his life killing innocent people.

As might be expected from anyone who knows his work, Hillman clarifies the archetypal context of war: I'm thinking particularly of his fascinating discussion of the love affair between Ares (Mars) and Aphrodite (Venus) in Greek mythology. Hephaestus, the husband of Aphrodite, is told of the affair and captures the couple in flagrante with a net he has made just for the occasion. He holds them in the net and vengefully brings the other gods of the Greek pantheon to look at them and ridicule them.

I had often wondered how the god of war could be the lover of the goddess of love and beauty and how the deformed blacksmith could be married to the most radiantly beautiful of all the goddesses. Further, I had wondered if this triangle had any significance beyond the obvious themes of lust and lovemaking alongside spousal jealousy and spousal vengeance. Hillman points out that the intimate mingling of Ares and Aphrodite is a metaphorical testament to the merging in war of violence with love and beauty: the loving camaraderie of soldiers is revealed in interviews where, counter to the official line that they fight for our freedom, they will emphasize over and over that they fight to protect the person next to them. Comradely love shows the presence of Aphrodite and her son Eros, the god of loving connectedness.

One place the beauty of war can be seen is in the weapons. There's a lot of engineering and hardware in war's weaponry, indicating the presence of Hephaestus; also, the artifacts he creates, including weapons, emanate beauty, revealing the presence of Aphrodite. I have heard that some soldiers fall in love with the beauty of their weapons, and I remember that, as little children during World War II, my schoolmates and I would draw fighter planes in loving detail.

In addition to being the ugliest and most horrible thing on earth, war has been described ironically by some as having sublimely beautiful moments. George Bernard Shaw expresses this emotion in Heartbreak House when, at the last moment of the play, the cast goes out into the yard to observe, albeit from a safe distance, the Germans' first bombing raid on London. The observers are awestruck by its beauty and power. They are seeing Aphrodite co-mingling with Ares!

It is in this spirit that General Patton says of war, God forgive me, I love it so! and General Robert E. Lee says, It is a good thing war is so terrible, lest we become too fond of it. Here are two of history's greatest warriors confessing to "a terrible love of war."

Juxtaposed with images of love and beauty, Hillman gives overwhelming representation of the tragic and horrific aspects of war through many carefully chosen and startling facts from history. To quote but one example,

At Verdun, a million French and German casualties accomplished nothing for either side. 'The bones of perhaps 170,000 French soldiers lie in the massive ossuary of Douaumont above Verdun.' Speaking of bones, more than a million bushels of men and horses were harvested from the battlefields of Napoleon's wars (Austerlitz, Leipzig, Waterloo and others), shipped to England, ground into bone meal by normal workers at normal jobs. (p. 18)

The reader flinches at hearing wartime activities called normal, but Hillman goes on to say,

To declare war "normal" does not eliminate the pathologies of behavior, the enormities of devastation, the unbearable pain suffered in bodies and souls. Nor does the idea that war is normal justify it. Brutalities such as slavery, cruel punishment, abuse of young children, corporal mutilation remain reprehensible, yet find acceptance in the body politic and may even be incorporated into its laws. Though "war is normal" shocks our morality and wounds our idealism, it stands solidly as a statement of fact. (p.21)

I have suggested some of the ways that Hillman talks about war eliciting or being driven by a "terrible love" throughout human history. There are many other subtopics of great interest. For instance, the attention to violence that dominates news nowadays often brings up the question of whether films, television and video games in which violent impulses are enacted have any measurable effect on actual human engagement in violence. Hillman has a unique slant on the effects of television and video games on violence. After a shocking summary of some of the unimaginable cruelties perpetrated throughout history, beginning eons before media was there to corrupt, he concludes his discussion with this harsh condemnation of media:

The high-paid speechwriters, spin doctors, and the press conferences gauged to conceal and rebuff in the name of higher principles like "National Security," the well groomed dispassionate news anchors, the noncommittal hypocrisy of "balanced reporting," the sentimentalities following accidents, the pharmaceutical ads that arouse fear in the name of healing and relief, the Sunday preachers, the titillation of interruptions ("We're out of time, I have to cut you off") before any satisfactory conclusion can be reached; and above all else the whitewash from the White House.... The unrelenting bombardment of the people with the toxins of hypocrisy, TV's own weapon of destruction of the masses, may indeed call for sanctions and censorship--not by the government but of the government--because TV hypocrisy evokes a subliminal response of disgust and impotent anger, alienation from civic participation, existential worthlessness, degradation of the citizen's innate intelligence, dignity, and perception of truth, igniting a powder keg of terrible rage. Yes, TV is to blame. (pp. 138-139)

Yes, TV is to blame, not because it shows violence, but because so much of it is contemptible in its own unique way, dehumanizing violence, giving simplistic and often misleading analyses of complex events, and provocatively rubbing against the nerves of viewers who don't have the microphone to make a rebuttal. A numbing frustration, year in and year out, could very well create a cumulative rage that might express itself in violence.

Finally, whatever our individual politics, let us remember we own our wars, and we are responsible for the catastrophic effects they have on human lives. Our veterans, I'm told, are being cheated of the care they deserve on returning home. Their medical treatment is delayed, often their homes are foreclosed, and sometimes their physical and psychiatric wounds are denied. Many are homeless; many are drug addicted; many commit suicide. We should not allow our government to permit this.

References: James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War. New York, The Penguin Press, 2004. The quotation inside Hillman's comments from page 18 comes from John Keegan and Richard Holmes. Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle. New York: Elisabeth Sifton, 1986 (p. 161).


A recent testament to the Aphroditic aspect of war can be found in a forward I received in my email this week. A World War II veteran, who had been an 18-year-old reconnaissance pilot in that war, is presented with a film he did not know existed, containing footage of him crash-landing his plane during the war. His reaction to the film reveals his love of the unarmed English Spitfire, a collaboration of Aphrodite and Hephaestus, that he flew over Germany to gather military intelligence. It also shows his love of this vocation and of his comrades.

American Spitfire Pilot in WWII

Copyright 2014, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.