As our anger, anguish and anxiety about Iraq continue to mount, I find myself looking for clarity and understanding not in the media's daily play-by-play, which confuses more than it illuminates (Did we win in Fallujah or get our butts kicked?), but rather in Shakespeare's "Henry V." I've found it contains far more truth about our present situation than anything coming out of the White House or the Pentagon.
The impetus for this rearward search for insight was an invitation to take part in a debate sponsored in Washington by the Shakespeare Theatre about the wisdom of King Henry V's decision to lead an English army into France in 1415.
The parallels between Shakespeare's wartime king and our current president, George II, are many and delicious -- from the pair's hard-partying younger days (Prince Hal was a 15th century feckless frat boy-prankster) to the challenge of following in a powerful father's footsteps right up to the critical matter of whether their wartime adventures made them courageous commanders or failed leaders.
The central question, then as now, was whether the invasion of another country was a war of choice or a war of necessity. If the answer is a war of choice -- and it is for both Henry and W -- then the inevitable conclusion is that both wars were immoral. For there can be no moral war of choice.
As Shakespeare has a commoner tell a disguised Henry on the night before the decisive battle at Agincourt: "If the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, 'We died at such a place.'"
King Henry, unlike W, who doesn't seem to lose any sleep over a heavenly reckoning, was so desperately worried about it that he worked hard to get the clergy to endorse his war. With the blessing of the Almighty's representatives on Earth secured, he could then invade France with a "conscience washed as pure as sin with baptism."
W didn't need such confirmation, since he has a direct line to the Almighty. Instead he did all he could to secure the backing of the closest thing we have to clergy in our secular political world, Colin Powell.
As the horrors of the war in Iraq are coming home to us every day -- 5,000 young American soldiers dead or wounded, liberators transformed into torturers, thousands of dead Iraqi civilians -- we're reminded again that wars are so dehumanizing that only actual threats, not imperial dreams, can justify embarking on them.
Shakespeare's play is full of the imagery of violence and aggression. In his speech before the battle of Harfleur, Henry urges his men to "imitate the action of the tiger ... disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage." In our own time we cloak the shattering of civilized restraint in the pretense that it's just "a few bad apples," not the impact of war itself, that explains the barbaric behavior. Shakespeare knew better.
There are always atrocities committed in the course of battle. That's what war does to people, which is why we're not supposed to fight wars of choice. When Tim Russert asked Bush on "Meet the Press" -- "Do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?" -- the president's initial response was, "I think that's an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit."
So no matter how many "good causes" he tried to string together -- WMD, yellowcake, Saddam's phantom ties to al-Qaida and 9/11, Saddam's torture chambers, Saddam's mass graves, an outpost of democracy in the Middle East -- in the end, this was ultimately a war of choice.
The dying Henry IV had told his son to engage in foreign wars to distract the people from domestic crises: "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." The invasion of France is supposed to turn frivolous Hal into a strong leader -- his youthful indiscretions a thing of the past.
Both men surrounded themselves with those in favor of going to war: Bush with his neocons, and Henry with the churchmen my fellow debater David Brooks dubbed the "theocons."
And both the president and the king were motivated by personal animus toward their enemy. Henry becomes enraged when the Dauphin sends him a gift of tennis balls: "This mock of his/ Hath turned his balls to gun-stones." For his part, Bush was clearly furious that Saddam had once tried to have Bush's daddy assassinated. It was so personal, he now keeps the gun Saddam was captured with in a study next to the Oval Office as a souvenir. But responding to perceived personal slights or settling old family scores is no justification for sending young soldiers to die.
Contemplating the invasion of France, Henry V says, "France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe/ Or break it all to pieces." Iraq gave us shock and awe, and Powell's Pottery Barn rule: "You break it, you own it." We did -- and now we do. And we'll be paying it off for years and years and years.
In Henry V's time, history was much slower to cast its verdict. It took 30 years for England to lose control of France and dissolve into civil war. In the end, Henry "lost France and made his England bleed." The verdict on Iraq is already in: George II has lost the war, emboldened our enemies, and made America bleed.