The Lessons of War

from Ellen McLaughlin’s The Greek Plays

In contrast to triumphant stories of heroism in battle, Euripides’ tragic play The Trojan Women focuses on the destruction of war. The women of Troy are left in the ruins of a once-great city, alone after the slaughter of their husbands and children. They watch their homes burn—the only witnesses left to reflect on the past 10 years of the Trojan War and its final outcome: the destruction of their city and lives.

Playwright Ellen McLaughlin introduces her version of Trojan Women by emphasizing the universality of these women’s struggles. Adapted in 1995 to explore the ongoing ethnic conflict in the Balkans, McLaughlin’s The Trojan Women keeps the mythical frame but has it’s parallels for real-world women and real-world war. The Bosnian War raged from 1992-95, causing 100,000 deaths, the displacement of 2.2 million people, and the rape of an estimated 50,000 women. McLaughlin’s original production was performed by female Serb, Croatian and Bosnian refugees who had moved to New York City to escape the horrific situation in their homelands.

In the published version of her dramatic adaptations, McLaughlin lays out four lessons we’ve learned throughout humanity’s history of war.

Scroll down the page for direct quotes from McLaughlin and images from a photo essay published by The Atlantic, 20 Years since the Bosnian War.

The Lessons of War

1. WARS ARE PROFLIGATE IN WOE, LENGTHY AND VASTLY DESTRUCTIVE.

The Greeks spend ten years besieging a city they finally destroy, along with a legendarily noble family and a mighty civilization. Though there are sympathetic figures, like Patroclus, among the Greeks, more often than not, the greatest of the heroes, including Achilles, conduct themselves hatefully before dying horrid deaths.

2. THE CASUS BELLI CAN HARDLY BE SAID TO JUSTIFY THE CONSEQUENT SLAUGHTER AND SUFFERING

(Casus belli is a Latin term referring to the justifications for war.)

Even if Helen remains in Troy throughout, can her husband’s recovery of her really balance out the countless warriors dead? To  say nothing of the entire civilization of Troy and the vast majority of its citizens, men and women alike? And if she never goes at all, if some cloud copy is residing up in the Trojan palace the whole time, while the real Helen is sitting it out in Egypt, how is one to think of all those deaths and all that mayhem?

3. NOBODY WINS.

Well of course the Greeks do, on paper. But those who survive have a hell of a time getting home—Odysseus takes ten years to manage it—and find precious little to cheer them when they do arrive home at last. Their kingdoms have gone to ruin and chaos in the interval, and the welcoming committee can be surprisingly brusque—Agamemnon’s swift dispatch into the next world comes to mind.

4. THE GLORY OF WAR IS A QUESTIONABLE CONCEPT AT BEST.

Those who exult the most concerning the glory of war—and this is as true now as it ever was—tend not to be the people fighting and dying in the war.

Explore The Atlantic‘s 20 Years Since the Bosnian War