ON A WALL at the National Capital’s War Monument are inscribed these words, past which I walk each day and derived from the ninth book of Virgil’s Aeneid: “nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo.” Here I shall provide some context, deferring to Robert Fitzgerald’s 1983 translation for Random House:
Fortunate, both! If in the least my songs
Avail, no future day will ever take you
Out of the record of remembering Time,
While children of Aeneas make their home
Around the Capitol’s unshaken rock,
And still the Roman Father governs all.
Italicized words represent the War Monument’s uplifting but also misleading inscription. As anyone who has read the surrounding text knows, “fortunate, both” refers to the Trojans Nisus and Euryalus — soldiers and lovers who, having conducted a savage butchery of the enemy camp, are themselves brutally undone by members of the Rutulian cavalry. The misleading consists in the monument’s elision of Virgil’s qualification, that the lucky couple will be remembered as long as there is a Roman Empire.
I begin here because every effort to dignify, or merely make sense of, battle and its consequences will require dissemblance. This is true in the most well-meaning commonplaces, such as the notion of sacrifice “for the higher good.” Even when this assertion bears truth, it must compete with the fact that higher goods are purchased by the currency of death and destruction and lingering widespread misery. It is wicked that the idealist, who above all others responds to the call to defend the liberties of one’s comrades, shall be lost — not only to memory, but to family and friends and to the work of her generation. Or perhaps mutilated and coarsened and sent home to the paltry supports with which veterans are well familiar. Then there are the many standers-by, cut down as a result of mere accident. Neither Virgil nor anyone else has bothered to memorialize these. War is for the “fortunate” who die on the battlefield as heroes. The term registers a distance between Virgil’s time and our own (try and imagine someone today agreeing ‘Yes, how lucky indeed!’), and so the declaimed heroism of it all is also “eximet memori aevo” — kept far from our skeptical view.
What if war is neither heroic nor good and yet necessary? This is a world in which the poet offers little solace, and less guidance in the work of sorting out the necessary war from the war which must be avoided at all cost. As I write these words, Israel agitates for battle against Iran. This after a decade of horror in Afghanistan and Iraq, in pursuit of the greater good which I shall term the resistance of totalitarianism — in particular of the Islamic theocratic variety. The contemporary revitalization of this nihilistic ideology arrived in Iran in 1979, the fatwa one decade later constituting an opening offensive against secularism, literature, freedom of thought and expression, and the rule of law.
Today the battle is everywhere, the resistance adopting many forms. A French newspaper is firebombed, but the work goes on. In Kingston, Ontario, Sharia is under the scrutiny of a rival conception of law, which means that the vile worldview of the Taliban must now be repelled from Canadian soil as well. In today’s National Post, one may read the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef. The son of Hamas founder, Sheik Hassan Yousef, Mosab was for a decade an informer for Shin Bet, Israel’s security service. Having concluded that “there is no hope to reform Islam,” he undertook to fight it — an effort that needless to say could cost him his life but which is founded upon a compelling logic:
How can you go wrong by saving a person’s life, regardless of their political agenda, their colour, their race, who they are? A human life — you can’t go wrong saving that. […] These words I am giving you with lots of pain, because this is the painful truth. Most of the fundamental issues that we face as Arab nations are connected to one thing, that is the absolute control of religion over people’s lives.
Why must the one who speaks nobly on behalf of protecting human life face the threat of execution? Who exactly, in this scenario, is the offender? This stand against religious totalitarianism constitutes a war with no foreseeable end. Whether you accept the fact or you do not, it is the battle of our generation and it is furthermore a necessary battle. The alternative is to yield to those who demand tolerance for the intolerable. On the one side, equality before the law, respect for women, and freedom of religion; on the other, the rule of self-appointed absolutists, honour killing, and theocracy. The war is not only against Islamist extremists, but against all ideologies and regimes which impede even in the details the full realization of human rights and dignity and development. What a terrible and stupid goddamned waste that we should have to fight it.