BMCR 2003.06.35

The Mourner’s Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam

, The mourner's song : war and remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. xx, 215 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226789934 $32.00.

As I begin writing this review, I am less than a week from visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (“the Wall”) in Washington with the combat veterans in the program for which I am the psychiatrist. So this book has immediate personal significance to me, so this review will be written in a “personal voice.” And in keeping with that I must make the disclosure that I consider Professor Jim Tatum to be a good friend, as well as honored colleague in the nourishing work of interpreting the Homeric epics.

The Mourner’s Song [hereafter TMS] is a well-integrated and wonderfully written set of reflections on the role of the poetic, architectural, and visual arts in the remembrance of war dead, and of how they got dead, that is, of killing in war. I use the word “poetic” broadly here, to include all verbal narrative, but the work commented upon in the greatest depth and with (to me) fresh insights is Homer’s Iliad. As the book’s title suggests, the Iliad is the main “text” from which Tatum [hereafter, T.] expounds the realities of war and remembering. The second most prominent “text” T. interrogates is Architect Maya Lin’s masterpiece, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known colloquially as “The Wall” or “the Vietnam Wall.” According to the National Park Service, this is the single most visited monument in the District of Columbia. The book’s Chapter One, “Mourners and Monuments” is devoted to public war memorials, with well-shot and well-reproduced black and white illustrations, after a tip of the hat to the Iliad with the words, “Mourning inspires the poetry of war as surely as its monuments.” The Wall is the main subject matter, but there are illuminating comparisons to Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Thiepval, France. As with The Wall, the names of the dead are inscribed on its panels; and T. brings out other not-obvious connections between the two monuments. I had been completely unaware of this monument as a forbear of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and trust others will not only find this interesting but be sobered as I was by the realization that the 73,000 names on the Thiepval monument are of the missing-in-action only, mainly from the four-month First Battle of the Somme in 1916, but also from the later fighting. The monument is placed in the midst of a vast military cemetery interring the dead and found. Chapter One concludes with illustrated discussions of the lesser-known “Moving Wall” and of various war memorials in Vietnam by the Vietnamese.

Chapter Two, “The Daughters of Memory,” takes us collectively to task for skipping over Homer’s evocation of the Muses to get to the good stuff. T. reminds us of Hesiod’s portrait of the Muses as those divine beings “who soothe men’s troubles and make them forget their sorrows.” While the veterans who have been my teachers reject forgetting the dead as dishonorable, they do not reject the Muses as therapy of unendurable pain, making the pain endurable and less life-destroying. We learn from Chapter Two that the Muse may whisper some truths of war into the ear of someone such as Stephen Crane who has not “been there, done that.” The Odyssey leaves us in doubt as to whether the great bard Demodokos was himself a Trojan War veteran, or by grace of the Muse was able to sing the truth, “you shared it, one would say, or heard it all.” (8:525, Fitzgerald trans.) Homer appears to be saying that the poetic artist, if the artist listens with sufficient Muse-inspired hearing, can retell the truth of the experience, or at least some of it. In Chapter Two, we encounter one of the great strengths of this book: it does not sentimentalize the subject matter, neither in the direction of militarism nor its opposite. Some of the photos and quotations, for example, from Terry’s Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, are not for the faint-of-heart, but neither is the Iliad for the faint-of-heart. The chapter closes with a reminder that the lovely instrument that Achilles plucks as the “embassy” enters his hut in Book 9, was looted from Andromache’s hometown on the day Achilles killed her father and brothers.

In Chapter Three, T. presents us with the intriguing hypothesis that the first poets of war were the first commanders and that the Iliad is composed from the commander’s point of view. To be more exact, T. implies that it is composed from the point of view of an excellent commander, who is equally critical of Agamemnon and Achilles, both of whom blight their own aims and the lives of the people they command. In support of his understanding, or perhaps as the origin of his understanding, T. quotes diverse and unexpected sources, such as Ulysses S. Grant ( Personal Memoirs, quoted extensively), Charles de Gaulle, S.L.A. Marshall, John Keegan, and Norman Dixon ( On the Psychology of Military Incompetence).

Chapter Four takes transience as its theme, pulling tension between the imagined permanence of the tomb, the burial mark, the sêma, that Hector promises his opponent in single combat early in Iliad 7, and the divinely guaranteed obliteration by earthquake and flood of the far more massive tomb and wall that the Achaeans throw up the following morning. T.’s prominent choice of the word “wall” for the rampart the Greeks throw up on their massive collective burial mound at Nestor’s suggestion, echoes with the Vietnam Wall, and is probably no accident. One of my patients exclaimed, “It’s a tomb!” the first time he visited The Wall. After bringing to our minds the disappearance of Troy itself and its modern excavation, T. takes us to another battlefield, now disappeared beneath the waves outside of Charleston Harbor: Battery Wagner, where the 54th Massachusetts Regiment immortalized itself in July 1863. T. provides a good, clear photograph of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorial on the Boston Common to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white officer who died with his black troops. Shaw’s tomb in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a fixed station in the walks my wife and I take in this first exemplar of the 19th C. garden cemetery movement. After observing the vulnerability of memorials to physical and or ideological dislocation, the chapter concludes, “Sand and sea and sky are the same for the Greeks’ wall and Battery Wagner. Saint-Gaudens’s memorial [like Homer’s poetry] would seem the first line of defense against this fate.”

Chapter Five, “The Companion Seen But Not Heard,” offers extended comparisons among the Achilles-Patroclus pair, the Andromache-Astyanax pair, and the Hector-Andromache pair. The first comparison was the one that made me slap myself up the side of my head. Citing Achilles’ mockery of Patroclus’ tears early in Book 16: “Why then are you crying like some poor little girl, Patroclus, who runs after her mother?” T. asks, “If Patroclus is acting the little girl, who else could Achilles be but the mother?” I am chagrined by my own blindness to this meaning, when I pointed out in Achilles in Vietnam that soldiers become each other’s mothers in combat, with the traditional metaphor of the “brotherhood of arms” being too watery for the self-sacrificial altruism that actually arises. This chapter explores the many dimensions of love that do or can intersect in the soldier’s world. T. helps us to notice that the most compelling accounts of these loves come from the usually unheard other side of the relationship, such as Andromache, the soldier’s wife of Vietnamese poets Dang Tran Con and Phan Huy Ich, Helen Thomas, and David in Billany and Dowies’ The Cage. We have not outgrown the need to be reminded that the actual phenomena of love, or philia, if you wish, between soldiers and other soldiers or their wives cannot successfully be contained by the recent American usages of the word “love.”

Chapter Six, “The Poetry Is in the Killing,” is an enormous challenge to people like myself who see a profound anti-war tragic text in the Iliad and who fervently want to end this human practice of war, believing this to be possible. More than half the lines in this massive poem are direct description of battle. Unless you just skip these lines, it is impossible to avoid awareness that the Homeric poet has brought huge artistry to the battle scenes. However, T. wants us to understand why it is so poetic in its multitude of killings. Clearly, T.’s answer is not that Homer makes killing beautiful to make it more attractive to kill. If that were T.’s intent, he would not have included reproductions of two horrific — but aesthetically magnificent — etchings from Goya’s Disasters of War series. The beauty of Homer’s descriptions and similes is a permanent antidote to militaristic or anti-militaristic sentimentality — the attempt to command an emotional response from the audience without putting in the artistic work necessary to fully justify it.

“The Fire from Hephaestus”, Chapter Six, artfully joins two apparently disparate parts. First, T. offers a commentary on the Shield of Achilles and discusses the anti-commentary implied in Christopher Logue’s pointed deletion of the shield. Then T. uses the fire from Hephaestus drying the flood of the corpse-choked river Scamander to reflect upon the corpse-choked rivers of Hiroshima. It’s impossible for any reader to miss the point that, like the Iliad, TMS is about war itself, not only its archaic, mythic exemplar.

The eighth and final chapter, “Toward the Autumn Night of Oguma Hideo”, explores the painful but necessary theme of the fate of the defeated in the aftermath of war, of the Andromaches, the Hecubas, and the Astyanaxes1 of the conquered. In addition to the crushing knowledge of Andomache’s and Astyanax’s fate quoted from the Iliad, T. brings in the left-behind women of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and concludes with a long quote from Japanese poet Iguma Hideo’s 1935 “Long, Long Autumn Night” against the Japanese rape of Korea, embodied in the gang humiliation, dishonor, and soiling of some elderly Korean washer women.

I read TMS twice, as I do all books I review and liked it even better the second time, having liked it a lot the first time. I hope TMS can find long-term “legs” in university courses as an exemplary cross-cultural, pan-historical, and interdisciplinary discussion of one central aspect of Homer’s Iliad. All my personal esteem for T. disclosed and discounted, I found this book illuminating and written with a lively and engaging style.


1. I might lose my reviewer’s license if I did not find and report at least one error: I believe T. misreads the Figure 31 Brygos Painter’s Louvre kylix, The Murder of Astyanax. After quoting Andromache’s lines in Book 24 at the funeral for Hektor “or else some Achaian will take you [Astyanax] by the hand and hurl you from the tower,” T. says “Astyanax is the youth being hurled by his foot from the walls of Troy (fig. 31).” The image shows an old man (Priam) before an altar, holding out his hands to ward off, or cushion the blow from/to his grandson. The Achaian, Neoptolemus, uses the boy as a club to beat his grandfather to death. A number of vase paintings [e.g., Munich 1700, Louvre G152, Boston 59.178, Berlin 1685, British Museum amphora by the Persephone Painter, Villa Giulia 121110, etc.] survive with this scene which is apparently the vase painters’ merging of Epic Cycle literary sources which reach us only in summary and does not represent the quoted scene from the Iliad itself. Neoptolemus kills Astyanax at Little Iliad 14, and Neoptolemus kills Priam at the altar of Zeus at The Sack of Ilium 1. The painters merge the two scenes into a double murder. The iconography is quite specific in these paintings: the old man, the altar, and the child-as-club in mid-swing, being brought down on the old suppliant. This vase painters’ theme is discussed by Susan Woodward in The Trojan War in Ancient Art.