W.W.2, American Iliad or American Odyssey?

World War 2 , American Iliad or American Odyssey?

The review of Rick Atkinson’s “The Guns at Last Light” (WSJ , May 11-12, 2013) is
titled “The American Iliad.” I don’t know if this comes from reviewer Max Hastings or from the newspaper editor. I thought it was understood that the Civil War with its 600,000 dead was our version of Homer’s Iliad. The US military dead of W.W. 2 number only about 290,000 but its theaters of war spanned the globe. There are not two American Iliads. So I am thinking that W.W.2 is our “Odyssey” because it sent our soldiers to all the oceans and continents of Earth. The Civil War has a striking likeness to the Iliad in that both sides believed in the same gods. But W.W.2 does not have a religious commonality.

I am not sure why either war would be considered either an Iliad or an Odyssey. (I certainly don’t know why, if one dropped a name on one, it would preclude using the same metaphor for the other.)

If the analogy drawn is one of the importance of the event in the shaping of the country, then either war could be called an Iliad.* We are still writing studies and novels that focus on each of them. Despite the “journey” aspect, however, I don’t see much connection to the Odyssey. The Odyssey is much more of a narrative of one man and his family rather than the nation as a whole. In addition, Odysseus was gone for 20 years. After three and a half (not ten) years of fighting, the overwhelming majority of U.S. WWII troops were home before the end of 1945. Similarly, the Civil War lasted four years and most of the troops were home fairly soon after the cessation of hostilities.

  • (I’m not sure how comfortable most Americans would be identifying with a story in which the primary action involves a pissing contest over a female captive that was only resolved when the homoerotic love interest of one of the antagonists got himself killed defending his close friend’s honor.)

Let’s move this to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

The Revolutionary War was our Aeneid: the story of how our country was founded.

The Civil War was our Illiad: the war that defined us as a nation.

World War II was our Punica: the war that established us as a great power.

The Vietnam War was our Odyssey: the story of us struggling for years to find our way.

The Civil War or War Between the States acquired the label
“American Iliad” either in the recent PBS documentary (Ken Burns?) or
in the commentaries by historian Shelby Foote. This label was picked up
by the Wall Street Journal for a description of a book about W.W.2 called
“The Guns at Last Light” by historian Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 877 pp.).

The reviewer of this tome is Max Hastings who has authored no less than
11 books about W.W.2. Hastings says this is one of the best books about
W.W.2 that he has ever read.

I agree with these analogies. What turns a book into a classic is when it can be
read on a number of levels of abstraction. Yes, the ILIAD is about sexual love and
betrayal and revenge. It is also about a dead religion and an epic battle fought
between gods as well as humans. The ILIAD was recited by the ancients in the
same way that we recite the Bible and the Koran. Every patrician Roman was expected to know Homer and some Greek language and history. It is not my
idea that some historian decided to call the Civil War “the American Iliad.”

WWII was our Greek vs. Persia wars. See Herodotus and Thucydides. Athens and Sparta ally to impossibly beat back the unstoppable Persian Empire and then are wary of each other as Athens overreaches and they go to war. The US and the USSR ally to stop Germany (and Japan for the US) and then go to Cold War.