Twenty-first century Antigones?

How the grief of those who lost loved ones in Iraq is being cynically exploited.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Gone, an updated version of Sophocles’ 2500-year-old play Antigone, is the talk of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The flyer promises Antigone for the ‘TV age of spin, shock and awe’, and it doesn’t disappoint. Creon, King of Thebes in the wake of a ruinous civil war which kills battling brothers Polynices and Eteocles, is transformed into a Blair-style leader, all smooth one-liners, slick side-parting and followed everywhere by three spindoctors who whisper counsel in his ear (taking the place of the Chorus of Theban Elders).

When Creon decrees that Eteocles will be honoured with a burial while Polynices (denounced in this version as a ‘terrorist’) will be left to rot, their sister Antigone becomes enraged. She steals Polynices’ body and stores it in a box, roaring at Creon: ‘You make me sick, greasing changes in the rules to suit yourself!’ For one critic, Antigone’s anger at the slimy Creon – busy delivering emotionally-tinged statements to the world’s press and declaring his intention to stand up to ‘evil forces’ – tells us as much about ‘the mood of British politics in the year of Hutton and Butler as [it does] about the fate of the city of Thebes 2500 years ago’ (1).

The new Antigone, excellently played by Julia Hickman, explicitly invites comparisons to those military families who have lost loved ones in Iraq, many of whom are now going public with their grief. Indeed, in the same weekend I saw Gone in Edinburgh, Maxine Gentle, a 14-year-old Glaswegian whose soldier brother Gordon was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra, made waves when she wrote a letter to Blair blaming him for Gordon’s death. ‘It is okay for you sitting there with all your money and power, ruining people’s lives by the decisions you make’, she wrote (2). Joyce McMillan, theatre critic and political columnist for the Scotsman, reckons Maxine is a ‘twenty-first century Antigone…full of raging youthful contempt for the leader of her country’ (3).

How did the grief of military families become, in McMillan’s words, a ‘significant political force on both sides of the Atlantic’, expressed everywhere from the Edinburgh stage to Michael Moore’s blockbusting Fahrenheit 9/11 to the front pages of the papers? Of course such grief is perfectly understandable, following the loss of loved ones in a needless war far, far away. But the fact that such grief is today as likely to be expressed in interviews with the press as in private funeral ceremonies reveals much about deep domestic divisions over Iraq. And the way in which it has been latched on to as an argument against war is as cheap as it is cowardly.

Both Bush and Blair have been embarrassed by ‘twenty-first century Antigones’, by grieving families who have challenged their actions in Iraq. Rose Gentle, mother of Maxine and the late Gordon, is reportedly planning to sue the UK Ministry of Defence for failing in its duty of care to her son. She claims that had Gordon’s patrol been equipped with an electronic signal jamming device, it would have stopped the roadside bomb from detonating and perhaps saved her son’s life. Gentle says, ‘My son was just a bit of meat to them, just a number…. This was not our war. My son has died in their war over oil.’ (4)

The families of six British military Red Caps who were killed in southern Iraq in June last year are ‘seriously considering’ taking legal action against the MoD, again for failing in its duty of care; a mother of one of the Red Caps has criticised the ‘army’s blunders’ (5). The family of Corporal Dewi Pritchard, a Welsh soldier killed in an ambush on his armoured car, accuse Blair of ‘ruining’ their family. ‘Blair has absolutely devastated us all, and for what?’, said Pritchard’s cousin (6)

In the USA, Nadia McCaffrey invited news cameras to film the arrival of her son’s coffin from Iraq, in defiance of a White House ban on photography of military coffins. She said: ‘I don’t care what Bush wants. Enough war.’ An American commentator says the grieving families may cost Bush dear in the November presidential election.

For some critical commentators it was ‘predictable’ that, in a bloody war like that in Iraq, ‘the agony of the bereaved families’ would explode into the public arena. Really? There have been far bloodier wars, where families’ grief will have been no less intense than that experienced today – yet in the past it was rare for such personal grief to become a big public issue. Rather, bereaved families would take comfort from the belief that their son or daughter died for a greater cause. Traditional notions of honour, patriotism and duty would have given their loved one’s death in action some meaning; that may not have alleviated their grief, but it would have prevented them from publicly upbraiding the war’s authors or from doing anything else that might be seen to undermine public or military morale.

Today, such families have no way to make sense of the deaths in Iraq. What did they die for? How can such deaths be seen as a source of pride, when even American and British leaders are embarrassed by the Iraqi debacle? From the top down, in both London and Washington, there is profound confusion over what the war was for, whether it was worth it, and a scramble by both Bushies and Blairities to wash their hands of the whole affair. The central justification for why soldiers should risk their lives in Iraq was that, in the words of President Bush, Saddam had to be disarmed of his ‘weapons of mass murder’ – weapons which, it turns out, he did not have. On both sides of the Atlantic the war has been followed by inquiries into the pre-war intelligence, which have questioned whether it was right to invade Iraq on the basis of the available evidence.

Even the kind of ceremonies that in earlier times might have given some meaning to death on the battlefield were explicitly avoided this time around. Blair says the coalition won in Iraq, but victory would not be celebrated ‘in any spirit of elation, still less of triumphalism’; Britain has had no post-war victory parade, after everybody from the prime minister to the Queen to the Archbishop of Canterbury to the chief of defence staff himself agreed it would be a bad idea, perhaps seeming ‘arrogant or patronising [toward] the Iraqi people’ (7). The small-scale religious ceremony for those who died in Iraq, conducted at St Paul’s Cathedral in central London in October 2003, was, in the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, more about ‘recognising shared grief’ than anything to do with glory or victory (8).

Meanwhile, the White House’s ban on photographing returning military coffins suggests that US leaders are ashamed of their Iraq war dead, seeking to sneak them in the backdoor and hurry them into the earth without anybody noticing. One report says that Bush has avoided attending military funerals because he doesn’t want to ‘bring attention’ to the number of American soldiers who have been killed (966 to date) (9).

What are grieving families to make of all this? When even their leaders seem uncertain about the war, and embarrassed by its dead, it is not surprising that families experience deaths in Iraq as a deep personal loss rather than anything more meaningful. The deaths in Basra, Najaf or Fallujah must appear as tragic and as meaningless as if they had died in a car accident or in a fight outside a pub. In such circumstances, there is little to stop military families from publicly berating Bush and Blair.

There’s another reason why the personal grief of military families has become such hot public property – many in the anti-war movement, whether filmmakers, journalists or playwrights, have attached themselves to it, shamelessly marshalling Iraq’s dead and grieving to score some cheap points against Bush and Blair.

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 showcases the grief of Lila Lipscomb from Flint, Michigan, whose 26-year-old son Michael died in Iraq. Lipscomb is clearly cut up over Michael’s death, as is her extended family, who are shown weeping as she reads aloud Michael’s last letter from Iraq. Yet Moore uses Lipscomb’s grief cheaply, in an attempt to, in the words of one critic, ‘shock and awe the audience’ into hating the war in Iraq. In the absence of any convincing political argument against the war, much less against American or British military intervention more broadly, Moore effectively prostitutes Lipscomb’s grief, in the hope that her sorrow will stun us into being anti-war and anti-Bush.

For me, this part of the film backfired badly. After half an hour of trailing Lipscomb’s sorrow, by the time Moore shows her weeping in front of the White House, in what should be a moving scene, it comes across as another cheap stunt on his part, like when he drives around Capitol Hill in an ice-cream van reading out the Patriot Act over a loudspeaker.

Others have also leapt on the grief bandwagon. Anti-globalist author Naomi Klein writes of ‘The grieving parents who might yet bring down Bush’, cheering on those American mums and dads who have publicly expressed their Iraq-related grief, in the hope that they might do through shame and embarrassment what Klein clearly feels unable to do through political argument – get Bush out of the White House. Klein refers to the families’ grief as ‘the mother of all anti-war forces’, claiming that ‘Washington’s talk of moral clarity falls dumb before those who have lost children in its wars’ (10). She seems to hope that the war in Iraq will simply fall apart in the face of its own sorrow and bloodshed – thus the role of the anti-war lobby becomes merely to point to such sorrow and bloodshed, constantly, rather than doing anything too intellectually or politically taxing.

And it was predictable that Maxine Gentle and her mum would end up on the increasingly cynical Today programme on BBC Radio 4, which takes any opportunity to bash Blair over Iraq (when not demanding that he do something over Sudan, that is).

There is something deeply cynical and morbid about the anti-war lobby’s desperate attempts to politicise and publicise the families’ grief. They want the dead to do their dirty work for them; they hope that weeping mothers and fathers will wake the rest of us from our ignorant stupor and make us anti-the-war-in-Iraq. Yet turning the fallout from Iraq into a grief-fest is a sorry substitute for a serious political debate about that war, or any other war.

The rise to public prominence of the grieving families offers a snapshot of the degraded debate over Iraq. The pro-war side is incapable of giving the sacrifices in Iraq any meaning, instead turning red-faced from those who died and leaving the families to work through their grief alone and confused. The anti-war side, on the other hand, tries to recruit the mourning families, hoping to turn their grief into weapons to use against Bush and Blair. In Gone, visitors to the grieving Antigone complain about the rancid stench in her room, unaware that she has her brother’s rotting corpse hidden away. ‘It stinks in here!’ they say. Something about the exploitation of personal grief in post-Iraq public politics seriously stinks too.

Gone by Glyn Cannon is showing in the Pleasance Cavern, Edinburgh, until 30 August 2004. See the Pleasance website for more details.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Gone review, Joyce McMillan, Scotsman, 20 August 2004

(2) Excerpts from Maxine’s letter to Tony Blair, Glasgow Herald, 20 August 2004

(3) When soldiers die in dubious battles, Joyce McMillan, Scotsman, 21 August 2004

(4) Pressure on PM as the killing goes on in Iraq, Daily Record, 30 June 2004

(5) Red Cap families ponder suing MoD, BBC News, 1 March 2004

(6) Blair ruined our family, Western Mail (Wales), 21 August 2004

(7) Why Britain rains on its own Iraq parade, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 20 May 2003

(8) Blair ignores call to stay away, News, 10 October 2003

(9) See Iraq Coalition Casualties

(10) The mother of all anti-war forces, Naomi Klein, Canada Globe and Mail, 7 July 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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