Here and there – Russian war crimes and Henry V

You can see Russian war crimes ‘live’, as it were, on BBC TV.  Two Russian soldiers talk to two Ukrainian civilians, and then return and shoot them in the back.  Murder.  This murder is a war crime because it was committed in a war.  The invasion itself is a war crime – this is a war of aggression. 

The Russian response comes straight from Wonderland.

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

War crimes come up twice in Henry V. 

Harry’s father got the crown through the rebellion.  The son is worried about being infected by his father’s rebellion.  But young Harry did not have to stoop ‘to bypaths and indirect crooked ways’ to get the crown which would then sit ‘troublesome’ on his head.  Instead, for what looks to us to be a perverse reason, he chose a stunt of his own.  He would consort with low life and ‘so offend to make offense a skill’ – so that when he throws off the guise, he will look just beaut to all the world. 

That deceitful puppeteering looks grotesque to us.  The Everyman Edition refers us to Ephesians 5.7ff – ‘for ye were sometimes in darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light…’

Harry will of course have to repudiate those dupes who have put their trust in him.  And they will have no remedy – because they don’t matter.  Harry is, then, a dedicated skunk.  His ratbaggery makes that of his dad look respectable.  At least Bolingbroke was taking on those who were above him.

And so, King Henry V repudiates Falstaff.  Milton may have said that ‘earth felt the wound.’  And the king gets to repeat the dose in the play named after him.  One of the motley that Harry has repudiated is Bardolph – a serious drunk with a lighthouse nose.  Bardolph has robbed a church.  For this he is to be hanged.  But surely with friends in high places, he can be saved?  Not by this stony-hearted king.

We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we give express charge, that in our marches through the country, there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

Even by the standards of Canberra, this is sickening claptrap.  It comes from the blood-crazed killer who threatened the French not with impiety, but something darker:

…. in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds

Then the French kill young boys.  Fluellen says this was ‘expressly against the law of arms’.  (Which King Henry presumably did not have in mind when uttering the threats set out above).  So, the king orders his men to kill their prisoners.  War crime will be answered by war crime. 

The name of Alexander the Great comes up.  Fluellen says that in a rage, Alexander killed his friend Cleitus.  Gower says their king never killed a mate.  This opens the way for Fluellen to bring in the previous duplicity of King Henry V.

It is not well done, mark you now, take the tales out of my mouth, ere it is made and finished.  I speak but in the figures and comparisons of it: as Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups; so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgments, turned away the fat knight with the great belly-doublet: he
was full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries, and mocks; I have forgot his name.

The audience had not.  You may recall that earlier the Hostess had said that the king had killed the heart of Falstaff.

So, there are stories about war crimes spread over about seventeen hundred years.  If you go back further to the Iliad, you get the terrifying drive of Achilles – ‘the most dangerous man alive’ – that allows you to see why Shakespeare depicted him as a cold -blooded murderer – like, say, Putin – in Troilus and Cressida.

And the distortion about truth in war persists.  In their films, both Olivier and Branagh left out the order of the English king to kill prisoners.  The first film was made in war time and security dictated caution.  That was not the case with Branagh.  The omission could not be described as incidental.

It was fundamental.  The popular image of the play would put Shakespeare in the firing line with Kipling for jingoism.  Well, this playwright is not susceptible to that kind of pigeon-holing.  Life is a little more complicated – and so is war.  The suggestion that the mighty victor at Agincourt was a war criminal must give us pause.  Why, then, are we deprived of it in the films – by English directors?  Just who is the jingoist now?

At the production I saw in Stratford, they started off firing tennis balls into the crowd.  I caught one.  They were a reference to the threatening of the French after their crude response involving tennis balls (2.4).  They would be answered in ripe, royal style by Montjoy (3.6).  They are great moments of our stage.  Branagh gave the part of Exeter to his favourite – Brian Blessed – of Z Cars (‘a teddy boy in uniform’).  Christopher Ravenscroft played Montjoy.  They are both wonderful.  A great way to warm up for a Grand Final.

May I return to the Ukraine?  Putin is finding out what the English found in America, what the French found in Algeria, and what we found in Vietnam and Iraq.  The home team have so much more to fight – and die – for.  On my only visit to the Kremlin, our guide said ‘That’s the gate he came in; that’s the gate, he went out by.’  He was not talking about Adolf Hitler.  He was talking about 1812.

When the empowered French revolutionaries thought of exporting their gift of liberty, Robespierre mocked them out loud.  People, he said, will not accept ‘armed missionaries’.  Is not the contrary just ludicrous? 

Napoleon is said to have been intelligent.  On what possible basis could the Emperor of France have thought that a Russian man being bayoneted or a Russian woman being raped by a foreign invader might ask about the ideological drive of the commander of the murderer or rapist?

And we know that in these dirty wars, commenced on slender grounds, it is just a matter of time before the loathed invaders, who feel down if not plain guilty, begin to commit war crimes. 

Elsewhere, I concluded a list of the problems facing the invader with these items:

The war becomes one of exhaustion and attrition, which in turn exaggerates the above advantage of the home team.  Because of its felt superiority, its actual ignorance, and its sustained frustration, the away team resorts to atrocious behaviour that it would never be guilty of in a normal war, or against an enemy of its own kind.

And that brings us to the reasons for the English invasion set out in Henry V.  The grounds available are adumbrated – I think that’s the word – by the leading prelate – and they do look suppositious – and I know that’s the word.  People commonly giggle in the theatre.  Harry says he is reluctant, but he does not sound like it.  The church offers to chip in ‘a mighty sum’, and then the French seal it by referring to young Harry’s ‘wilder days’ – ‘you savour too much of your youth.’  It’s as if they have fallen into the trap that young Harry laid for Falstaff and the cockneys!  Was any of the stuff being parroted by these sycophantic courtiers worth what Bismarck called ‘the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier’? 

What I see here is a war undertaken to feed men’s egos and wallets.  That’s common. 

The view of the common man is represented by Williams.  When the king says that his cause is just and his ‘quarrel honourable’ – a difficult notion for us – Williams says ‘That’s more than what we know’.  And when Harry says that he has heard that the king said he would not be ransomed, Williams gives what I might call the traditional response of a commoner to Majesty: ‘And he said so, to make us fight cheerfully; but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we ne’er the wiser.’  A Tommy may have said that to Haigh, but not to Churchill.  And Majesty has no answer. 

But the king again resorts to deception in dealing with commoners.  And Williams takes the point and the match: ‘Your Majesty came not like yourself; you appeared to me but as a common man…’  What drove Harry to this deception?  We know all about it from the time Harry put on the mask of deception at the start of the series.

Well, the issue of the casus belli in Henry V is not as plain as the head of the CIA telling the leader of the free world that the weapons of mass destruction were a ‘slam dunk.’  But this playwright was rarely obtuse.  Men, women and children get gobbled up in war.  The playwright gently reminds us that this is not something to giggle about – or even wave a flag about. 

What then do we see of Harry in Henry V?  In my view, we have not paid enough attention to his duplicity and predatory deception.  Whatever else I see in Harry, it is not ‘this star of England.’  It is something we are far more familiar with – a spoiled careerist politician who is unashamedly two-faced.

And that in turn brings me back to the role of God in these wars – or, better, the role of His church.  The Orthodox Church in Russia has a revolting history of alliance with power.  (Its contribution to the governance of Greece is a matter for another time.)  The Orthodox Church of Russia is in this war of aggression up to its neck.  So was the English church in the play.  They solemnly gave Harry his pretext, cheered him on, and agreed to underwrite the war.  That church was, like the Orthodox Church in Russia, an arm of government – a pillar of the state.  

The English won at Agincourt because of their superiority in archery and the tactics they used to implement it by destroying the French cavalry.  It was both a massacre and a brilliant tactical victory. 

But Harry has a debt to his church to repay, and he does so by slobbering all over God.  And he says it was all ‘without stratagem’ and proclaims death to any of that band of brothers to ‘boast’ of the win – having previously promised them immortality in showing off the wounds they took on Saint Crispin’s day.  So, when he has got what he wanted, Harry goes back on it all once again.  This character is a chameleon in perpetuity.

But it is worse than that for God or His church.  In his second inaugural, Abraham Lincoln said that both sides to that war read the same Bible and prayed to the same God.  ‘The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.’  That was as it must be – the Almighty was placed in a position of conflict of interests that is completely beyond human understanding. 

So it was at Agincourt.  French kings went by the style ‘Most high, most potent and most excellent Prince, by the Grace of God, King of France and of Navarre, Most Christian Majesty’.  The English kings were not yet defenders of the faith, but they, too, invoked God.  And now priests of the Orthodox Church are offering up prayers on both sides in a war which they were instrumental in starting. 

It is just revolting, is it not?  A naval chaplain, ‘the minister of Christ, tho’ receiving his stipend from Mars’, went to Billy Budd in the Darbies to comfort him before he was hanged from the yard-arm.  Their creator, Herman Melville, went into overdrive.

Bluntly put, a chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War – Mars.  As such, he is as incongruous as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas.  Why then is he there?  Because he indirectly subserves the purpose attested by the cannon; because too he lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but brute force.

That is beautifully put.  And it is part of the meditation that I draw from Henry V. 

Well, it is common to keep finding new sources of light in the plays of this English playwright as our own stories unfold.  That is why we keep going back to them.

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