I’m taking a step back from my “Books on the Shelf” series for reasons worth explaining another time. I might return to it, but I think it will be in a different form.
This week, I had occasion to re-listen to an album I encountered in live performance some years ago: Athens v. Sparta (Spotify link). Some musicians partnered with a local actor/director who has one of those amazing, gravelly voices they cast for a film preview to lend the thing an ominous tone. In this album/performance, the actor, Ken Webster, reads selections from The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, as the band plays a soundtrack, interspersed with the band’s lyrics.
I know. WTF. But this was something like 2007, I think? When the present Gulf Wars were still fresh, when U.S. troop casualty rates were still very high and the civilian casualty rates were nothing short of tragic. The parallels were so clear as to be heartbreaking.
There’s a line from “Mytilene Debate” (it’s the fourth track) that breaks my heart with the fresh meaning it’s taken on in the last five years. In that part of the history, Athens debates whether to completely level the entire city of Mytilene after a small group rose up in protest, or to punish only those responsible. They decide to destroy the city and send a ship to carry out the sentence. The next morning, though, they have a change of heart, and send a second ship to cancel those orders.
Men who know how to speak
know the words that work you up.
the decision you made before you went to sleep –
at least this time you woke up and felt differently
It wasn’t hard to calculate.
Who wants violence? Raise your hands.
But it’s not like we didn’t protest.
We’re only 51 percent unmerciful.
God help us all.