To invade or not to invade, that was the question. Once again, you had a bunch of Washington pundits and insider types shooting off their mouths about a decision that would get thousands of people maimed or killed and poison international relations for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, the eight panelists holding forth at the Shakespeare Theatre yesterday were talking about the 15th century, not the 21st. And the topic they were debating was King Henry V's decision to lead an English army into France in 1415, not President Bush's decision to send an American army to Iraq in 2003.
Or was it?
"Let's see what we have here. We have a king whose father had been a king. We have a king who spent a carousing youth," said industrialist and Shakespeare Theatre trustee Sidney Harman as he introduced the program. Harman went on to mention the "invasion of another sovereign nation" and to paraphrase the hoary advice of George Santayana that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Before long, Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens was quoting Henry IV's deathbed advice to the newly reformed future Henry V that in order to suppress domestic discontent, he should, in Shakespeare's words, "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." MSNBC hardballer Chris Matthews was referring to the English longbows -- used to great effect by young Henry's archers in his immortal victory at Agincourt -- as "weapons of mass destruction." And moderator Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute (which helped put on yesterday's panel), was citing a bon mot by panelist and New York Times columnist David Brooks in which he'd compared the neoconservative advocates of George W. Bush's war to the English churchmen who gave their blessing to Henry's.
"Theocons," Brooks had called them.
The audience roared.
Such contemporary resonance was exactly what Isaacson had been hoping for when he came up with the idea for yesterday's debate. Members of the National Council for the Shakespeare Theatre, a fundraising body on which he serves, were coming to town and he was looking for a program that would keep them awake. Discussing this with theater managers, he remembered a "Henry V" seminar that former Reagan administration official and current Defense Policy Board member Kenneth Adelman and his wife had taught at the Aspen Institute last summer. (The Adelmans are passionate Shakespeare aficionados and run a company called Movers and Shakespeares that offers Bard-derived executive-training seminars for businessmen.) Isaacson's teenage daughter had emerged from it muttering "just like George Bush" -- to her, not a flattering comparison -- and Adelman, who greatly admires both the king and the president, had been unable to change her mind.
Besides Adelman, Hitchens, Matthews and Brooks, the other panelists were Forbes FYI editor Christopher Buckley, syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, "Capital Gang" regular Margaret Carlson and Davidson College Shakespeare scholar Cynthia Lewis -- an impressive collection of talking heads, with everyone but Lewis a veteran of the quick-draw exchanges expected of the Washington punditocracy. Yet despite the occasional interjection of Shakespeare Theatre actors reading relevant scenes, it wasn't clear if Isaacson's keep-them-awake goal would be met.
Huffington took care of that.
Jokingly called on by Isaacson to concede that she'd been convinced Henry's invasion was legitimate, she vigorously demurred, spitting out a stream of comparisons unflattering to both Henry V and George II.
Henry's invasion of France was not an invasion of necessity, she said, but one of choice -- and "there can be no moral war of choice." Knowing this, he needed the clergy to back him, and "since the closest that we have to revered clergy" is Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush had to get Powell on his side.
There were guffaws at this, but Huffington wasn't done. Dante, she said, had reserved "a very special circle of Hell" for those who know better but argue an immoral cause anyway: "They sizzle to death." On she went, lambasting a president she described as so unwilling to hear doubts that "he simply will read no newspapers" and as a man who, faced with the necessity to rally a nation after Sept. 11, "called just a few of us to arms. He called the rest of us to go shopping."
"Do we have time limits?" pleaded Adelman.
The crowd laughed.
If the war of American independence wasn't a war of choice, said Matthews, then what was it?
"I didn't realize that Iraq was taxing us without us being represented," Huffington shot back.
More laughter, and applause.
The pro-invasion panelists did their best, but they never really recovered from the Huffington onslaught.
Brooks talked about the fact that while prewar counsels could emphasize prudence, it was a wartime leader's job to rally a martial spirit and "get people to stop thinking prudently." Then he got in a dig at John Kerry, joking that today the king might say: "I voted against this war before I voted for it."
Adelman, who had famously argued that the war in Iraq would be "a cakewalk," talked about Henry's much-debated decision at Agincourt -- at a point where he thought the French might still overwhelm his undersized force -- to order his French prisoners killed. Even Winston Churchill, an ardent Henry V admirer, thought this was a pretty dark moment, Adelman conceded.
"And do you say that, Ken?" Huffington asked, with the obvious subtext being recent revelations about American abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
"Yes," agreed Adelman, who last week had explained to a reporter that he was "ducking" press calls about Abu Ghraib.
When it was Buckley's turn, he unleashed a lengthy parody about "Henry XIV" (read: George Bush) and, among other things, the way he and "his brother, Jeb, Duke of Tallahassee," had rallied the troops in Florida. "Once more into the booth!" Buckley declaimed. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he that sheds his chad with me today shall be my brother."
It was a brilliant defensive move: Run out the clock and leave 'em laughing.
The idea was to have fun, and so it would perhaps be too much to expect that the debaters would cover all the interesting comparisons between the two invasions. Yet there are a few significant points that could have been discussed.
The necessity of leaders getting disinterested advice, for one thing: David Perry, a professor of ethics at the U.S. Army War College who uses "Henry V" in his lectures, has noted that "unfortunately, Shakespeare's Henry V has surrounded himself with advisers who are all biased in favor of war," while some have argued that unbiased advice is an essential precondition if war is to be justified.
The abuse of prisoners, for another: While the debaters did touch on this, they failed to mention either the codes of chivalry that prohibited it in Henry's time or the Geneva Conventions that do so in ours.
Shakespeare's Henry is a fiction, as many historians have pointed out, and it is by no means clear that the historical king was the ideal leader the Bard and other mythologizers have made him out to be. For in addition to some flaws that Shakespeare fails to mention -- Henry was an ardent burner of heretics, for example -- his victories in France were short-lived and, in long-term perspective, futile.
He died young, and while his infant son was crowned king of France, the French, led by Joan of Arc, soon began to drive the English out. The English had Joan burned but couldn't turn the tide, and a few bloody decades later, at the end of the Hundred Years' War, they retained only a slim beachhead across the channel.
At the end of the Shakespeare Theatre debate, Isaacson turned the job of judging a "winner" over to Dame Judi Dench, the great British actress who was in town to receive the theater's annual Will Award. Dench professed herself unfit for the task: She's a Quaker, she said, and cannot understand why such wars should begin. Then she turned to the last lines of "Henry V," spoken by the chorus, as a way of summing up.
"This star of England: Fortune made his sword," she read, "by which the world's best garden he achieved." Yet it was all for naught, because the young Henry VI and his advisers promptly "lost France and made his England bleed."