Paul Andersen: Henry V meets George Bush II
The Bush administration is locked in a 600-year-old rerun of Shakespeare’s famous play “Henry V.” If Shakespeare were alive today, he could have written an almost identical drama describing the war in Iraq.
The parallels between George II and Henry V became clear last week during a community seminar at The Aspen Institute called, “Movers and Shakespeares: Lessons of Leadership.”
Adroitly co-moderated by Ken and Carol Adelman, “Henry V” taught lessons on strategic planning, ethics, motivation, changing roles, persuasion and other leadership qualities.
The key lesson for me was the role of power in global politics and how the exercise of absolute power is fraught with moral and ethical conflicts. From this perspective, “Henry V” provides chilling insights into U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Though “Henry V” is not defined as a Shakespearean “tragedy,” anybody under the illusion that the decision to invade Iraq is not bearing tragic consequences ought to read “Henry V.”
The opening scene characterizes a dark, foreboding power play of Machiavellian nature where Henry’s court concocts a dubious rationale for an unprovoked attack against France.
It is easy to imagine a similar meeting in the Oval Office with Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Colin Powell, and various Republican courtiers. Henry claimed a legal right to the French throne; Bush claimed the existence of WMDs. Both claims were spurious.
In Henry’s court, the real reasons for the attack were unspoken but well known to the key players – ambition, glory and greed. It was the same thing with the Bush administration, where an unprovoked attack was set into motion for perceived benefits to the aggressor nation.
Now let’s look at the leaders: Henry V inherited the crown from his father after squandering a misguided and disreputable youth. Once he acceded to the throne, Henry V disavowed his past and exalted himself as a warrior. George II is cast from the same mold.
Through complicity with a corrupt and contemptible church, Henry earned the blessings of God. George W. intoned divine guidance on his own in his decision to invade Iraq. Both men sought redemptive glory on foreign shores under divine providence.
Henry acted on the advice of his father, Henry IV, who counseled: “Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” The wise old king meant that there’s nothing like a foreign war to distract the people from domestic problems. George II heard the same message.
Henry attacked France and won a stunning victory at the Battle of Agincourt. France collapsed and surrendered to his rule, resulting in a costly, 40-year occupation that eventually failed when a zealous evangelist named Joan of Arc rallied the French.
The “Maid of Orleans” was a prophet whose fame and power quickly spread. Later, when captured by the British, she was burned at the stake as a witch. Her martyrdom prevailed in pushing the English out of France.
In the contemporary drama of George II, we are near the end of Act II. The battle has been won, but there is no resolution to the occupation, which is meeting continued resistance.
Any guess who might fill the role of Joan of Arc? Thousands are queuing up for the audition.
Paul Andersen agrees with Shakespeare that “All the world is a stage …” His column runs on Mondays.
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