Shakespeare Was No Pacifist

Mackubin T. Owens

November 1, 2002

During a harangue at a fundraiser in Hollywood for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee not too long ago, Ms. Barbara Streisand, Hollywood’s best known expert on geopolitics, cited a passage from what she claimed was William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Babs, of course, was using the Bard for propaganda purposes in order to steel the backbone of party leaders, admonishing them to stand up against Republican aggression toward Iraq and the erosion of civil liberties under President Bush.

As everyone knows, the passage turned out to be a hoax.

The fact is, it is very difficult to enlist the real Shakespeare in an anti-war movement. Indeed, his most warlike play, King Henry V, would play well before an audience of soldiers awaiting orders to move against Saddam. The famous St. Crispin’s Day speech that King Henry delivers to his soldiers before the battle of Agincourt still stirs the martial soul.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

But there is another speech from King Henry V that the Iraqis might take to heart: the English king’s ultimatum to the mayor of the French city of Harfleur earlier in the campaign (King Henry V, Act III, Scene 3).

For some time now, Saddam has been signaling that he hopes to draw the Americans into a bloody urban battle. Analysts have warned about the dangers of such a fight. The New York Times of October 22 has an article about America’s new doctrine for “military operations in urban terrain” (MOUT)—”a plan for attacking Baghdad that calls for isolating the city and then taking control of it by seizing or destroying Saddam Hussein’s pillars of power—but avoiding house-to-house combat in its hostile streets.”

The new doctrine, which relies on intelligence, close coordination, rapid movement, and selective targeting rather than on massive firepower, makes a great deal of sense. But for psychological purposes, King Harry’s speech before the gates of Harfleur might make those Iraqis who claim they are willing to die for Saddam think twice.

This is the latest parle we will admit:

Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves;

Or like to men proud of destruction

Defy us to our worst: for as I am a soldier,

A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,

If I begin the battery once again,

I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur

Till in her ashes she lie buried.

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up.


What is it then to me, if impious war,

Array’d in flames like to the prince of fiends,

Do, with his smirch’d complexion, all fell feats

Enlink’d to waste and desolation?


What say you? will you yield and this avoid,

Or guilty in defense, be thus destroy’d?

A modest proposal: if Saddam expects his people to die on his behalf, perhaps we should let them know exactly what this entails. This speech should be printed in Arabic on leaflets and dropped on Baghdad, Basra, and especially Tikrit. I realize we don’t talk like this anymore, but in light of 9/11 and Islamic terrorism, maybe we should, our new doctrine notwithstanding.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.