In my free time, I like to read history of all sorts: ancient, modern, military, social, etc. At the moment, I’ve been reading a lovely book called “The Future of War: A History.” In the book, the author, Sir Lawrence Freedman, looks at the historical record for times and places where individuals and communities contemplated the future of armed conflict.
After the Napoleonic Wars, the equivalent of modern think-pieces postulated that war would be eradicated, or at the other extreme, that it would one day be conducted entirely by zeppelins and lasers. Less than a hundred years later, the Great War devastated Europe, the new additions of tanks, trenches, and aeroplanes adding to the abject horror. The extent of destruction was a phenomenon that some saw coming and tried warned of, and which others denied was likely up until the day it began.
One of the many curious aspects of military history that the book has reintroduced me to is the ‘Pyrrhic Victory.’ Named for a series of battles between the city states of Epirus (today north-western Greece) and Rome, the term signifies a battle in which the victor, although having won, nonetheless is so compromised as to make the victory somewhat meaningless.
Plutarch, in relating the events of the Battle of Asculum (279 BCE) says the following of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus:
The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.
As the saying goes, Pyrrhus ‘won the battle but lost the war.’ Obviously, this has a particular relevance this week, not because of a similar military conflict (thankfully), but rather the interpersonal conflict at the heart of the current government.
To many people’s surprise, Theresa May managed to win the challenge against her posed by her own MPs, with the final numbers appearing to be 200 to 117. However, the victory is likely a bittersweet one, as the issues which led to the conflict have yet to be resolved. As I’m sure none of you are unaware of, the British public remains as divided as ever, and the British government seems as much at a loss to implement Brexit as it did when this week began.
As an American, I couldn’t help but wondering how American history would have been different if there was a mechanism to challenge the president through a no-confidence motion- likely, it too would end in a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Yet we don’t have to look too far in our own tradition for an example of a calamitous win: this week in fact, Joseph experiences his own kind of pyrrhic victory. After a lifetime of trauma from his attempted murder at the hands of his brothers, Joseph finally has the opportunity to confront them this week. We may want to cheer for him, goad him on to take vengeance on his fratricidal family! Yet, Joseph’s denouement is as bittersweet as it gets.
Even as he finally embraces his father again, even as he recognises that his brothers have changed (and are now willing to protect Benjamin when Joseph threatens him)– even in the midst of an outcome to his story in which he has achieved untold power and influence, the story is still tinged with sadness. Joseph, and indeed us too as readers, can’t help but feel the many years of estrangement and trauma hanging over this half-resolution. Even while his actual father meets the Pharaoh, in many ways his adopted father, Joseph remains aloof from them both.
In many ways, the dramatic episodes of VaYiggash are a timely reminder of how rare a ‘real’ victory is. In war, in politics, in family strife, and in most other arenas in which we fight the many battles of life- an unconditional, uncompromised win is hard to come by. Perhaps Joseph can teach us instead about how to move in in a world in which the best victory we can hope for is always a bit bittersweet.