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Art can make war look wrong, but most of the time
it doesn't. Consider this terracotta jar, once filled
with olive oil to anoint the dead, now a souvenir
of fire, clay, and spittle standing in the back
of the Ancient Wing. Look closer: some dancers
are clothed in robes, others are naked, and all
wear helmets while the musician plays a double flute
and taps his toe. First, they join hands, then the delicate,
ceremonious footwork begins. The collective line
leans backward, shoulders shake slowly, then faster,
then they agitate their feet which glide in front
and to the side until—listen to it—the flute's trill
is a frenetic scream, a hot coal that burns
beneath them until the enemy is nearly visible
in the dirt. The kicks get harder, then
they're on their knees in a circle, and then up again,
stronger, ready to throttle the man who must have
wronged them. The men are young and this is a song
of war, a military drill meant to ruin the worst tyrant
ever known to man. For the pyrrhic to work,
it has to thrill every bone. It has to feel like sex
or food or applause until they're numb to cowardice.
The driving beat has to make the enterprise
seem clean—no blood on the shield, no innards
on the pike, no burning flesh to smell like cooked meat,
no orphans, no widows, no crime. Art can make war
look wrong, but most of the time it blurs bright, blossoms
red, and burns forever at the dancer's feet.


(from My Favorite Tyrants [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014]).