In the mini news cycles of wartime, when the daily newspaper slips to performing the function of a newsweekly, sedately wrapping up the flashes supplied by cable TV and by bloggers, the biweekly columnist rises (or sinks) to the level of an annalist; of Chou En-lai gravely declining to judge the French Revolution because it was still too soon to tell.
In the stream of stories, let us not forget this one from the Guardian, the left-wing British newspaper, filed after the fall of the southern Iraqi town of Safwan. This is what Ajami Saadoun Khlis, a man who’d had a brother and a son executed by Saddam Hussein, told the reporter, through the flow of his tears: “You’re late. What took you so long? God help you become victorious. I want to say hello to Bush, to shake his hand. We came out of the grave.”
Christianity promises the resurrection. A theme of modernist art is death in life. But quite apart from the comforts of religion and the angst of ordinary experience, there are regimes that so perfectly fuse the slaughterhouse and the prison that they can truly be compared to the grave.
If we made it our job to topple every one of them, we would have a busy time. But it is also true that our calculations of interest must be affected by the nature of our rivals. If we found ourselves on the verge of war with Canada or Argentina or even a poor, corrupt dictatorship like Egypt, the non-monstrous nature of the other power should in itself give us pause. There is no need to pause for any reason like that in the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. If his barbarous treatment of American P.O.W.’s does not move us, then maybe his decades-long devastation of his own subjects will.
When a modern democratic army meets a Praetorian guard leading a force of conscripts, the modern democratic army is bound to win, though there will be surprises and suffering ahead. Who will have authority to speak on the war, and on the peace?
Not the United Nations. The General Assembly can continue as a chat room, with a food and medicine agency attached. The Security Council has died of old age (it outlived the League of Nations). The very group that was unable to enforce the peace terms of the first Gulf War on Saddam Hussein can’t be trusted to clean up the human and moral mess he has made. This goes double for a NATO hamstrung, and a European Union dominated, by Germany and France. To Germany: After a thousand-year Reich, there should be 100 years of solitude. No comments from you on anything, for a few decades yet. To France: If you spent less time selling rocket fuel to Saddam Hussein and more time protecting your own Jewish citizens from anti-Semitic rioters, maybe we could take you seriously as a moral oracle. A la prochaine .
More serious, because it makes more serious truth claims, is the behavior of the Vatican. Pope John Paul II deplored this war because it lacked the sanction of the U.N. But he also deplored the first Gulf War, which had it. The suspicion arises that so long as the United States stood up for the liberty of Mother Poland, he was its well-wisher; once that was accomplished, he had other fish to fry. His to-do list only tardily included raping priests and their enabling bishops. The frivolity of the papacy is tragic because John Paul II was one of the world-historical figures of the late 20th century. The 21st century has not been kind to him.
What of the anti-war protesters who fill the streets? The last big demonstration in Manhattan, after an orderly beginning and middle, ended with a few thrown bottles, whereas the demonstrators in San Francisco puked and crapped in the streets. Maybe the ghostly presence of the World Trade towers only a few miles away from the New Yorkers made them more serious.
What to make of the declaration, blazoned on so many T-shirts and telephone poles, that Bush is a Nazi? I search my memories of Bill Clinton, and find that I did not admire him. Yet I never called the man a Nazi. Why the grotesque disproportion? Partly it is displaced wrath over the election of 2000. (Though if Mr. Bush had carried 49 states, would the demonstrators be any calmer?) Partly, it is impotence and frustration: the anti-war left’s realization that they have failed to affect events, coupled with an unconscious sense that they have failed to understand the situation. But there is more afoot, for the demonstrations are not only about Iraq.
When the Communists fell from power in the old Soviet Union in the summer of 1991, my colleague Jeffrey Hart had a far-reaching thought. For decades, he said, Communism dominated and distorted a host of radical and revolutionary impulses. Before and after the turn of the century, the world was full of strange forces. Parisian workers battled the French army in the streets. Anarchists murdered heads of state. The Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) formed a huge union. On the wilder side were a host of demented prophets and visionary aesthetes. After the Russian Revolution, Communism began to draw many of these spirits into its tent. (Fascism and Nazism briefly corralled the remainder.) Mr. Hart argued that when Communism collapsed in blood and failure, Western man was not going to settle in for a long period of contentment. All the old impulses would stir again.
So it proved. The environmentalist fringe became more radical, more Luddite. Anti-globalist demonstrators attacked Starbucks coffee shops worldwide. The conservative movement, released from the discipline of anti-Communism, spun off a rejectionist Buchananite fringe. Sept. 11 provided two new rallying points (Islamist theocracy and Baathist dictatorship) and two new villains (George Bush and the Jews). But the real target of all the protesting is modern life; the real motive is self-hatred; the real ally is anyone in the role of the Other who is alienated enough to be obnoxious and bold enough to be violent.
Where do we go from here? North Korea is being sent a salutary message in the efficacy of pinpoint bombing. May they take the hint. Iran will try to send us a message by encouraging anti-coalition terrorism in liberated Iraq. We should be ready for it. Turkey needs to be sent a message that prewar dithering will not be rewarded with the Mosul oil fields. The Kurds have stuck up for us; we will stick up for them.
If (when?) suicide bombers come here, we need to look south and remember that they have already called. They’ve done their worst; we’ll do our best. We shouldn’t be any less brave than the Marines or the FDNY.