The Saturday before the current hostilities started I went to a peace rally. A gathering of senior citizens sang “Give Peace a Chance” and a gaggle of children, their flaxen hair aglow in Chicago’s unseasonably sunny March, held a cardboard sign that read: “HONK FOR PEACE.” A few of the passing motorists honked and flashed victory signs. A man on a motorcycle flipped us off and shouted obscenities. A well dressed suburban mom stopped to lecture the demonstrators through the window of her shining SUV. A middle aged, long haired man yelled from his rusting Ford Taurus: “Read the Bible!” But the majority drove by in stony silence imperceptibly shaking their heads in dismay.
We were there to convince ourselves that we did something to prevent a war that had for months appeared as ineluctable as gravity. I wondered on that day and now, after a fortnight, why the majority of Americans support the war on Iraq. As a naturalized American citizen, I know that I will be called upon by bewildered non-Americans to explain why so many of us wanted this war. Here is my dress rehearsal for answering that question.
The issue is to a large extent a metaphysical one. A bereaved Iraqi mother held her slain daughter in the midst of the ruins of a bombed out Baghdad market and wailed: “Why?” Her answer could not be found in a coroner’s report. Nor can our question be fully resolved by sober appraisals of the American foreign policy and economic interests. This war was the result of Achillean rage from below and quixotic planning from above. I do not invoke Achilles and Don Quixote in jest; the two mythic heroes are the archetypes of our current American psyche.
Deep inside the American collective mind smolders the volcano of rage that erupted on September 11th, 2001. Soon after the hellish Tuesday the war on Afghanistan was declared and as Bin Laden was closely tied to the Taliban the world political and public opinion endorsed the undertaking. But there was no denouement, no catharsis at the end of the Afghan campaign as Bin Laden was allowed to slip to safety from the siege of Tora Bora. The rage was not fully sated and had nowhere to go.
The neo conservative elites in the White House who had for more than a decade drawn the blue prints of America’s global hegemony turned their sails to the winds of American rage. By a slight of hand that would confound Houdini, they switched the centerpiece of the terrorism campaign. The aim was no longer catching the terrorists or preventing terrorism but going after a triumvirate of countries carefully selected from the list of the anti-proliferation agenda.
While the focus changed to the suspected manufacturers of weapons of mass destruction the subtle and largely diplomatic methods of fighting proliferation were abandoned. Suddenly Iraq, Iran and North Korea that had nothing whatever to do with the events of 9/11 were unveiled as axis of evil and the new targets of American Furies. Once the neo-cons’ desire for empire had locked the radar of American anger on Iraq it was only a matter of time until the bombs were away on the first foothold of the Project for the New American Century.
A recent poll (April 5th) of Los Angeles Times is quite revealing: four fifth of Americans who support the war do not care if weapons of mass destruction (the ostensible reason the war was waged) are never found in Iraq. Happy as the oil tycoons and reconstruction contractors might have been at the outcome, this war was not the result of businessmen scheming for profits. It was driven by the will to fight a war: Achilles’ and Don Quixote’s.
Achilles’ epic rage inaugurates the Western civilization. Overcome by anger at his king, Achilles sat out the war in Troy until the Greeks were at the verge of defeat and his friend, Patroclus was dead. The fall of Patroclus unleashed Achilles’ second wave of rage. Iliad portrays his revenge, the brutal carnage of Trojans as impious and gratuitous. He was impervious to the council of his friends and pleadings of his hapless victims: “Come friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so? Even Patroclus died, a far better man than you.”
Homer would have advised Americans to eschew the ways of Achilles and emulate instead the master tactician, the wise Odysseus who always managed his anger as he journeyed home.
To imply that there is something of Don Quixote in the simple moral imagination, belabored seriousness and ultimate simplicity of President Bush is not to mock him. It is not an accident, or a flaw in the American electoral system, as an Oxford professor has recently suggested, that elevated people like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the land’s highest office.
America’s best playwright Tennessee Williams believed that the gaunt hero embodies a romantic gesture that is of the essence of America. “It was discovered by the eternal Don Quixote in human flux. Then, of course, the businessman took over and Don Quixote was in exile at home: at least he became one when the frontiers had been exhausted. But exile does not extinguish his lambent spirit. His castles are immaterial and his ways are endless and you do not have to look into many American eyes to suddenly meet somewhere the beautiful grave lunacy of his gaze … Our hope lies in the fact that our public instinctively loves him and that he makes an excellent politician. Our danger lies in the fact that he becomes impatient. But who can doubt, meeting him, returning the impulsive vigor of his handshake and meeting the lunatic honesty of his gaze, that he is the one, the man, the finally elected?”
There is something infinitely human in Don Quixote’s shocking imperviousness to the mundane realities of the world as he suits up for imaginary battle. There is something tragic, pitiful and awesome in the righteous Achilles as he suits up for real battle. But when the two lead the cavalry charge of the most powerful nation on earth, the world is justified to look on in shock and awe and disbelief.
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