Not many days out to sea and beyond the reach of his parsimonious owners, Captain Ahab of the Nantucket whaler Pequod called his officers and crew together on the afterdeck to announce a change of plans. Instead of filling his hold with oil and returning safely home, he will subordinate the fiscal point of the voyage to a preemptive first strike against evil, embodied, he claimed, in a particular whale of an unusual color which in a previous encounter had torn his leg away. To his obedient if puzzled crew Ahab offered a Spanish ounce of gold to the first man to spot Moby-Dick but otherwise said nothing about the economic consequences to the “others of his plan or about the possibility of disaster. Only the first mate, Starbuck, demurred: “I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance,” he said, and asked, “How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab?” But Ahab scorned him and beat his chest, which to Stubb, the second mate, “rang most vast but hollow.”
“Death to Moby-Dick,” shouts Ahab, “God hunt us all if we do not hunt Moby-Dick to his death!” while “Starbuck paled, and turned and shivered,” as he felt his accustomed world slip out from under him.
Melville’s great novel is prophetic even if the resemblance of the Pequod to George Bush’s White House is imperfect. Though Ahab’s missing leg and the destroyed Twin Towers are symbolically comparable losses, as is Dick Cheney’s lost opportunity to kill Saddam Hussein in 1991, Iraq will not crush and sink the United States as the whale crushed and sank the Pequod. Nor is George W. Bush a grizzled monomaniac whose mere glance strikes terror, but the callow instrument of neoconservative ideologues, obsessed since the end of the cold war with missionary zeal to Americanize the world, as previous empires had once hoped with no less zeal to Romanize, Christianize, Islamicize, Anglicize, Napoleonize, Germanize, and communize it.
Meanwhile Americans are sharply divided over a preemptive assault whose urgency has not been adequately explained and for which no satisfactory explanation, beyond the zealotry of its sponsors, may exist. This division will intensify as casualties mount, especially if American forces are faced with Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, to which the failure of Bush’s diplomacy and the imperial obsession of the White House clique and its journalistic allies on the right may rashly have exposed them. Belatedly the President’s entourage will discover that the world’s “only superpower” does not have the power to dominate an interconnected and increasingly hostile and dangerous world.
By hectoring and then ignoring America’s essential allies, the Bush administration has shredded the consensus which might otherwise constrain the world’s mischief-makers at a time when nuclear upstarts, perhaps the first of many, accelerate their atoms with impunity; the same alliance that has so far netted a number of Osama bin Laden’s operatives. As evil …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.