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 as Saddam surely is, the United States may not, in the absence of an immediate and overt hostile act or urgent humanitarian crisis, unilaterally depose a sovereign ruler by force as if he were a mere Latin American Marxist. For all its attempts to implicate Iraq in the attack on the World Trade Center and to conflate Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction with “weapons of mass terror,” as Paul Wolfowitz has disingenuously called them, there is no credible evidence that Iraq has so far shared its weapons with terrorists, though one should not be surprised if, in response to the United States attack, such collusion occurs.
These and other distortions recall the Gulf of Tonkin fraud and have intensified widespread distrust of America, with the dismaying result that the contemptible Saddam appears to much of the world as the victim and America the aggressor in the present case. Robert Badinter, the former French minister of justice, has, for example, suggested not implausibly that with Saudi Arabia at risk of falling into the hands of extremists the United States covets Iraq as an alternative, oil-rich strategic Middle Eastern base.1 This possible goal of American policy would explain the strong preference on the part of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld that Iraqis, presumably acceptable to the United States, govern postwar Iraq and not the UN administration favored by Tony Blair and Colin Powell.
Meanwhile, the opportunity has been lost for the United States to join with its allies in conceiving solutions short of war to disarm Saddam: for example, a greatly expanded permanent inspectorate numbering not only in the hundreds but conceivably in the thousands, in effect a specialized army of occupation, imposed by a unanimous Security Council and backed by the threat of multilateral force, which would paralyze Iraq’s supposed weapons program and Saddam himself, and perhaps become the model by which the Security Council might restrain future rogue states, especially those with proven nuclear programs. But the impatient contempt with which the White House has disregarded the inspectors suggests that the search for weapons may have been only a pretext for regime change. For the White House in its imperial mode to have let the inspectors continue would be as if Ahab had wanted not to kill Moby-Dick but merely to tranquilize him and donate him to an aquarium.
“What a sad species of animal we belong to,” Albert Einstein famously said when war broke out in 1914, as if war-making were an evolutionary defect unique to humanity and embedded in our genes, the hereditary alcoholism of a brilliant species helplessly courting extinction, its sickness interspersed with periods of revulsion and regret. Then as now the war was supposed to be short and easy. “But, dearest doctor, what can you be thinking?” a colonel named Weitz replied when Walther Rathenau, the great German industrialist, warned of supply problems. “In four weeks we shall be in Paris.”2 Instead the iron law of unintended consequences produced what George Kennan called the “seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century,” a catastrophe that resounds to this day from the victors’ slapdash rearrangement of the Ottoman Middle East.
History does not repeat itself, but human nature is constant. “A cabal of conservative politicians,” the historian Amos Elon has written, “was bent on [war] to…extend German power in Europe and overseas…. The conservative schemers expected a quick victory, as in 1870. Intoxicated by his own rhetoric, the kaiser,” who had Napoleonic ambitions to extend German hegemony over the entire continent as well as to Africa and Asia, “assured the soldiers that they would be home ‘before the leaves fall from the trees.'”3 Einstein, who was living in Berlin at the time, was “aghast at the headlong plunge toward war and the widespread readiness of leading intellectuals to welcome it,” as the armies, “blinded by slogans and lies,” went off willingly to the trenches.
“The Jews,” Elon writes, “should have known better” than to trust German leaders who had only recently and grudgingly granted them approximately full citizenship, but “in a series of memoranda to the German high command, the veteran Zionist leader Max Bodenheimer proclaimed Germany’s imperial aims consonant with Jewish interests…. Jewish intellectuals,” Elon continues,
for once, were as conformist as others. It was perhaps their worst hour since the unification of Germany in 1870…. For [Martin] Buber the war was a “sacred spring” [which] would finally unite Germans and Jews in a joint “world historical mission”: to civilize the Near East.
Victor Klemperer, the great diarist of the Holocaust, saved from the gas chamber twenty-eight years later only by his marriage to an “Aryan,” went further: “We, we Germans are better than other nations. Freer in thought, purer in feeling, juster in action. We, we Germans, are a truly chosen people.” Freud, who had at first welcomed the war, as did Thomas Mann and Max Weber among many others, but soon angrily despaired of it, was disgusted by such talk:
some primal force must be at work…a hatred of life or a lack of talent for living. Never has an event destroyed so much that was precious in the common property of mankind, confused so many of the most lucid minds, so thoroughly debased the elevated.
The war, wrote Karl Kraus, Freud’s fellow Viennese,
was a disastrous failure of the imagination and an almost deliberate refusal to envisage the inevitable consequences of words and acts…made possible above all by the corruption of language in politics and by some of the major newspapers.
But on the whole the war was welcomed as wars usually are for the adrenaline they release and the apparent clarity of purpose with which they muffle the complexities of everyday life. “My darling One & beautiful,” Winston Churchill wrote to his wife on July 28, 1914, “Everything tends towards catastrophe, & collapse. I am interested, geared-up & happy.” Adolf Hitler later recalled that “I sank to my knees and thanked heaven from an overflowing heart that it had granted me the good fortune to be alive at such a time.”4
“It’s a matter of public record,” Paul Krugman has written in The New York Times,
that this war with Iraq is largely the brainchild of a group of neo-conservative intellectuals, who view it as a pilot project. In August a British official close to the Bush administration told Newsweek, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” In February 2003, according to Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper, Under Secretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials that after defeating Iraq the United States would “deal with” Iran, Syria and North Korea.
But evil is endemic in Bush’s theology and will not be purged this side of Armageddon. In the summer of 1914 even the war’s most severe critics could not have foreseen the extent of the catastrophe to come. Today in a chastened and wiser world such blindness is unforgivable, the more so given the nearly universal opposition abroad to Bush’s war. Should the United States nevertheless persist in the crusade that Mr. Bolton’s remarks foreshadow, the unforeseeable consequences can be imagined only with horror.
May 1, 2003
See “La vraie raison de la guerre qui s’annonce: Remplacer l’Arabie,” Le Nouvel Observateur, February 19, 2003. ↩
Eight years later, as foreign minister in the Weimar government, Rathenau, a Jew, would be assassinated by right-wing thugs. ↩
The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany: 1743–1933 (Metropolitan, 2002), p. 298. ↩
Quoted by Hew Strachan, The First World War, Volume 1: To Arms (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 103, 104. ↩