Saturday, February 03, 2007

Under Bush’s Pillow

The New York Times
February 4, 2007

Dick Cheney as Lord Voldemort?

A reader named Melissa S. e-mailed to say that she explains Iraq policy to her 8-year-old son in terms of Harry Potter characters: “Dick Cheney is Lord Voldemort. George W. Bush is Peter Pettigrew.” Don Rumsfeld is Lucius Malfoy, while Cornelius Fudge represents administration supporters who deny that anything is wrong. And, she concludes, “Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter is Fox News.”

That was one of the 400 comments from readers offering literary or historical parallels to the Bush administration and Iraq. One of the most commonly cited was Xenophon’s ancient warning, in “Anabasis,” of how much easier it is to get into a Middle Eastern war than out.

As a reader named John H. summarized “Anabasis”: “Ten thousand Greek mercenaries march from Greece to Iran to effect regime change (unseat one emperor and establish his younger brother). They win the first few battles (cakewalk, mission accomplished) but then the younger brother is killed.”

So the invaders found themselves without an effective prime minister to hand power to, yet they were stuck deep inside enemy territory. Xenophon’s subtext is how the slog of war corrodes soldiers and allows them to do terrible things. Xenophon is particularly pained when recounting a massacre that was the Haditha of its day.

The readers who sent in comments were responding to a column I wrote last month arguing that President Bush is inadvertently a fine education president, because he breathes new life into the classics. Thucydides’ account of the failed “surge” in the Sicilian expedition 2,400 years ago is newly relevant, and “Moby Dick” is interesting reading today as a bracing warning of the dangers of an obsessive adventure that casts aside all rules. (You can submit your own favorite literary or historical parallel at

Perhaps I’m cherry-picking from the classics to support my own opposition to a “surge” in Iraq. In writing this column, I wondered what classics Mr. Bush’s supporters would cite to argue for his strategy. Shakespeare’s “Henry V”? “Hamlet”?

Yet frankly, it’s difficult to find great literature that encourages rulers to invade foreign lands, to escalate when battles go badly, to scorn critics, to be cocksure of themselves in the face of adversity. The themes of the classics tend to be the opposite.

Literature and history invariably counsel doubt and skepticism — even when you think you see Desdemona’s infidelity with your own eyes, you don’t; even when your advisers are telling you “it’s a slam-dunk,” it’s not. The classics have an overwhelmingly cautionary bias, operating as a check on any impulsive rush to war.

Perhaps that is because, as Foreign Policy argues in its most recent issue, humans have an ingrained psychological tilt to hawkishness. In many ways, the authors note, human decision-making tends to err in ways that magnify conflict and make it difficult to climb down from confrontation.

My hunch is that the classics resonate in part because they are an antidote to that human frailty; literature has generated so many warnings about hubris in part to save us from ourselves.

Eastern classics have that same purpose of trying to tame and restrain us. The central theme of Chinese philosophy is the need for moderation, and Sun Tzu’s famous “Art of War” advises generals on how to win without fighting. (Sun Tzu and Julius Caesar alike also appreciated the diplomatic benefits of treating enemy prisoners well; they would be appalled by Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.)

So Mr. Bush should resolve that for every hour he spends with Mr. Cheney, he will spend another curled up with classical authors like Sophocles. “Antigone,” for example, tells of King Creon, a good man who wants the best for his people — and yet ignores public opinion, refuses to admit error, goes double or nothing with his bets, and is slow to adapt to changing circumstance.

Creon’s son pleads with his father to be less rigid. The trees that bend survive the seasons, he notes, while those that are inflexible are blown over and destroyed.

Americans today yearn for the same kind of wise leadership that the ancient Greeks did: someone with the wisdom to adjust course, to acknowledge error, to listen to critics, to show compassion as well as strength, to discern moral nuance as well as moral clarity. Alexander the Great used to sleep with the “Iliad” under his pillow; maybe Mr. Bush should try “Antigone.”

Oh, and for Mrs. Bush? How about Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata”?

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