Why Americans want this war
Achilles from below and Don Quixote from above
April 7, 2003
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
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
Ahmad Sadri, is the Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See
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