Outside Commentary

Op-Ed: War Without End?

by David Remnick
The New Yorker
Issue of 2003-04-21 and 28
Posted 2003-04-14

Saddam Hussein, who came to power in 1979 declaring his intention to combine the glory of Nebuchadnezzar with the methods of Josef Stalin, no longer rules Iraq, and not to feel relief at the prospect of a world without him is to be possessed of a grudging heart. In a region well stocked with tyrants and autocrats, Saddam was singular in his ambitions, though not in the way proposed by his cult of personality. His record of murder, torture, aggression, intimidation, and subjugation is inscribed in the documentary reports of Human Rights Watch and in the souls of the traumatized ex-subjects who have survived to hammer at his fallen monuments. And yet it would also require a constricted conscience to declare the Anglo-American invasion finished business while so much of the world remains alarmed or enraged at the level of its presumption�and while so many dead go uncounted. It is hard to put a name to what has happened (to what is happening still), not least because the Bush Administration�s intentions, both within Iraq and beyond it, are still a question of deepest concern.

Historical analogy has been a crude instrument in the service of moral and political certainty. For a while, we did without history. We were at the end of history, our circumstance novel beyond compare. Modernity was triumphant, and it would bring democracy everywhere and a Dow without limit. But an attack on an iconic center of modernity on September 11, 2001, and then a war in an ancient place, along the Tigris and the Euphrates, brought history back in a tidal rush. And so this has been a period of incessant historical reference. To the most unequivocal hawks, Saddam was Hitler; 2003 was 1938; Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac, and Colin Powell were the heirs of Neville Chamberlain. As the doves saw things, Bush and his Cabinet members were manipulating the facts the way Lyndon Johnson did at the Gulf of Tonkin, and were determined to invade and raze a foreign country in the pursuit of a new kind of domino theory. The invasion of Iraq, to its fiercest opponents, was sure to be the Athenians� vainglorious assault on Sicily as described in �The Peloponnesian War,� the horror of 1914 depicted in �The Guns of August,� the na�ve folly of �The Quiet American.� Where some saw the liberation of Paris, others envisioned a Mesopotamian Stalingrad.

Even now, as Baghdad falls after three weeks of startling military advance, one can go on choosing among images and reference points. The �jubilant� crowd described in detail late last week by the Associated Press encourages one kind of analogy, the photograph of a hideously wounded child in Time quite another. Americans will not write this history on their terms alone, and the way in which it is written, absorbed, and understood by us, by the Europeans, by the Islamic world, and, most of all, by the Iraqis themselves will depend largely upon what comes next. What are the Administration�s true ambitions?

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