One day, this Iraq War will be thought of as the Intellectuals' War. That is, it was a war conceived of by people who possessed more books than common sense, let alone actual military experience.
Disregarding prudence, precedent and honesty, they went off - or, more precisely, sent others off - tilting at windmills in Iraq, chasing after illusions of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and false hope about Iraqi enthusiasm for Americanism, and hoping that reality would somehow catch up with their theory. The problem, of course, is that wars are more about bloodletting than book learning.
Tilting at windmills is what Don Quixote did. When I left for Iraq in June, I took along a copy of 'The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote,' the comic/epic/tragic novel by Miguel de Cervantes. I had never read the book, but I knew of critic Lionel Trilling's recommendation: 'All prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote.' And since much of what was said about Iraq was so obviously fiction, I figured that the work would be an enlightening travel companion.
When I got to Cervantes' description of his title character, I knew I was on to something: 'He so immersed himself in those romances that he spent whole days and nights over his books; and thus with little sleeping and much reading, his brains dried up to such a degree that he lost the use of his reason.'
Quixote's obsession was chivalry - that is, the medieval knightly code of etiquette and martial arts that supposedly prepared a man for a quest or a crusade. The fact that not much of it had any basis in reality was no deterrent to an active fantasy life. So when Quixote rode off, accompanied by his sidekick, Sancho Panza, he did far more harm than good.
And so it is with the book-fed brainiacs who helped talk George W. Bush into the Iraq War. These people are commonly known as neoconservatives, or 'neocons' for short, but they are anything but conservative.
After the Cold War ended, they had a vision of America's exerting 'benevolent global hegemony,' in the words of William Kristol and Robert Kagan. To be sure, the United States by then was the world's only superpower, but bragging about it, exulting in it, was the height of backlash-provoking hubris. It was a radical, not a conservative, stance.
Yet the neocons, armored in academic degrees - well-versed, particularly, in the literature of such past master-propagandists as Leon Trotsky and Leo Strauss - moved easily from their ivory towers to the hearing rooms of Washington. Fired by a sense of mission, driven to spew out as many words as they had taken in, they proved their skills at pamphlet-publishing, sound-biting and bureaucracy-building.
In the 1990s, they expanded or created power bases in existing think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, or created new operations altogether, such as The Weekly Standard magazine and the Project for a New American Century. Seizing the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan - neither of whom were around to speak for themselves - they developed their own militant neocon lexicon, a language of American assertion, even aggression, toward China, Russia and, of course, Iraq and much of the Muslim world.
'National greatness,' 'spreading democracy' and, most portentously, 'regime change,' were heard from a thousand Beltway tongues. It all sounded good. But all belligerent talk sounds stirring in the abstract, in the web of words that cloaks the realities of warfare.
After 9/11, the neocons went into overdrive. America had been attacked from al-Qaida in Afghanistan, but the intellectuals around President Bush had their own plan for war. According to Bob Woodward's book, 'Bush at War,' on Sept. 15, 2001, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz pressed the case to the commander in chief for an immediate attack on . . . Iraq. At that time, Wolfowitz asserted that there was just a '10 to 50 percent chance' that Iraq was involved in the terrorist attacks. But no matter, Iraq, not Afghanistan, was central to the neocon vision of 'liberating' the Mideast. Bush wisely chose to move against the Afghan attackers, but apparently, at about the same time, the decision was made to move against Iraq, too.
Meanwhile, neocon word-creations, such as 'moral clarity,' 'axis of evil' and 'Bush Doctrine,' spread far and wide. These word-weavings were repeated over and over again, in magazines, books and cable news shows. Bush became Winston Churchill, Saddam Hussein became Hitler, the Arabs were ripe for Americanization, and the U.S. military became the sword not only of vengeance, but also of do-gooding and nation-building.
But, in a world that's mostly gray, 'moral clarity' becomes a synonym for tunnel vision. To see something complicated as simple requires that the seer leave out critical details. And thus amid all the intellectual intoxication, a lionized, neocon-ized Bush didn't worry about such variables as the world reaction to America's plan, not to mention the Iraqi reaction.
Cervantes would have seen it coming. The tales of chivalric righteousness that Quixote read 'took full possession' of his brain, filling the knight-errant with the belief that 'the world needed his immediate presence.' And so the Man from La Mancha went off to his adventures, plunging into gratuitous battles with the innocent and the harmless - innkeepers, friars, puppeteers, shepherds and their sheep, and, most famously, windmills.
As an aside, one might marvel at Cervantes' gift for pithy phrasing, as well as for memorable images. Phrases such as 'every dog has his day,' 'wild goose chase,' 'a stone's throw' and 'birds of a feather flock together' pop off the page, like old pals. Yet these phrases linger in the mind because they speak to the human condition. And so when Cervantes indicts Quixote for his willfully monkish removal from practical reality, that's a lesson for all of us, down to this day.
As the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has observed, Quixote had a burning faith. What kind of faith? Not really in God; he is a minor part of Quixote's warped world view. Rather, it is a faith in 'universals,' derived from his books. 'The faith comes from reading,' Fuentes concludes about Quixote, 'and his reading is a madness.'
In their Quixotic madness for war, the Bush people exaggerated, and maybe even fabricated, their 'evidence.' In their minds, it was all part of the same game. Words had gotten them into positions of power, and now more words, even fictional words, would get them into war.
But there was one saving grace about Quixote: At least he was willing to put his lance where his mouth was; he was willing to live out his thirst for glory. By contrast, few in the Bush Brigade have actually worn their country's uniform. Their service, even in the Pentagon, consists of sitting in carpeted corner offices. And so it was easy for them to grind out policy, or propaganda, or both, untroubled by firsthand combat experience.
And this is where the Iraq mission passes, in my mind, into the realm of outrage. In my trip there, I met lots of uniformed Americans who had not written any neocon propaganda, but who had obviously read or heard a lot of it. They believed they were there to help the Iraqi people, and they were determined to do their best. To believe that, they had to look past the fact that the United States had to bomb and shoot its way in. But even after 'peace' was established, the well-meaning Americans were woefully unprepared for the new mission at hand.
Perhaps because the civilian war-planners believed their own propaganda about a 'cakewalk,' or perhaps because they just didn't care about what happened after they got their war, the Americans actually on the hot desert ground had little in the way ofhelping tools. First and most obviously, they didn't have non-lethal weapons for crowd control, and so many confrontations became deadly incidents, starting up a cycle of violence that spirals further every day.
Second, few of them had been taught the language of the people they were supposedly going to be working with; I did not meet a single American who knew more than a few words of Arabic. Finally, the Pentagon was heavy on tanks for intimidation, but light on techniques for winning hearts and minds, such as immediate plans for rebuilding infrastructure.
Thus the ultimate irony: The war that was schemed and dreamed by eggheads turned out to be just another cracked example of poor planning. The Pentagon may have omnipotence in war, but it lacks common sense in peace.
And so there will be a reckoning, just as there was for Quixote. After 1,000 pages of adventures, Quixote takes sick with a fever. But as his temperature rises, his mind finally clears. 'I have acted as a madman,' he laments. And he realizes that his nuttiness was brought on by 'reading such absurdities.' Now, at last, on his death bed, he has come to 'abominate and abhor' the books he wasted his life reading.
Will the neocons ever have such a moment of clarity? Maybe some will. But it's just as likely that in a few years, when the Bush Brigade is out of power, returned to their fellowships and board chairs, they'll be writing memoirs and giving speeches. They'll eschew any responsibility for what went wrong in Iraq, even as they settle scores with old interoffice foes. And, of course, they'll be touting some new 'bold plan' for using other people's children as pawns in some new global gambit.
The honest memoirs will probably come from those who went to Iraq. Indeed, Cervantes himself was a combat veteran; he lost the use of his left hand at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. By the time he published the first volume of Don Quixote in 1605, his Spain had squandered its wealth, its military edge and its great-power status in vainglorious wars across the European continent. So he knew full well just how devastating delusion could be.
My hope is that somewhere in Iraq today, an American in uniform is absorbing it all. And so maybe a novel will be written about men and women on a mission, confident in the righteousness of their cause, doing their best, but nonetheless blundering about. That book will be a comedy, in places, but mostly, it will be a tragedy, because there's nothing sadder than sincerity and earnestness misled and betrayed.
Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.
Also, it's too bad that U.S. Army chaplains (peace be upon them) don't appear very interested in learning about the Quran. Surely, Quran 4:92 would prescribe an excellent outlet for the sort of grief experienced by warriors over horrors of war.
On the other hand, I don't care for insulting language about specific persons - whether about George W. Bush or Saddam Hussein (peace be upon them). I feel that insulting language is a form of profanity and is best avoided - insha'Allah.