"Or is the world itself Ahab, suddenly gone mad?"

Posted on

As I begin to write this, in the late afternoon, the first skirmishing seems already to have taken place somewhere in Basra harbor. Bombs are reportedly being loaded onto American B-52s in Britain only hours away from Baghdad and rumors of mass defections in the Iraqi military are floating around the media and the internet. It could, of course, be so much disinformation, but all I can say is, if I were in the Iraqi army in a thoroughly hopeless struggle for a tyrant like Saddam Hussein, I’d defect in about thirty seconds.

Excuse my cynicism, but even if it looked like Saddam’s whole Republican Guard in Baghdad were about to defect, I suspect that this administration’s “shock and awe” display in Baghdad, and assumedly the rest of the country, would still proceed as planned. Though the expected onslaught of the first forty-eight hours has been presented as an attempt to shake the Iraqi regime to its roots and shock it into collapse, I think we need to imagine that the most essential urge of the Bush administration is not just — or even so much — to shock Saddam and his men, but to shock and awe the world: Iran, Syria, North Korea, of course, but also Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, South Korea, Russia, China. Iraq is to be an instant laboratory for the globe’s dominant military power to show off its wares.

At the moment, CNN is displaying a “countdown” clock, ticking away toward zero hour, toward — as everyone labels their coverage these days — the “showdown in Iraq” (a nice cowboy image for this administration). In the meantime, the New York Times reports, American journalists are streaming out of Baghdad. By the time “shock and awe” hits, it seems the major networks will have next to no one left there to cover the events. (So much, as a friend wrote me, for the old Edward R. Murrow tradition of journalism.) At least, solicitous media managers in the U.S. knows what’s only otherwise whispered in the press here — being an anything — civilian, soldier, foreigner — in Baghdad starting very soon is likely to prove exceedingly dangerous for your health. Think of this as American journalisms commentary on just how precise our precision weapons are likely to be. Left to report will be the “embeds” in units at or near the “front,” and we’ve already seen what their reportage has been like. Once again, it looks like the Pentagon will be triumphant in its latest media wars.

Danny Schechter of has just written a piece for Global Vision, Media coverage goes wall-to-wall, which says in part:

“If you watch American television, it feels like New Year’s eve with clocks counting down the minutes before the big ball drops in Times Square. Only this time, the big ball is likely to be a big bomb and the target is Baghdad, but the anticipation, even excitement is the same. That is especially so at the news networks that are planning to share footage from Baghdad and push their top shows onto cable outlets to clear time for wall-to-wall coverage

“Reporters have been warned to leave the Iraqi capital, guaranteeing
there will be fewer eyes on the shock and awe to come. The BBC’s
veteran war reporter Katie Aidie says she has been told that
journalists operating on their own, the so-called ‘unilaterals,’ are
being warned that they will be targeted by the invading army.

“And what about Arab news outlets with their own sources? They will be
targeted, says media war expert and Harper’s Publisher John
Macarthur. He told Editor and Publisher that he thinks Al-Jazeera,
whose office was ‘accidentally’ bombed in Kabul, Afghanistan, may
face similar treatment. MacArthur predicts they will be ‘knocked out
in the first 48 hours, like what happened in Kabul.’

“Reporters have been warned to leave the Iraqi capital, guaranteeing
there will be fewer eyes on the shock and awe to come. The BBC’s
veteran war reporter Katie Aidie says she has been told that
journalists operating on their own, the so-called ‘unilaterals,’ are
being warned that they will be targeted by the invading army.

“And what about Arab news outlets with their own sources? They will be
targeted, says media war expert and Harper’s Publisher John
Macarthur. He told Editor and Publisher that he thinks Al-Jazeera,
whose office was ‘accidentally’ bombed in Kabul, Afghanistan, may
face similar treatment. MacArthur predicts they will be ‘knocked out
in the first 48 hours, like what happened in Kabul.’

“Macarthur told Barbara Bedway: ‘The Pentagon is expecting a kind of
Panama-style war, over in three days. Nobody has time to see or ask
any questions. I think if embedded reporters see anything important
— or bloody — the Pentagon will interfere. Same result, different
tactic: The truth gets distorted.'”

So, at the edge of this war, or slaughter, or surrender, or last stand, or conquest, or occupation, or subjugation or whatever may happen in the Imperial Moment to come, I offer here three most unwarlike pieces. Robert Jensen at ZNET writes sanely and with feeling about why it’s time for those of us in the antiwar movement to admit to being afraid. Then, sadly, I offer two versions of pieces written for the last Gulf War. The linguist George Lakoff wrote a piece way back then on metaphors and the war, on the ways in which the dominant metaphors of a governmental/media moment drive our thinking. Now, almost thirteen years later, he reprises it in a piece that appeared on the Alternet website but that I found on the always interesting

Then, to end this terrible day, I offer the saddest story of all –the full text of a piece Ariel Dorfman, most recently author of Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of Augusto Pinochet, wrote on the eve of Gulf War I (and that he’s kindly given me permission to reuse). It’s a remarkable reverie about two enemy soldiers in the desert and a Lakoff-ian metaphor – having to do with a captain and a whale – that needs to be sorted out before it can drive us anywhere.

What makes Dorfman’s piece so heartrending to read today is that so many years later nothing in it needs be changed — except perhaps for his final suggestion, prescient for his moment, that both Saddam and George Bush, the Father, would emerge unscathed from the war. This time, perhaps, only one of them will emerge momentarily unscathed. What a world we live in when a piece may do such double duty with – possibly — only a single line changed. That alone should be enough to make us all mourn. Tom

Confronting our fears so we can confront the empire
By Robert Jensen

I am finally ready to admit what for months I have kept hidden: I am

I am more scared than I have ever been in my adult life. For weeks now I
have felt a new kind of free-floating terror at what has been unfolding,
as the Bush administration has made it clear that nothing would derail
its mad rush to war.

Until now, I have not spoken of it. In organizing meetings or talks to
community groups or rally speeches, I held back. The task was to build
the antiwar movement, and I worried that talking too much about my fear
might undermine that. People need to feel empowered, hopeful, I told
myself; we should be talking about the potential of the movement.

Robert Jensen is a founding member of the Nowar Collective
(, a journalism professor at the University of
Texas at Austin, and author of “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas
from the Margins to the Mainstream.” He can be reached at
[email protected].

To read more Jensen click here

Metaphor and War, Again
By George Lakoff
March 18, 2003

Metaphors can kill.

That’s how I began a piece on the first Gulf War back in 1990, just before the war began. Many of those metaphorical ideas are back, but within a very different and more dangerous context. Since Gulf War II is due to start any day, perhaps even tomorrow, it might be useful to take a look before the action begins at the metaphorical ideas being used to justify Gulf War II.

One of the most central metaphors in our foreign policy is that A Nation Is A Person. It is used hundreds of times a day, every time the nation of Iraq is conceptualized in terms of a single person, Saddam Hussein. The war, we are told, is not being waged against the Iraqi people, but only against this one person.

George Lakoff is the author of “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think,” University of Chicago Press, Second edition, 2002. He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute.

To read more Lakoff click here

Hymn for the Unsung
By Ariel Dorfman
Written sometime in 1990

Somewhere in the Saudi Arabian desert, an American corporal is reading Moby
Dick. He is reading Melville’s novel, a newspaper reports, in order to
“understand what drives people toward destructive obsessions,”
concentrating above all on Ahab, “how he kept after the whale” — and
wondering if “he was like Saddam Hussein.”

How typically American, I thought from my Third World perspective, this
need to understand the enemy one is fighting — as American as his pathetic
incapacity to achieve that understanding. Saddam as Ahab might fit neatly
into the current interpretation of the Iraqi leader as a madman,
irrationally pursuing his own downfall in spite of all warnings — but the
corporal did not apparently seem interested in stopping to ask who the
whale might be in this equation or what the whale might have done to
Saddam, which parts of his body and mind had been devoured, to make him act
with such abandon.

Because if Saddam is indeed Ahab, the clues to his present behavior might
fruitfully be searched for in the past, a search that I doubt the corporal
or his fellow Americans are particularly interested in. Instant amnesia
seems to have infected the people of the United States as they devastate a
country that a few months ago hardly any of them could find on a map. It is
easier to conceive of Saddam as Satan — a personification of evil
substituting for historical explanation. No need to ask what has been done
to the Arabs — as to so many other Third World peoples — that makes them
feel so humiliated, enraged, threatened, alienated, that a tyrant such as
the Iraqi leader can manipulate those feelings to turn himself into their
representative. No need to ask why there is a power vacuum in the Middle
East that this dictator, like others who will come, thinks he can fill. No
need to remember that before this Ahab there was Mossadegh, an elected
Iranian leader who nationalized oil and was overthrown with the help of the
CIA in 1953. The autocrat who replaced him with a puppet was, of course,
the shah. When the shah was in turn swept away by Khomeini’s Islamic
Revolution, Iraq was encouraged to arm itself to the hilt in order to
contain the Iranian menace. Iraq expanded this mandate into a savage war,
with America’s blessing (and European and Soviet assistance), all
human-rights violations and gassing of Kurds winked at, all condemnations
blocked, until some years later when the U.S. ambassador would give Saddam
Hussein the go-ahead for the invasion of Kuwait.

But what if Saddam is not Ahab?

How can it be that this young man who faces death so far from his home
should be unable to catch even a glimmer of the possibility that Saddam
might be the whale and that George Bush might in fact be an Ahab whose
search for the monster in the oceans of sand and oil could end up with the
ruin, not of the monster, but of those who were bent on its extermination?

Saddam Hussein, of course, is not unique as a monster. He is as monstrous
as General Augusto Pinochet, who, having been brought to power by U.S.
intervention against an elected democratic government, victimized my own
people for seventeen years. And Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait is as
monstrious as the aggression of the United States against Nicaragua and
Panama, against Grenada and Vietnam, as monstrous as the Soviet invasions
of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. And Saddam Hussein’s lobbing of missiles
at civilians in Israel is as monstrous as the Israelis’ bombing of refugee
camps in Lebanon.

For the corporal, or the American people, to understand Saddam Hussein in
these terms, as one who has been selectively and conveniently demonized,
would necessarily mean condemning their own country’s complicity and
participation in the pervasive evils of the world today. It would mean
seeing the adventure in the Persian Gulf not as a struggle for democracy —
which the United States has eroded all over the world by propping up
friendly torturers — but as one more sad intervention in the affairs of a
region that it knows nothing about, one more step toward the militarization
of a world that should be disarming. It would mean denying America’s own
morality in a conflict that once again finds a superpower technologically
assaulting a poor Third World country, no matter how well armed it may be.
It would mean that the true connection of Iraq to Vietnam should be made:
that the war in the Gulf is being used to refight the war in Indochina with
far more lethal weapons — rewriting that American crisis and defeat,
proving how it could have been won, having at last the “good war” the
Pentagon has been seeking all these years with a singlemindedness that
would have astounded even the crew of the Pequod.

These connections, alas, are not being made. Pursuing their reflection in
the Gulf, Americans are blind to the true meanings of their actions. It is
not, however, only their own image that Americans cannot decipher in the
nightmare waters of this war.

Not far from the American corporal musing on Moby Dick there is an Iraqi

I know nothing about him, except that he breathes not many miles away and
all too soon will be as close as a bayonet thrust, and not even that
intimacy of combat will bring closeness or comprehension. It is the very
fact that he is nameless, that he has no face, that no newspaper has told
us his thoughts, that we have no way of knowing what Moby Dick, what
Melville of his own culture, he reads in the darkness, what blindness of
his own he is submerged in, the fact that his being is a blur that we must
imagine; it is the stark fact of his very absence from our awareness that
prepares his death. How easy to kill somebody we don’t have to mourn
because we never dared to imagine him alive.

I want neither Saddam Hussein nor George Bush to win the war in the Gulf. I
wish that both of them could be defeated. But I anticipate that these two,
Ahab and the whale, the whale and Ahab, George Bush and Saddam Hussein,
will emerge unscathed, and that it will be their people who will have to
pay for this absurd conflagration. It will be the two corporals who will
pay, even if they survive, even if they are not shattered for life, they
will be the ones, along with their children, who will pay endlessly for a
war that nobody desires and that everybody seems so eager to fight.

Or is the world itself Ahab, suddenly gone mad?

Copyright Ariel Dorfman