Under Currents: Saddam Offers Dubya a Chance to Eclipse Poppy

Friday December 26, 2003

Early one morning last week I woke up to a driving rainstorm outside. The television had been left on for some reason. I lay and watched the public humiliation of an old man, officials probing his hair for lice. This was the monster who menaced the world? I wondered how many others heard echoes of the line from Lawrence of Arabia (“Now we see him without his armor and magic cloaks, bereft of friends and sword, reduced here to his bare and tawdry essence for all eyes to view: a little man, greedy, barbarous, and cruel”), applied, in that case, to the Arab people as a whole. And therein lies the danger in our treatment of the captive, Saddam Hussein. 

Tolstoy believed that time and great events drove great men, rather than the opposite. Bonaparte did not invade Russia so much as he was led there, impelled by the pressure of all the world swirling around him. Perhaps. But within these irresistible currents, we can sometimes observe the path the swimmer takes. And so we watch the journey of George W. Bush, fascinated, as he tows the world we know along behind him. To our doom, perhaps. 

There has always been something of the woebegone and the ne’er-do-well surrounding little George, despite the protestations of our Republican friends (Look! they crow, at how he displayed leadership this morning, as if that were not the opening requirement of the presidency, but rather its ultimate goal). Little George. The frat-boy son, screw-up son, the spigot of a beer keg clutched in one hand, a fistful of failed accomplishments in another. Always in need of a bailout. Not like Jeb. The good son. The steady son. The son of sons. The one being groomed for president. 

Oh, how it must have galled little George, as they crowed and cooed over his younger brother. Galled him, too, as he measured the journey of his own life against the towering accomplishments of his father. 

Papa George, after all, was a member of that Greatest American Generation, that odd title pasted on by news anchor Tom Brokaw (not to denigrate the conquerors of Tokyo and Berlin, but it would be difficult to place them in stature above those who fought the Civil War, or who took up arms—with little hope of a future short of the hangman’s noose—against the redcoat British; but that’s an argument for another day). For little George, weaned in the shadow of his war hero father, then watching him stand as Barbarossa, the great Christian commander, the Holy Roman Emperor, rallying the world around him, banners and pennants flying, leading the nations on the last Crusade, scattering the Saracens in his path, burning their villages, hearing the lamentations of their women, driving a stake into the wicked heart of their infidel capital. 

What can a son do, after all, to gain the respect of such a towering figure of a father? Surpass him in his one failed accomplishment. And one thing that the Greatest Generation failed to do, and the Gulf War, likewise, was to come home with the monster, in tow, dragging him through the dust behind the war chariot for the cheering crowds to rain down refuse and spit upon. 

I am fairly certain that for the soldiers entering 1945 Berlin—Russian and American alike—it did not much matter that Adolph Hitler blew his brains out in his bunker, one step ahead of capture. The world, I am sure, breathed a sigh of relief that Hitler was gone, and a threat no more. The generals of ‘91 drove to the outskirts of Baghdad and then called a halt to their troops, reasoning, we are told, that a burning Iraq, lawless, leaderless, and in chaos, was more of a threat to American security than a weakened Hussein. 

But to little George—who passed, one may remember, the chance to go a-soldiering with the men of his own generation—these lessons may not have mattered. To sit at the dinner gathering opposite his father—in a chair as tall and ornate—may be all that was important. And so once more to Baghdad. And the streets of Tikrit. And the spider hole. 

At the end—at the crucial moment—Sadaam Hussein failed of nerve. We are told that he sought the victory of history, that he foresaw, in his own firestorm of demise, a bright, burning signal on a sandy hill, a rally signal for his people, a guide and a symbol for all the ages. Instead, he surrendered without a shot. Head hung, he shambled into our living rooms in shame and disgrace. How could we have feared him, so? This little man. This bent and broken man. Look how we can humiliate him, and he has not even the nerve to raise his eyes. 

But in the public humiliation of Sadaam Hussein there is great peril for the future. It can be too easily construed—by each side, in its own way—as the humiliation of an entire people. A multitude came in from dusty, sand-strewn streets to watch the spectacle of disgrace. Dirty Arab! Fakir! And in those thousand eyes, dark eyes, desert eyes, what will we see reflected back? Resignation? Defeat and growing admiration for their conquerors? Or the smoldering, unbanked fires of redemption’s need? A little man. Therefore, a little people. How must they rise, to reclaim their place in the sun? 

And therein, my friends, lies the danger.