By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
Wednesday 22 October 2003
On the eve of our invasion of Iraq, I went to ancient Troy in Turkey. It's a haunting spot, quiet and deserted, though if you scrunch up your eyes you may still catch a glimpse of Helen on the walls. Those walls include a gate that shows signs of having been widened or so my guide claimed, probably fancifully as if to accommodate a giant wooden horse.
At the time, I wrote about the lessons of the Trojan War for Iraq, but now I find my mind wandering back to Troy again. Homer seems even more relevant today: In "The Iliad," he describes how the Greeks are sapped by a prolonged, dreary, unnecessary conflict that does not go nearly as well as it was supposed to, partly because their leader antagonizes his allies. And in "The Odyssey," we have a king who inherited his throne and whose arrogance and impulsiveness cost the lives of his soldiers.
"The Iliad" is the greatest war story ever told, but it's not fundamentally about war after all, it never mentions the Trojan horse and covers only a few weeks in a war that lasted 10 years. No, "The Iliad" is ultimately not about war but rather about how great men confront tragedy, learn moderation and become wise.
In case "The Iliad" isn't lying around the Oval Office, let me recap for our warriors in Washington. Achilles is both the mightiest warrior and a petulant, self-righteous, arrogant figure. A unilateralist, he refuses to consult with allies; he dismisses intelligence about his own vulnerability; he never reads the newspapers.
So the Greeks are nearly defeated, and while Achilles sulks in his tent, his dearest friend, Patroclus, is killed. Then the impulsive Achilles careers into action and overdoes it in the other direction, desecrating Hector's body, but in the end he returns to his tent, calms down and shows a new sense of his own limits, a new compassion, a new moderation and a new wisdom.
That is a constant theme in the classics: ancient heroes like Achilles and Odysseus do not avoid mistakes, but they learn from them. Through their errors, they come to understand moral nuance as well as moral clarity, and to appreciate moderation. Indeed, the subtitle for "The Iliad" could be "Achilles Grows Up."
Unfortunately, until recently this administration hasn't shown much signs of growing. Yet over the last few weeks, there have been a few hints of a rosy-fingered dawn, signs that President Bush may be learning from his mistakes and moderating his impulsiveness. I'm hoping that's the case, and it's reassuring to remember what happened in the last electoral cycle: Mr. Bush turned his campaign upside-down after his loss to John McCain in New Hampshire in 2000.
It helps that Mr. Bush has made plenty of mistakes to learn from. Just look around the globe:
Afghanistan was a brilliantly executed war, but the peace was flubbed because of a failure to provide security outside Kabul. Iraq was a well-planned war and an unplanned peace. A refusal to negotiate with North Korea led it to ramp up its nuclear production lines. And haughtiness (the same problem Achilles had) has nurtured more anti-Americanism than Al Qaeda ever did.
The clearest sign of a new willingness to learn from error is Mr. Bush's pirouette on North Korea. Mr. Bush has now abandoned his position that we will not negotiate with North Korea until it gives up its nuclear programs. While it may be too late to reach a deal, he is taking the first steps toward constructive diplomacy by discussing a security guarantee for North Korea.
Then we have the White House's seizing control over Iraq policy from the Pentagon ideologues. That's potentially a very important shift because it empowers pragmatists like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, who, unlike the civilian leaders at the Pentagon, don't filter all information through ideological sieves.
To pursue the classical parallel, Don Rumsfeld can be compared to Ajax, the Greek warrior who had great force projection but was so deluded that he laid waste to what he perceived to be his enemies and turned out to be a herd of cattle. (But a prominent classics scholar called the comparison daft, noting that Ajax "has such nobility of spirit.")
Homer's most powerful lessons include the need to restrain hubris, to cooperate with allies, to engage the real world rather than black-and-white caricatures. If Achilles and Odysseus can learn those lessons, maybe there's hope for Mr. Rumsfeld or even the mighty Mr. Bush.
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