Theater of blood

Bush wanted his Iraq war to be a lofty Shakespearean history. He got a vicious, corpse-strewn revenge tragedy.

Topics: Iraq war,

Theater of blood

Even his critics cannot deny that George W. Bush is a master of staging. His “Mission Accomplished” landing on an aircraft carrier was worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, and his reign has consisted of one glittering patriotic masque after the next. In the words of Frank Rich, his Iraq war was “The Greatest Story Ever Sold.” But reality has overwhelmed Bush’s stagecraft, and what he once dreamed of as the majestic climax of his mighty drama, the execution of Saddam Hussein, has revealed his entire Iraq spectacle to be a grotesque theater of blood.

Bush wanted Saddam’s execution to follow classical precepts and take place offstage. In his “Poetics,” Aristotle wrote that it was preferable for the dramatist to describe a death, rather than depict it. Aristotle’s reasoning, of course, was the exact opposite of Bush’s. He wanted to enhance the audience’s feeling of pity and terror at the death of a tragic hero, while the Bush administration wanted to make sure that Saddam’s death did not turn him into such a hero. In fact, Saddam had become a bit player, his villainy swallowed up by the horror show of Iraq, but still Bush intended his execution to allow the audience to contemplate Saddam’s sins, give thanks for America’s actions in removing him, and experience a patriotic catharsis. Then Bush could return to playing his favorite role, former wastrel turned war hero Henry V, and urge us “once more unto the breach, dear friends.”

But something went wrong. Saddam’s final performance, in which he showed dignity in the face of the taunts and curses of his Shiite killers, erased memories of his humiliating capture and made him a pan-Arab hero, a symbol of resistance to the hated Americans. And the entire macabre scene revealed Bush’s war to be not a triumphant Shakespearean history but a nihilistic Jacobean revenge tragedy, a corpse-strewn tale in which blood simply begets blood.



All but the most ghoulish war supporters have condemned Saddam’s disgraceful execution, which resembled a revenge killing more than it did a dignified judicial process. It was impossible to reconcile this degrading spectacle with the Bush administration’s lofty rhetoric about justice and democracy. Saddam’s sordid end was simply one more example of Iraq’s descent into a hellish pit of vengeance and sadism. And it made a mockery of Bush’s purely theatrical plans to “surge” troops into Iraq: The fact that America’s “allies” were capable of behaving like this shows that their agenda is different from ours, and that we have no capacity to influence it militarily.

But overlooked in the disgust over the primitive, vengeful nature of Saddam’s execution is the fact that Bush’s entire Iraq war, like most wars, was ultimately an act of revenge. There is no such thing as a clean war: As Goya said in the title of one of his horrific etchings of war, “This always happens.” When you set out to kill people, you cannot control what happens afterward; as in revenge tragedy, death inspires more death. Saddam’s ugly end is no unfortunate anomaly, it is a hideous microcosm of the entire war — one started by Bush, but supported by a large percentage of the American people, who were driven by the same primitive passions that led Muqtada al-Sadr’s men to curse a man about to die. Before we throw stones at the Iraqis for their tribal vengefulness, we would do well to contemplate the degree to which we share it, and think again before we launch a vengeful war.

America has always been obsessed with revenge. The angry god who holds sinners in his hands is a national archetype going back to Jonathan Edwards. Melville’s Ahab wants to smite the White Whale out of vengeance. And the aggrieved hero who seeks vengeance continues to dominate our popular culture, from “Dirty Harry” to “Death Wish” to “Kill Bill.” “Payback is a bitch” and “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” are our watchwords, only slightly checked by “Don’t get mad, get even.”

But if revenge is a universal American obsession, its true home is on the political right. Fear, resentment and calls for revenge are closely related, and these qualities — together with a belief that “real” Americans and “authentic” emotions and beliefs have been pushed aside by phony elites — have long driven right-wing politics. The 1930s demagogue Father Coughlin, whose enormously popular broadcasts combined anti-capitalism, anti-Communism and anti-Semitism, utilized them; so did Joe McCarthy. The rise of the “Reagan Democrats,” working-class and lower-middle-class whites whose racially tinged resentment of do-gooder social programs drove them to the right, reshaped America’s entire political landscape.

Religion, too, plays a role in the rise of vengeance-based politics. Many American conservatives identify themselves as evangelical Christians, which might lead one to think they would favor the turn-the-other-cheek teachings of Jesus over the vengeful ethos of the Old Testament. But for various reasons — perhaps the most significant being that many evangelicals see themselves as fighting a rear-guard battle against a corrupt, secular culture — most have embraced an angry Christ closer to the implacable Old Testament Father than the forgiving Son.

Resentful populism continues to be one of the most powerful cultural forces in America. Demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have gotten rich by spewing resentment of “liberal elites,” “feminazis” and murderous Muslim fanatics, and offering vicarious fantasies in which these villains — or simply the entire Middle East — come to a bad end. Indeed, it cannot have escaped attention that the execrations hurled at Saddam by al-Sadr’s followers bear more than a slight resemblance to the triumphalist gloating and bloodthirsty ravings of certain right-wing war supporters.

Which is where Iraq comes in. Bush invaded Iraq in large part to take revenge for 9/11. Revenge was obviously not his only motivation: There is a murky zone in which ill-conceived but arguably rational notions of deterrence — “we must teach the Arabs a lesson they’ll never forget” — are indistinguishable from reflexive vengeance. And revenge was never officially acknowledged as a legitimate justification — such atavistic emotions never are. But the fact remains that Iraq was a counterpunch, the enraged reaction of someone who had been mugged and lashed out — but lashed out in slow motion. Indeed, the peculiarity of the Iraq war, its historical uniqueness, lies in the fact that it was simultaneously driven by the most primitive, hotblooded emotions and was almost mind-bogglingly abstract and coldblooded. It was like spanking a 5-year-old six months after he broke the cookie jar. (By comparison, the war against the Taliban was retributive and served a legitimate deterrent purpose.) This split motivation allowed the Bush administration to deflect all criticism: accuse it of being too emotional, and it soberly pointed to its strategic rationale; attack that rationale, and it waved the bloody banner of the World Trade Center.

And that bloody banner was a very effective rallying cry. Bush could never have sold the war to the American people had it not been for their post-9/11 desire for retribution.

The lead editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News on Sept. 12, 2001, summed up the visceral feeling so many Americans held after the attacks, fanned by right-wing pundits, and opposed only by reviled apostates like the late Susan Sontag: “REVENGE. Hold on to that thought. Go to bed thinking it. Wake up chanting it. Because nothing less than revenge is called for today.” Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters couldn’t have said it better themselves.

The story of how the Bush administration used that primordial rage to build a Rube Goldberg-like bridge all the way to Baghdad is an age-old tale of wartime hysteria, racism and ignorance. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, but it was part of the Arab/Muslim world, and in conditions of hysteria it becomes possible to sell people on grand clash-of-civilization theories. After 9/11, the neocons in the Bush administration insisted that the Arab/Muslim world had become an incubator of terrorism and violent religious extremism, and we needed to punish it. Traumatized and enraged by the terrorist attacks, and ignorant of Middle Eastern history and politics, Congress and most of the media went along. And most of the American people, looking for an enemy to blame, went along.

Just how potent the forces of vengeance and resentment are can be gauged by the wild popularity of right-wing figures like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly and Michael Savage. These resentful demagogues — who sounded like Conrad’s demented Kurtz, hysterically calling for Bush to take the gloves off and exterminate the brutes — gave voice to the inchoate passions of millions of Americans, who correctly perceived that the Bush administration, for all its fancy talk, was really bent on good old all-American revenge. Once unleashed, the desire to take vengeance is very hard to stop. The violent self-righteousness of war supporters like Andrew Sullivan, who accused opponents of making up a coastal Fifth Column, stemmed from their certainty that revenge was not just morally justified, but necessary. America was finally unshackled, its noble and “authentic” fury unleashed; anyone who got in the way was a combination of Neville Chamberlain and Tokyo Rose.

Revenge is a universal impulse, as old as humanity. It is enshrined in the lex talionis, the notion of “an eye for an eye” espoused by the Code of Hammurabi (written circa 1760 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia, a land that is now putting that precept to dreadful uses) and the later Mosaic Law of Judaism. It underlies the concept of retribution, which is one of the pillars of criminal justice. Similarly, just war theory accepts that punishing an uncorrected wrongdoing constitutes a just cause for war. A paradigmatic case would be Pearl Harbor: The U.S. was justified in declaring war on Japan to punish it for its unprovoked attack.

But — leaving aside the fact that we had no actual cause that would justify punishing or taking revenge on Iraq — revenge is a primitive form of justice, one that civilized societies have always struggled to sublimate into a higher form. As Francis Bacon wrote, “Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to the more ought law to weed it out.” Individual revenge undercuts the legal capacity of the state; it is only justifiable when legitimate state authority fails (hence the plotlines of a million Hollywood movies).

Which takes us back to the dramatic genre that Bush has plunged us into. Jacobean revenge tragedy (so called because it flourished during the early 17th century reign of King James, who followed Elizabeth) is a dark and disturbing literary form, spiritually gloomy, grotesquely violent and often shockingly obscene. Revenge plays, which were influenced by the dramas of the Roman playwright Seneca as well as the writings of Machiavelli, are almost invariably set in a mythical Italy where every evil flourishes, usually a ducal court ruled by a despotic monster and populated by panderers, poisoners, prostitutes and evil courtiers. Their protagonists are bitter, obsessed men bent on revenge for earlier misdeeds, who engage in complex subterfuges to kill their enemies, usually in the most painful and bizarre way possible (they often taunt their dying victims). Ghostly visitations, real or feigned madness, and various skulls and other body parts, which are sometimes used as murder weapons, are typical. (In Thomas Middleton’s “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” the protagonist, unsubtly named Vindice, kills one of his enemies by smearing a skull with poison, then tricking his lustful victim into kissing it.) In the climactic scene, the protagonist often presents a masque or a play within a play, during which he kills the villain or villains, and is usually killed himself. (Unlike Seneca’s Greek dramatic models, but like Saddam’s execution, the deaths in revenge tragedies take place very much onstage.)

Jacobean revenge tragedy reflected a disillusionment and spiritual crisis that gripped England after the reign of Elizabeth, a loss of Renaissance optimism. Always dark, the genre became increasingly nihilistic. Its protagonists, initially upright figures, become more and more unpleasant, until they are morally indistinguishable from their enemies. In one of the bleakest revenge tragedies, John Webster’s “The White Devil,” one of the main characters, Lodovico, vows vengeance before he has even been the victim of any wrongdoing. Their world becomes one of free-floating hatred. Their characters, devoid of depth, move meaninglessly about like chessmen on a vast board until they fall bloodily over.

The grand exception to the narrow, terror-filled vision of revenge tragedy is, of course, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Hamlet also grapples with revenge, but unlike all other revengers, he questions its very nature, its cosmic justification. Caught between the blood-for-blood imperative that was still alive in 16th century England, and the Christian injunction to overcome evil with good, and rising above both, Hamlet raises questions about morality, duty and existence itself that are not even dreamed of in other revenge tragedies, and that continue to inspire and unsettle us today.

It may seem a stretch to compare the political beliefs of George W. Bush and his right-wing supporters with a death-obsessed, grimly self-destroying dramatic genre that is now more than 400 years old. Certainly the parallels cannot be drawn too closely. But the comparison sheds light on Bush’s moral vision. Like a protagonist in a revenge tragedy, Bush sees himself as surrounded by evil, one-dimensional villains, whom he has sworn a solemn oath to defeat. Like Vindice, he figuratively carries around a skull — in his case the shield of a policeman who died on 9/11 — to spur himself on.

But like so many revenge tragedy protagonists, Bush is fatally flawed. By taking revenge against a foe who had not actually injured him, he opened a Pandora’s Box of gratuitous violence, one he cannot now close. In a larger sense, he is trying to play the part of Vindice in a Shakespearean world, one far too complex to be comprehended by his black-and-white morality. By failing to grasp that the world is larger than his simplistic vision, and insisting that he must carry on to the climax and kill a villain who can no longer be identified, Bush is trapping us in a failed chess game, condemning us to a bloody perpetual check. He is threatening to repeat dramatic history and himself become a villain — a blood-drenched avenger no longer morally distinguishable from the evildoers he is fighting.

And the final act in this grim drama, Bush’s absurd call for a meaningless “surge,” resembles one of those hideous masques in revenge plays during which the protagonist kills his enemies, then is killed himself. This little play-within-a-play may demonstrate Bush’s resolve and put off the unhappy ending, but it is real men and women who will die for his dumb show.

Bush’s revenge tragedy has run for far too long. It’s time to bring the curtain down.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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