Robert Stone: "History has come for us"

The novelist whose book "Damascus Gate" dealt with the clash of faiths in the Middle East discusses terrorism, apocalyptic religion, military culture and the Islam bomb.

Published November 19, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Somewhere in the Hindu Kush, a Robert Stone character is wandering about -- a journalist, perhaps, with ties to intelligence agencies and a tortured conscience. Or an Afghan freedom fighter who has lost his faith in both Allah and his local warlord, and isn't quite clear just who he is supposed to be aiming his AK-47 at. Or a U.N. aid worker, mixed up in a wild plot that involves tons of opium and a terrorist training camp. And a mystic epiphany. There are always plenty of mystic epiphanies in Stone novels.

We might not know the exact details, but if Stone is involved, we can take a pretty good guess as to how the bigger picture will look: Men and women will be wrestling with faith, politics and the quest for life's deeper meanings. In his novels, which have taken readers from Vietnam, where Stone was a journalist in the 1970s ("Dog Soldiers," 1974, winner of the National Book Award) to Central America ("A Flag for Sunrise," 1977) to Hollywood ("Children of Light," 1985) to the wide-open sea ("Outerbridge Reach," 1992) and, most recently, to the Mideast ("Damascus Gate," 1998), Stone has always given us reluctant heroes caught in the midst of huge contradictions: the messes created by superpower politics, holy wars and personal betrayals. Afghanistan seems tailor-made for Robert Stone.

In "Damascus Gate," the canvas is the clash of millenarian faiths, of Islam and Judaism, in the Holy Land. American proselytizers, Mossad secret agents and intifada warriors conspire and collaborate against a backdrop of passions dating back thousands of years. To the lead character, Lucas, a journalist, "sometimes the entire field of folk seemed alien and hostile, driven by rages he could not comprehend, drunk on hopes he could not imagine. So he could make his way only through questioning, forever inquiring of wild-eyed obsessives the nature of their dreams, their assessment of themselves and their enemies ..."

It is not difficult to see today's current events -- today's "wild-eyed obsessives" driven by rage -- as natural elaborations of the frictions and fault lines working themselves out in "Damascus Gate." As Osama bin Laden hints that he has nuclear weapons, and warlords blitzkrieg down upon the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, "Damascus Gate's" fantastic plot, which features both a terrorist scheme to blow up Jerusalem's holiest temples and a complicated drugs-for-guns smuggling operation, seems less and less implausible with each passing day. It comes as no surprise that Stone has been paying close attention to the news from Afghanistan.

Are there any resonances between what is currently going on in Afghanistan and what you have been interested in as a writer?

Oh, certainly. Certainly in terms of what "Damascus Gate" is about, which is apocalyptic religion. For a long time it seemed to me that some form of militant Islam was going to challenge the West and particularly the United States. It seemed to me that Arab nationalism -- secular nationalism -- was failing as a vehicle for the Arabs. More and more they've turned to Islam.

And Islam is so severely challenged by Western culture and the current situation. According to the Quran, Muslims are not supposed to tolerate the political rule of infidels -- subjugation to armed infidels -- which tends to be how they view the troops in Saudi Arabia or anywhere, and Israel as well. In fact, they tend to see Israel as the last of the colonial enterprises in Islam. This is the way the people in Hamas talk: They talk of a pure continuous crescent of Islam where Christians and Jews can live; they can be there, but they are not supposed to be in charge of anything. And I think there is some talk about restoring the caliphate, so that there would be a unified Islam ruled by sharia [Islamic law], at least a unified Sunni Islam. I think that something like that ideology is what a guy like bin Laden would have, that the caliphate could somehow be restored and all these kings and dynasties that are post-colonialist and tools of America could be overthrown and America at least forced out of the Middle East as a prelude to the universal spread of Islam.

At Salon, right after the terrorist attacks, we received a number of letters from people who couldn't understand why someone would hate us so much.

I find that surprising, but I think that's because of the time I have spent over there. There is this tremendous anger that has been mounting ever since the fall of the Turks, when the West began to carve up the Middle East and establish these dynasties and create these borders, these colonial borders. There has been anger against the power of the infidel and also a tremendous resentment of the technology -- all this technology which Islam did not produce.

Islam is supposed to rule, Islam is supposed to be the enlightened part of the world that got the message directly from God. It is very unseemly that all these proud people exist who reject Islam and nevertheless prosper so much and even give orders to Muslim kings and generals -- it's just not right.

The Quran is full of references to the people of Id: They are proud, they are rich, but they are infidels and the Quran keeps saying they will fall, their cities will fall. I think that to get an insight into the thinking of the most extreme radical Muslims, a reading of the Old Testament is instructive.

To get a sense of how much harsh unforgivingness there is?

Yes. The harsh unforgivingness to the enemy who has no respect for God, for the Lord of Hosts -- who is obviously real to people who climb into airplanes and crash them into buildings. That supernatural world is amazingly real to them; you wonder if it is as real to clerics in the West as it is to them.

And they resent the power and aggressiveness of the West; it used to be Britain, now it's us. They tend to see Israel as nothing more than a creation of ours. They read "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," they believe a lot of things. There are a lot of people walking around East Jerusalem who believe that Adam built the Dome of the Rock.

In "Damascus Gate" there's a very strong sense of intractability in the conflict between the West and Islam.

Yes, exactly. There was a picture in the Times several days before the bombing started; it was downtown Kabul, it was a pile of rocks and a kid on a donkey, and you thought, well, what could they possibly bomb? They're bombing the pile of rocks and the kid on the donkey, or at least they're dropping bombs pretty close to that kid, and they are screwing up and dropping bombs on some civilians, and that is certainly going to turn people in the Islamic world against the United States.

There is a tremendous amount of myth, totally mythical attitudes toward the United States, that is fueled by karate movies -- you know all the Hollywood reject movies that show in downtown Cairo -- that just portray the United States as the most utterly depraved place imaginable. I mean they really believe it's a very, very bad place full of very bad people. They genuinely -- the average Muslim does believe that. They don't like to be inhospitable or unfriendly but it does emerge, when you talk to people in that part of the world. That opinion of America is somewhat deluded, but it's very, very low. And the longer the war lasts, the more they'll get uneasy about the killing of fellow Muslims and the more people in Europe will begin to move on the old Vietnam lines.

It seemed to me the last time I was in Europe that a whole generation of Europeans had been brought up with the idea that America is pretty depraved and it is a place to be opposed. In Europe, even in central Europe and in places where Americans used to be pretty popular like the Czech Republic, there is really not much sympathy for the United States. I think it is easy to blame the United States for all the ills of modernism. I don't think it is accurate to do that, but it is nice to have another country that you can blame for all the contemporary ills and all the vulgarity of contemporary life. You can always say, it's not us, it's them, they're doing it, our culture was great until they came along and that [attitude] is not only in the Third World or Islam, it's in Europe too.

The most recent swings in the military situation in Afghanistan have turned the tables on people who were criticizing our bombing strategy. A week ago, you noted the longer the war lasts "every day it lasts, it gets tougher." That doesn't seem to be true anymore.

At this point, we do seem to have achieved -- with air power -- to have driven them out of the cities. I'm glad it went well. I was worried. But I don't want to be complacent. I think there is a lot of possibility for the infighting of the sort that happened before 1992, among ethnic groups and tribes. I also think that trying to find bin Laden is going to be difficult. I don't know why that ever was the declared aim at the beginning -- to really make him such a celebrity.

In "Outerbridge Reach," your main character, Owen Browne, longs for "the good fight or the right war -- something that eased the burden of self and made breath possible." Isn't this war different from Vietnam in that many Americans are thinking of it as a good war, a right war?

I think that's right. If you look at the crowds who are listening to Bush, they are really trying to be inspired, they are waiting for him to say something wonderful, and of course all he is doing is reading this stuff off the teleprompter and they just sit there and wait to be inspired or try to convince themselves. I think you are right, people are looking for a good war, but they are not being given anything except a lot of inept propaganda. And if the propaganda that they are using abroad is as inept as the propaganda they are using here, they are in bad shape. And I am sure it is. But the fact is, I can't say that if I were in the position of the people who run the country that I would do anything quite different.

Is there any way out of this mess?

I honestly don't know. In a way the worst setup we could have is all these elderly oil men -- Cheney and so forth, the people who run the country -- in a way they are the last people we should have as our leadership right now. They are like the Bourbons -- they remember nothing and forget nothing. I don't know what we can do; truly, there are ways in which this government, or the country, has become so utterly devoid of community ... A lot of people abroad think that we leave people to starve in the street. We are not as bad as who we are often thought of as being, but I think it's still pretty bad. I think the federal government could do a lot that it is not doing.

In a lot of ways I think I've become more left-wing than I used to be, because I was always a kind of cold warrior. I mean, I always criticized the Cold War and its paradoxes but when the chips were down I knew which side fundamentally I was always on. I didn't have illusions about Marxist ideology. But now, I don't know, I certainly don't believe in Marxist ideology, but I find the American system a scandal in its indifference to poor people and working people, and I think also our perception of the world remains very, very unsophisticated. You hear Adm. Stufflebeem or these other men, they do not seem to have the necessary flexibility of spirit, the necessary irony, the necessary perception and thoughtfulness to do what they are doing, to deal with the machinations of the people that they have made their enemy. We were always going to end up being their enemy; I don't think we are to blame for that. But they seem naive.

Even in the context of what appears to be victory, at least for now?

I think they have a problem in what they call in business their corporate culture. I think that is a problem and remains a problem: their ability to identify and discuss their aims, to transfer into language and hence into politics their role as military men. We know from Clausewitz that war is politics -- and this inability to verbalize and to articulate is a political liability; it is part of a problem of military corporate culture, and I think that remains. I still think there is a lack of a certain worldliness on the part of the American military and I think that is true of the masters of this administration. I question their flexibility and adeptness. But I will be happy to see them resolve this.

The long-term situation, particularly in Palestine, seems to be pretty hopeless.

It really does. I used to be more hopeful than I am. The thing is everybody's plans have gone to hell, I mean everybody's initial plans have gone to hell. The Arabs in the former Palestine, the Palestinians, imagined that since they outnumbered the Jews so considerably, that eventually when Arab nationalism struck, they would, if not drive the settlers out, come to dominate them. And then on the other side, the Zionist side, there was an expectation that something like what happened after the war between Greece and Turkey would happen, that there would be a population transfer -- this was hoped for back in the '30s -- that maybe the British could pull it off, that [the Arabs] might in fact be transferred to another territory. That was always part of the program; that was always hoped. Both sides were hoping for the impossible. Both sides were hoping that they were going to win thoroughly, that they were going to win everything and no provision was ever made for what we think of as the 21st century solution, which is a multicultural, multiethnic state.

In "A Flag for Sunrise," the protagonist, Holliwell, is seeking in Central America "people who believed in things, and acted in the world according to what they believed." In all your books, it seems characters are on that kind of quest. But in thinking about Afghanistan, one could say that the Taliban fit that description of people who believe, and bin Laden might fit that description. But do we?

No, we certainly don't. I don't think we can quite imagine that degree of belief. I keep getting back to that line of Yeats, in "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity." But can you really call these people the worst? I don't know -- they certainly don't see themselves as the worst; they see themselves as sublime martyrs who have lived heroic lives.

I find [all this] absolutely fascinating but I also find it very, very frightening. I think there is a lot to be scared of in the contemporary world. History has come for us, it's here; what we feared is beginning to happen to us. And I have to say that I'm very much afraid that the next one of the bombs that goes off is not going to be a conventional bomb; I think that they are going to put it together in some safe house in Jersey.

People back in the '80s in Cairo were saying that one day there will be an Islamic bomb, and one day Islam will be able to go nuclear. And I think that day is very close. And I can't see why -- having done what they did, having killed all those people -- they would stop at nuclear weapons. So maybe, if by reacting the way we reacted we deterred them, we deterred somebody like bin Laden from using a nuclear bomb against us in the thought that he might not want to see a city in Islam nuked in retaliation, maybe then what we did wasn't so off base.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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