America as Othello
Future historians will shake their heads over how easily America was misled into war. The warning signs, the indications that we had a rogue administration determined to use 9/11 as an excuse for war, were there, for those willing to see them, right from the beginning — even before Mr. Bush began explicitly pushing for war with Iraq.Tragedy, for Sophocles, did not involve an enemy; merely fate. Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet" come closer to this ideal than his other plays. Aristotle called "Oedipus" the perfect tragedy; in the Poetics, it is (ironically) his Platonic form for all such plays. There is no villain in "Oedipus," nor yet again in "Antigone." Fate, in the perfect tragedy, is the antagonist of the tragic hero, largely because the Greeks did not have the moral view of the universe Christianity has taught us to have. The Greek view of the universe was entirely ethical. Chaos was the normal condition of the universe, and into chaos the universe would one day return. Reason, the logos, imposed order; but it imposed order against a chaos that is implacable and unceasing, that is never eliminated, and so one day will return when the energy of the logos is exhausted. It is, as we say, as inevitable as sunrise.
In fact, the very first time Mr. Bush declared a war on terror that “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated,” people should have realized that he was going to use the terrorist attack to justify anything and everything.
When he used his first post-attack State of the Union to denounce an “axis of evil” consisting of three countries that had nothing to do either with 9/11 or with each other, alarm bells should have gone off.
But the nation, brought together in grief and anger over the attack, wanted to trust the man occupying the White House. And so it took a long time before Americans were willing to admit to themselves just how thoroughly their trust had been betrayed.
So the Greek universe was not moral, sprung from good and tending toward good, but ethical: unleashed against chaos, the only telos of the logos is improvement, "happiness," which must inevitably be lost against the permanent state of disorder and disaster for those who seek order. Oedipus seeks order out of the horror of his predicted fate, as does Jocasta, and both are doomed to fail in their efforts. But, given the predictions, both are doomed to make their efforts, too.
Othello is doomed only by his naivete, his willingness to trust Iago even when he should trust Desdemona. But he hasn't learned to trust her, yet; he hasn't learned to rely on her as a husband can learn to rely wholly on a wife. And he hasn't learned yet to trust Cassio, his newly appointed lieutenant. He trusts Iago because Iago tells him just enough of the truth to make Othello think Iago is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is only when Othello begins to repeat Iago's lies to others, repeat them as explanation for his actions, that he begins to realize Iago's statements are lies. Just before he kills Desdemona, Othello all but explains himself to Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's handmaid. Emilia assures Othello that her mistress is faithful to him, and Othello almost doubts the lies of Iago. But only after Desdemona is dead, and Emilia has revealed all about the handkerchief which became a symbol of Desdemona's supposed infidelity, does Othello realize what he has done, and how responsible he is.
That is where we are now: just now realizing what we have done, and how responsible we are. Frank Rich notes there are 4 million Iraqi refugees as a direct result of the US invasion. But he also notes this Administration sweeps that information under the rug, tacitly and explicitly:
How we feel about these Iraqis was made naked by one of the administration’s most fervent hawks, the former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, speaking to The Times Magazine this month. He claimed that the Iraqi refugee problem had “absolutely nothing to do” with Saddam’s overthrow: “Our obligation was to give them new institutions and provide security. We have fulfilled that obligation. I don’t think we have an obligation to compensate for the hardships of war.”At some point one can only wonder: just who is this Administration representing?
We wanted to believe we are a force for good in the world, and so we went to war. I know a Navy chaplain who told me how much good the Navy does, how much humanitarian work is done by the aircraft carrier he was sailing on. But the military is not organized and structured and trained to do good: it is meant for one thing, and that is to destroy the enemy. We knew before this war what we would face. We were warned, in excruciating detail. We also know we were ill-equipped to rebuild the society we destroyed. We learned that lesson in our occupation of Germany after World War I. We didn't repeat it after World War II; but we quickly forgot the lesson again. We preferred to listen to the honeyed lies of Iago, rather than the gentle truths of Desdemona.
Now we are only waiting to accept responsibility for what we have done. But as a nation, will we? Can we? Paul Krugman is right: ridicule for the war-mongers would be a good place to start. But that won't happen this weekend; not on Memorial Day.
Memorial Day began as a day for families to remember their dead. Not everyone else's dead: their dead. Real people who had really died. We've turned that into a national celebration of American uniqueness, of those who "died for our freedom," as if freedom were bought only in blood on the battlefield. The tragedy is that we don't understand our errors, and we keep repeating them. Like Othello, we may be gifted at military command, but we seem wholly incapable at civil administration. It is not freedom our soldiers are dying for now: it is for our innocence, our naivete.
Let us pray for peace; and for forgiveness.