Theater of Cruelty

The Curse of the Hermit Goose

There is nothing good about the heads of state looking back the way they do.


By Antony Beevor

[Iraq] My heart sank in 2001 when George W. Bush compared the September 11 attacks to Pearl Harbor. Leaders in many countries rely on the rhetoric and thinking of former conventional wars in times of crisis. This is the civil opposite of fighting the next war with the mentality of the last. Instead of looking for terrorist pins in the world's high stacks, Bush would have a lighter, unstable prey, like a whole country.

Politicians are not the only ones who can be tempted by historical parallels. Just before the invasion of Iraq, I received inquiries from dozens of newspapers asking me to write about why Baghdad was becoming a new Stalingrad. I had to explain over and over again that although Saddam Hussein modeled his role after Stalin, there would be no major similarities. To the media's great surprise, American tanks quickly moved into the center of Baghdad along Saddam's triumphal favors.

Remarkably few journalists and even fewer politicians foresaw the paradox that was about to arise. The most devastating victory in military history was about to crumble due to riots. The Washington administration intensely disliked the idea that "asymmetric warfare" – the new jargon for "resistance" – could in fact be a consequence of asymmetric distribution of power, especially due to the overwhelming dominance of the West. For cultural reasons, this is probably even truer in the Middle East, where high-tech war waged from a distance is perceived as arrogant and cowardly. Nothing angered the Palestinians more than when the smart bombs from Israeli planes hit their leaders. This hatred of Western technology is perhaps the military equivalent of the Islamic contempt for globalization.

A few weeks after the war, I was teaching at West Point [US Military Academy]. I struggled to convince American officers that their idea of ​​"force protection" – using heavy air guns to save casualties – was not a smart strategy. How could they expect the Iraqis to see American troops as their liberators when they came dressed as the troops in Star Wars?

Several days later at a dinner in Washington, I met a senior U.S. Department of Defense official. He had returned from Baghdad that morning and was shocked to learn that Saddam Hussein had destroyed the famous "weapons of mass destruction" himself. They had been bricked into new roads long before the war so that the weapons inspectors could not find them. Saddam, however, had not been able to admit this to the world because he wanted to lose face. So after a huge misunderstanding that has led to Iraq being on the brink of civil war – which, if the Kurds decide to take the oil fields in Kirkuk and declare independence, will become a regional war – what is the next thing we should expect?

The situation in Iran can be even more dangerous. This time, the weapons will not be buried in cement. They will be nuclear and can be mounted on rockets within two years. Like so many people, I thought that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his desire to wipe out Israel and his denial that the Jewish extermination ever took place, was an isolated fanatic. Last week, however, I received an email from a Moscow colleague who had been teaching apparently Westernized Iranian students at the university. She asked them what they thought of their theocratic president. "He might be an idiot," they said, "but he adds one thing. He will remove Israel from the map. "

Why are political leaders so keen to measure themselves against the past, no matter how badly they play their roles – whether it's Bush as Roosevelt, Saddam as Stalin, or – God help us – Ahmadinejad as Hitler? Or will the White House now begin to compare the events in Iran with the Cuba crisis? Poor, historical conglomeration. Poor world.

Antony Beevor's book The Battle for Spain – the Spanish Civil War will be published in Norwegian on 8 May.

Translated by Gro Stueland Skorpen

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