The Long View 2004-12-20: Iraq Counterfactuals; Hero & Empire; Iceland

By Source, Fair use,

By Source, Fair use,

The First Emperor of China was assumed to be mythical for a long time. Then the archeological finds started piling up. The remarkable unity of the Chinese state over the millennia is in part due to this man.

Iraq Counterfactuals; Hero & Empire; Iceland

You have to wonder why the literary world treated Philip Roth's book, The Plot against America, as a conceptual novelty. The most-broadcast Christmastime movie in the United States is It's a Wonderful Life, which is an alternative-history story on the scale of a single life. (When Stephen Jay Gould's book of that name appeared in German, by the way, the publisher had to use a less resonant title that meant "Man the Accident.") After Dickens's Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life is also the most parodied Christmas story in the United States. Maureen Dowd added to the canon in yesterday's New York Times, in a column entitled A Not So Wonderful Life. In this version, George Bailey becomes Donald Rumsfeld, and the angel explains how much better the world would be if he had never been born:

[Former George Senator Sam Nunn is] the defense secretary. Sam consults with Congress. Never acts arrogant or misleads them. He didn't banish the generals who challenged him - he promoted 'em. And, of course, he caught Osama back in '01. He threw 100,000 troops into Afghanistan on 9/11 and sealed the borders. Our Special Forces trapped the evildoer and his top lieutenants at Tora Bora. You weren't at that cabinet meeting the day after 9/11, so nobody suggested going after Saddam. No American troops died or were maimed in Iraq. No American soldiers tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. No Iraqi explosives fell into the hands of terrorists. There's no office of disinformation to twist perception abroad. We're not on the cusp of an Iraq run by Muslim clerics tied to Iran.

Considering the current state of Afghanistan, it's not at all clear what those 100,000 troops would have been needed for. It's also vastly unlikely that no one at a cabinet meeting after 911 would have suggested going after the Baathist regime in Iraq; surely they would have been familiar with Richard Clarke's memos that mentioned the links between Al-Qaeda and Iraq? The final improbability is this quote from an Alternative Colin Powell:

Merry Christmas, Mr. President. With the help of our allies around the world, we have won the war on terror. And Saddam has been overthrown. Once Hans Blix exposed the fact that Saddam had no weapons, the tyrant was a goner. No Arab dictator can afford to be humiliated by a Swedish disarmament lawyer.

Blix and his elves were allowed in Iraq when the regime realized, belatedly, that the United States had a gun pointed at its head. In any case, Blix's audit would have proven indecisive no matter how long it continued.

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Happily, The New York Times has saved me the trouble of correcting Dowd. Today's edition has another Alternative History scenario, this time by William Safire, entitled Roth Plot II:

Opening scene in the Oval Office in winter 2001, after U.S. and allied forces crushed the Taliban in retaliation for their part in 9/11, with bin Laden not yet found in Afghanistan...State's Powell counsels relaxing U.N. pressure on Iraq by calling them "smart sanctions," hoping this will persuade Saddam to permit inspections. Bush glumly agrees... Having gloriously faced down the U.S. - and gaining greater financial and weaponry strength every day - Saddam becomes an iconic, heroic figure in the Arab and Muslim world. Through massive kickbacks and smuggling operations involving France, Russia and China, the murderous despot ensures U.N. protection from inspections. Free from fear of retaliation, Saddam offers safe haven in Iraq to bin Laden and followers seeking a center of operations...Cut to Libya, where Qaddafi has purchased nuclear know-how and fissionable material from corrupt Pakistani scientists...In early 2004, a Wilsonian Democrat bursts upon the political scene.

You see why "Alternative History" is better than "Alternate History"? There are more than two possibilities.

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Over the weekend, I viewed Hero, starring Jet Li. My interest in martial arts is no greater than my interest in square dancing, but I rented this film because of the historical setting. That is, I did not expect to learn more about the end of the Warring States Period (475 BC -- 221 BC), but because I wanted to see how the film treated the era. The scenario runs like this:

Before he became the First Emperor of China, Ying Zheng (played by Cheng Daoming), King of the state of Qin, brutal and ruthless, was the target of many assassins. Among them, Broken Sword, (played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Flying Snow, (played by Maggie Cheung) and Sky (played by Donnie Yen) are the best. However, their plan was challenged by No-name (played by Jet Li). He rarely spoke and no one knew what he was up to, but something was hidden behind this eyes. No-name told the king that his enemies had been wiped out by him, but the king did not trust him.

The gimmick is that No-name, nominally one of the king's officials, enlists the help of the three assassins to get close enough to the king to kill him, even to the extent of letting themselves be killed (only one actually dies by No-name's hand; it's complicated). However, before No-name's audience with the king, Broken Sword dissuades him from his purpose. Broken Sword is a master calligrapher as well as a master swordsman; the two arts have the same foundation. However, Broken Sword also explains that his study of calligraphy had given him insight into historical necessity, and that he sees that Ying Zheng should unite China.

There is an interesting bit of mistranslation in the English subtitles. When the characters discuss what the king is supposed to unite, the English is given as "Our Land." My Mandarin does not rise to the level of negligible, but even I could make out that the term they were using for China was "tien xia," which means "Under Heaven," or "All Under Heaven": roughly the equivalent of the Greek "oikoumene." This mistranslation undermines Broken Sword's argument.

When Broken Sword said that he understood from his study of calligraphy that the world needed to be united, he was saying that his study of form and flow in the arts allowed him to intuit historical necessity. This was exactly the point that Kant made when he said that his model of history had the plot of a novel, which in his case ends in the formation of a liberal world republic. Dante's argument for a universal monarchy is of the same class: an esthetic intuition, not mechanical determinism.

The Empire, Cosmopolis, All Under Heaven: whether or not you would want to live in a universal state, the fact remains that the idea really is archetypical. It has exerted moral force in many times and places, even on people who ultimately reject it. "Our Land," however, cannot be intuited in this way. Patriotism is a fine thing, but one of the things that makes a homeland lovable is that it is mortal: it does not have to exist. The empire does.

Finally, as many reviewers have pointed out, this film does the First Emperor too much honor. Like Napoleon, the First Emperor is generally credited with making reforms and creating institutions that long outlasted his regime. On the other hand, the First Emperor was not a military genius, or any other kind of genius. He was just a conscientious, hardworking monster.

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Winter starts tomorrow here, and I find the days plenty dark enough. However, I note from a piece in yesterday's New York Times, In a Cold Country, the Nights Are Hot, that partygoers from the northeastern United States and from northwestern Europe have been making wild weekends in Rekjavik. The idea, apparently, is that "drinking all night" really means something if night does not end until 9:00 AM.

This sounds like a bad idea. In any case, anyone interested in what Iceland looks like sober should see Danny Yee's travelogue.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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