Et Tu, George?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Maybe George W. Bush is the education president after all. Whatever one
thinks of his No Child Left Behind initiative, he has made the classics
powerfully resonant today.
So for those schoolchildren and university students out there struggling
through “Moby-Dick” or the “Aeneid,” take heart! They’re not just about
white whales or Trojan wanderers — they’re also about President Bush and
out. A more trenchant analysis of Iraq-style adventures appears in the
histories of Thucydides, written 2,400 years ago.
Great Athenian diplomats of the day, like Nicias, warned against
military involvement in Sicily, calling it “a war that does not concern
us,” according to Thucydides. But smooth-talking neocons of the day,
like the brilliant Alcibiades, said in effect that the Sicilians would
welcome the Athenians with flowers. He promised that they would be
treated not as occupiers but as liberators.
“We shall have many barbarians ... join us,” Alcibiades declared, and he
argued that the enemy would be easily defeated “rabble.” “Never were the
Peloponnesians more hopeless against us,” he told the crowds.
So the Athenians rallied around the flag and dispatched a huge force.
But as Thucydides notes, they had suffered a grievous intelligence
failure: they did not get the support they had counted on, and the enemy
was far larger and more organized than they had anticipated. The war
went badly, and eventually Athens was forced to confront two options:
withdraw or escalate.
The Athenians, deciding that defeat was not an option, went with the
“surge.” They dispatched an additional 70-odd ships and 5,000 troops.
The result was a catastrophic defeat. Thousands of Athenians were killed
far from home, and others were sold into slavery. The Athenian navy was
destroyed, and the double-or-nothing gambit meant that other nonaligned
states sided with the Athenians’ enemy, Sparta.
Within a few years, Athenian democracy had collapsed, and Athens, the
great city-state of the ancient world, had been conquered by Sparta.
President Bush has lent a new thrill to readers of Virgil’s account of
the adventures of Aeneas from Troy to Rome. A marvelous new translation
of the “Aeneid,” by Robert Fagles, has just been published, and critics
(and Professor Fagles himself) have noted its relevance: Virgil is
That’s because this is a tale of war and empire, and a constant subtext
is how easy it is to be uncivilized when promoting civilization.
Aeneas is an exponent of reason who at the end of the book confronts an
enemy who pleads with him to “go no further down the road of hatred.”
Aeneas sees that the enemy is wearing the sword-belt of his slain
friend, and reason dissolves into fury: “Blazing with wrath,” he plants
his iron sword “hilt-deep in his enemy’s heart.” In war, moderation is
the first casualty.
Yet the single best guide to Mr. Bush’s presidency may be “Moby-Dick.”
Melville’s book is, of course, about much more than Captain Ahab’s
pursuit of the white whale — a “nameless, inscrutable, unearthly” symbol
of all that is dark and unknown in the world.
Rather, it is an allegory about the cost of obsession. Ahab has a
reasonable goal, capturing a whale, yet he allows this quest to
overwhelm him and erode his sense of perspective and balance. Ignoring
warnings, refusing to admit error, Ahab abandons all rules and limits in
Ahab finally throws his pipe overboard; he will enjoy no pleasures until
he gets that whale. The fanaticism becomes self-destructive, eventually
destroying Ahab and his ship.
To me at least, Melville captures the trajectory of the Bush years. It
begins with a president who started out after 9/11 with immense support
at home and abroad and a genuine mandate to fight terrorism. But then
Mr. Bush became obsessed by his responsibility to prevent another terror
This was an eminently worthy goal, but Mr. Bush abandoned traditional
rules and boundaries — like bans on torture and indefinite detentions —
and eventually blundered into Iraq. And in a way that Melville could
have foretold, the compulsive search for security ended up creating
Melville’s lesson is that even a heroic quest can be destructive when we
abandon all sense of limits. And at a time when we hear the siren calls
of moral clarity, the classics almost invariably emphasize the
importance of moral nuance, an appreciation for complexity, the need for
So, students, study those classics. They are timeless — and in the days
of the Iraq war and Guantánamo, they have never been more timely.