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Nicholas Kristof on Literature--NYTimes 2/4/07

Nicholas Kristof on Literature--NYTimes 2/4/07   

February 4, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist

 Under Bush’s Pillow


Dick Cheney as Lord Voldemort?

A reader named Melissa S.
e-mailed to say that she explains Iraq policy to her 8-year-old son in
terms of Harry Potter characters: “Dick Cheney is Lord Voldemort. George
W. Bush is Peter Pettigrew.” Don Rumsfeld is Lucius Malfoy, while
Cornelius Fudge represents administration supporters who deny that
anything is wrong. And, she concludes, “Daily Prophet reporter Rita
Skeeter is Fox News.”

That was one of the 400 comments from readers
offering literary or historical parallels to the Bush administration and
Iraq. One of the most commonly cited was Xenophon’s ancient warning, in
“Anabasis,” of how much easier it is to get into a Middle Eastern war
than out.

As a reader named John H.
summarized “Anabasis”: “Ten thousand Greek mercenaries march from Greece
to Iran to effect regime change (unseat one emperor and establish his
younger brother). They win the first few battles (cakewalk, mission
accomplished) but then the younger brother is killed.”

So the invaders found themselves without an effective prime minister to
hand power to, yet they were stuck deep inside enemy territory.
Xenophon’s subtext is how the slog of war corrodes soldiers and allows
them to do terrible things. Xenophon is particularly pained when
recounting a massacre that was the Haditha of its day.

The readers who sent in comments were responding to a column
<> I wrote
last month arguing that President Bush is inadvertently a fine education
president, because he breathes new life into the classics. Thucydides’
account of the failed “surge” in the Sicilian expedition 2,400 years ago
is newly relevant, and “Moby-Dick” is interesting reading today as a
bracing warning of the dangers of an obsessive adventure that casts
aside all rules. (You can submit your own favorite literary or
historical parallel at

Perhaps I’m cherry-picking from the classics to support my own
opposition to a “surge” in Iraq. In writing this column, I wondered what
classics Mr. Bush’s supporters would cite to argue for his strategy.
Shakespeare’s “Henry V

Yet frankly, it’s difficult to find great literature that encourages
rulers to invade foreign lands, to escalate when battles go badly, to
scorn critics, to be cocksure of themselves in the face of adversity.
The themes of the classics tend to be the opposite.

Literature and history invariably counsel doubt and skepticism — even
when you think you see Desdemona’s infidelity
with your own eyes, you don’t; even when your advisers are telling you
“it’s a slam-dunk,” it’s not. The classics have an overwhelmingly
cautionary bias, operating as a check on any impulsive rush to war.

Perhaps that is because, as Foreign Policy argues in its most recent
issue <>, humans
have an ingrained psychological tilt to hawkishness. In many ways, the
authors note, human decision-making tends to err in ways that magnify
conflict and make it difficult to climb down from confrontation.

My hunch is that the classics resonate in part because they are an
antidote to that human frailty; literature has generated so many
warnings about hubris in part to save us from ourselves.

Eastern classics have that same purpose of trying to tame and restrain
us. The central theme of Chinese philosophy is the need for moderation,
and Sun Tzu’s famous “Art of War
advises generals on how to win without fighting. (Sun Tzu and Julius
alike also appreciated the diplomatic benefits of treating enemy
prisoners well; they would be appalled by Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.)

So Mr. Bush should resolve that for every hour he spends with Mr.
Cheney, he will spend another curled up with classical authors like
Sophocles. “Antigone
for example, tells of King Creon, a good man who wants the best for his
people — and yet ignores public opinion, refuses to admit error, goes
double or nothing with his bets, and is slow to adapt to changing

Creon’s son pleads with his father to be less rigid. The trees that bend
survive the seasons, he notes, while those that are inflexible are blown
over and destroyed.

Americans today yearn for the same kind of wise leadership that the
ancient Greeks did: someone with the wisdom to adjust course, to
acknowledge error, to listen to critics, to show compassion as well as
strength, to discern moral nuance as well as moral clarity. Alexander
the Great used to sleep with the “Iliad
under his pillow; maybe Mr. Bush should try “Antigone.”

Oh, and for Mrs. Bush? How about Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata

Copyright 2007
<> The New
York Times Company <>
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