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Our March of Folly in Iraq

This week’s two-part series on Frontline, “Bush’s War,” reminded me of Barbara Tuchman’s warning (The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam) about the persistence of “wooden-headedness” in history, attributable in our case to the limits of our country’s historical and cultural imagination. A telling moment came as the Frontline commentators discussed what was euphemistically termed “regime change.” Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Iraq’s history and culture could have predicted, and in some cases did predict, the chaos and struggle for power that would ensue once Saddam Hussein was overthrown and his army disbanded. Yet, as Michael Gordon notes, an American diplomat described the Bush administration as subscribing to the Wizard of Oz school of regime change, as captured memorably by the lyric, “ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead.” As summed up nicely by Gordon, “We go in, we kill the wicked witch, the munchkins jump up, they’re grateful, and then we get in the hot-air balloon and we’re out of there.”

Well, that sunny scenario obviously didn’t happen. Instead, majority Shiites, suppressed by Saddam, saw a chance to grab power. Minority Sunnis, generally favored under Saddam, saw little reason to work with the U.S. and its viceroy, L. Paul Bremer III. Iraqi Kurds to the north supported our presence in so far as it helped them to develop a semi-autonomous Kurdish state. In the absence of a strong leader, Iraq quickly became embroiled in sectarian violence, with U.S. troops caught flatfooted in the middle. Recognizing an opportunity, Iran moved to exploit it, arming Shia militias and fomenting attacks on rival Sunnis as well as U.S. troops. Al Qaeda then moved into Iraq, rising to Bush’s cowboy challenge of “Bring it on,” and recognizing it was easier to fight and kill U.S. troops in Iraq than to mount risky operations against our mainland.

All this is well known. But how did our leaders not see this scenario coming? Why did they envision simplicity and Iraqi gratitude (those munchkins singing and jumping up to embrace us), and not the complexity and violent resentment that resulted? Could it be that our leaders had impoverished historical imaginations? Could they also have believed—as President Bush appears to have believed—that they could create an entirely new culture in Iraq, one that would embrace democracy, diversity, and tolerance of dissent, even though there were few recent historical underpinnings to support such a culture?

If our historical imagination was impoverished, so too was our ability to understand and relate to Iraqi culture. This lesson was brought home to me by a Peter, Paul, and Mary song, although not in the way you might expect. While I was the Associate Provost at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, we received an urgent request early in 2004 from a U.S. official working with Iraqi schools. The official wanted help translating the song, “Don’t Laugh At Me,” from English to Arabic. The song, which appears on the Peter, Paul, and Mary CD Songs of Conscience & Concern, is used in U.S. elementary schools to promote tolerance. Its first lines are “I’m a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek/A little girl who never smiles/’Cause I have braces on my teeth.” The refrain urges: “Don’t laugh at me/Don’t call me names/Don’t get your pleasure from my pain/In God’s eyes we’re all the same.” Rather safe and innocuous lyrics, one might think.

Yet, translating this song into Arabic was neither safe nor easy. After gathering our best Arabic translators, we quickly learned that even the simplest lines posed problems. What about that geeky boy with glasses, the one being taunted for being bookish? Our translators, many of whom hail originally from Middle Eastern countries, explained that he would most likely be admired and praised for his smarts. How about that poor little girl with braces, so reluctant to smile? Well, most Iraqi kids would be fortunate indeed to be able to have access to, or even afford, orthodontia. In an Iraqi context, laughing at geeks or kids with braces just didn’t translate. And if such seemingly simple lines as these were untranslatable due to the culture gap, what about lines like “I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m American Indian,” or even more treacherously, “A single teenage mother/Tryin’ to overcome my past”? Best not go there, we concluded.

I learned much from this experience. If we can’t translate song lyrics to promote diversity and tolerance, how can we “translate” democracy? It seems as if the Bush administration assumed no translation was necessary: the Iraqis would embrace democracy because it was “the end of history,” in the Francis Fukuyama sense, the unchallengeable culmination of our political evolution as humans. More than anything else, I think, such a conclusion reflects the administration’s ignorance of Iraqi history and culture, and perhaps its arrogance as well. After all, in other contexts, Bush has recognized that democracy does not inevitably triumph. For example, he’s been generally supportive of Vladimir Putin’s dominance of Russian politics, stating that you can’t change the Russian people’s DNA, by which I assume he meant Russia’s long history of autocratic rule.

When historians examine the failures of the Bush administration in Iraq, they would do well to look for absences as well as blunders and hidden agendas. A lack of historical imagination is one such absence; so too is a sophisticated understanding of the cultural gaps that separate American from Iraqi culture. Both have contributed to our “march of folly” in Iraq, as illustrated so soberly by Frontline.