To escape the high-decibel pounding of the war drums, I recently picked up one of my favorite classics, only to find a wealth of perspective on our current international climate and the men driving it.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is an epic tale of a possessed madman and his ill-fated quest. One of its most enduring themes is the hubris of tunnel-vision pursuit, despite the protestations of many.
Any of the press seeing the March 6 primetime conference could have easily penned the following to describe our president: “There was an infinity of firmest fortitude … in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of [his] glance.” But avast! It was Melville who, through his character Ishmael, gave us that description of another monomaniac, Captain Ahab. And Melville’s cast of characters bears a remarkable (and chilling) resemblance to the Bush administration.
Let’s start at the top. Ahab has been “dismasted” by Moby Dick on a previous whaling voyage. He vowed eternal vengeance on the creature, and treads the deck of the Pequod with an ivory peg leg. Likewise, W. has admitted that Saddam Hussein “is the guy who tried to kill my dad.” Merely coincidence? The reader feels a cold shiver.
But, to say that Bush has brought us to war out of a desire to avenge Bush Sr. is only one grain of a much larger truth. He has a blind and unswerving dedication to this cause, regardless of public outcry and the humiliating position of having only two formal allies throughout the world. What’s worse, Bush believes himself to be vested with some sort of holy authority; calling upon Americans to lead the crusade to liberate the Middle East. Likewise, Ahab states, “I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.”
Jackson Lears writes in the New York Times, “a war to transform the Middle East requires a rhetoric as grandiose as its aims. The providentialist outlook fills the bill: It promotes tunnel vision, discourages debate and reduces diplomacy to arm-twisting.” Dubya? Twisting arms? Naw, couldn’t be.
Encouraging Ahab are the men of his inner circle – the five phantoms. Ahab is beholden to their misleading prophecies, but the crew is afraid of their “diabolism of subtlety,” suspecting them to be “secret confidential agents of the devil.” So I find it ironic that Bush’s Republican warmongering phantoms are in league with the conservative religious right: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle.
Luckily, there is one man who stands for sanity and reason. In the White House, we had Colin Powell. On the Pequod, the first mate Starbuck is the only man with any power to resist the growing madness of the captain. Ethically steadfast and honorable, he tries desperately to convince Ahab of the folly of the pursuit.
But Ahab’s existence is rooted in his monomania; he cannot comprehend the true danger. (Even now, reports are emerging of a fresh generation of al-Qaida recruits spurred to action by Bush’s crusade.) Ahab’s fatal pride was his undoing. Bush’s fatal pride could undo much more than just him.
And it is a crusade not driven by necessity, but by obsession.
Ahab is possessed by a “pervading, mad recklessness.” His pursuit is blind, regardless of the warnings from other whaling vessels. Everyone warns Ahab that he is making a terrible mistake in pursuing Moby Dick, yet he decides to go it alone, without any assistance if need be.
Yes, Melville has a knack for filling the mind’s eye with terrifying visions of a ship full of desperate, bewitched men, hurtling toward doom at breakneck speed. Need we fear the same fate? Perhaps. But we must also fear the doom of international silence – of being intentionally marooned by the sinking institution of the United Nations. Former friends will shun us when we truly need help – when we begin rebuilding not only a defeated Iraq, but also diplomatic bridges throughout Europe. And then there’s North Korea. The world climate is a harsh sea to navigate without allies.
Ahab and his crew met their doom. The White Whale demolished the Pequod and sent all but Ishmael into the fathomless deep, “then all collapsed and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the war is beginning. Aye, aye – man the lifeboats.
Jason Haaheim is a graduate student in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept.