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President Bush’s decision to attack Iraq is the greatest mistake ever made by an American president. Because the soul of the nation is still torn by the Vietnam War, the banking community is in desperate shape, research funds disappearing, schools being abandoned, the nation cannot afford this manic adventure, this inappropriate Good Friday of fireworks, this resolute walking off the cliff that "beetles o’er its brow into the sea."

The Mexican War, in 1846, was an ugly event, and we recall Abraham Lincoln saying of the then president, Polk: "His mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease." The decisions to break the Indian treaties, to attack North Korea, to go off the gold standard, to fund "Star Wars" were all bad decisions, but none of them imperiled the republic as the attack on Iraq does. The Iraq operation is larger than the arms runs to the Contras, but it depends similarly on secretive governmental decisions for war, supported relatively by Congress when it is too late to change. The government decision gives no hint of shadow motives. Deception goes to the heart of the decision and deception is dangerous to the republic.

The president, speaking the other day to religious leaders, said, "We seek nothing for ourselves." Can one imagine Napoleon sending 500,000 troops across the plains to Russia and declaring, "We seek nothing for ourselves"? He got nothing, but he sought much. So do all sovereign states that enter war.

A revolting high-mindedness surrounds the decision. We say that Saddam is a demon, and we are angels. Saddam is a disgusting murderer--resembling in that respect Pinochet, Marcos, Franco, Trujillo, and many old solemn friends of the United States.

We see Iraq's shadow, but not our own shadow. President Bush could mention that he used to be head of the local KGB--I mean the CIA--which kills secretly, close up and at a distance. I know that one may expect self-righteousness, pious rhetoric, hypocrisy, verbal chicanery, entire sheep pulled across one's eyes, outright lies from presidents and prime ministers, but this high-mindedness takes place in some new area. The media accept the hypocritical rhetoric and pass it on virtually without comment. They invite generals to discuss the morality of war.

Shadow-concealment on a large scale is going on, and that leads the nation to act out the myth of St. George and the Dragon. Curiously, the myth first entered Westerners' consciousness during the Crusades. In Mediterranean versions the hero engages the dragon for some ritual time, whereupon the Dragon transforms into human shape. But the Europeans perverted the myth into a killing myth. The knight kills the Dragon. Bush --strangely named George--has been turning Saddam Hussein into a dragon so he can kill him. Both Saddam and Bush have adopted the myth to blacken and demonize the other side. For a planet that can now be glimpsed whole from space, these incitements to tribal hatreds are too primitive. The perverted Dragon myth is driving Western and Near Eastern consciousness on to the coming disaster.

If we return to psychological thought for a moment, we notice that something we can't see in our own shadow prevents us from grasping Saddam’s motives and thought. Bush, relying on contemporary up-to-date Beltline models, assured us that Saddam, sufficiently threatened, would withdraw. "I feel it in my gut." Four hundred thousand troops would do it; wrong. Security Council backing would do it; wrong. A deadline would do it; wrong. Congressional backing would do it; wrong. Who has ever, as a war leader, been so wrong?

Saddam is not operating in the Western psychological mode. He is apparently in the Crusader mode--ancient enmities, death for God, manic warriorhood, sacrifice, loss, advance, sacrifice, loss, advance. We behaved that way in 1100 also, so it is part of our shadow, but not now available to us. President Johnson, relying on attrition in the South, and bombing in the North, failed to grasp Vietnamese psychology. Bush is repeating this colossal error.

The United States, like every other nation, finds itself both a state and a country. The state has a valid interest in oil, whether or not oil continues to be sold in dollars, and how oil is funneled to Germany and Japan. The state's interests are international interests; Bush has always done best in representing the state. Randolph Bourne once said, "War is the health of the state."

In other words, if the state doesn’t go to war for a while, it begins to feel sick. But included in the United States there is also a country, and in this decade the country has its concerns: helping millions of children in poverty, rebuilding bridges and highways, improving schools, sheltering the homeless, dealing with racism and explosive inequalities, strengthening families. The state has its demands, often contradictory to the country's needs.

The United States has always found it difficult to honor both these opposites, the state and the country, and to live in the resonating space between. If the opposites get too far apart, ungovernable forces flow into the gap.

During the sixties, the "sixties people," students, live-wires, populists, took us all toward the country, private delights, pleasures, country compassion. The state was despised. When too large a gap opens between state and country, forces connected to frontier mentality and mad individualism enter, and the nation is forced to experience the assassination of its greatest leaders. The Bush administration has now repeated that error, pulling the nation toward the state this time, giving war--the health of the state--full rein. That, alas, means increased sickness in the country. Psychologically, then, a dissolving of the opposites is taking place, no resonant space between, an empty place where complicated thought should be.

The United States, as we know from our own history, needs to beware of that gap and the forces it invokes. Sophocles expresses the danger in his great rendition of Agamemnon’s dilemma on the way to the Trojan War. The winds, necessary for that war "that is the health of the state" will not come unless he sacrifices his daughter. In private life, she is his chief joy, but he says, very pitifully, that as a public man he in effect has no desires. He sacrifices his daughter. In our terms, "daughter" would be the country and its human needs. His wife, Clytemnestra, watches this, and when he returns from the war, kills him ritually in his bath. President Bush has foolishly opened this gap between the state and the country, and he hopes that no evil forces will enter if he opens it only briefly. This will not be Vietnam. But the invisible forces care nothing for length.

In our war fever, we have already sacrificed our "daughter": that is, the human needs of the country, and the forces of this story have been set in motion. Bush and the Congress and the majority of the citizens have unwisely, like President Johnson, sacrificed the domestic program to the passions of the state, and the result will likely be the same sorrow and grief one feels at the end of a Sophocles play.


Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 24, 1991