Me and My Shadow

One day in 1991 I was dozing on my couch when John Lennon’s “Mind Games” began playing on a mix tape a friend had given me. It was in the last couple days of the hectic run-up to the Gulf War, at a time when you could catch Bush the Elder and Saddam Hussein on the tube practically every minute of the day, smearing on the war-paint and girding themselves with a self-righteousness that felt specifically designed to preempt any peaceful solution to the Kuwait crisis. While I was lying there with my eyes closed I experienced one of those nonsensical visions you sometimes get on the verge of sleep, with Bush and Hussein suddenly appearing to me as a pair of nightclub performers, clad in tuxedos and showmen’s smiles, and trading off lines from Lennon’s song while swaying in time to the music. I snapped out of it after a minute, but not before I’d stopped seeing them as enemies, and realized they were actually partners, mates even, who were engaged in a private dance that just happened to be taking place on the world’s stage – a dance that sustained them and made them secretly glad for the definition they could draw from each other.

Now Bush’s son is caught up in another spectral dance with Al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgents, with each side clinging to moth-eaten tactics that have long been exposed as counterproductive to their stated goals. When he isn’t reinstating Baathist generals, this Bush has his people downplaying the grand expectations of only one short year ago, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that Al Qaeda doesn’t give a shit about winning our hearts and minds, not even when a heaven-sent opportunity like Abu Ghraib falls into its lap.

Poor Nicholas Berg. With every sign telling him that Iraq was no place for him, he was a classic case of twenty-something naivete and stubbornness, but where most people who fuck their lives up at age 26 just have to move back in with the folks for a year, the gods wouldn’t be satisfied in Nicholas’ case until someone had cut his head off. I really hope somebody close to the Berg clan can convince Michael Berg to take some Valium and go into seclusion for a while. Though it certainly looks like the FBI’s repeated visits to Nicholas were rooted in suspicion and not goodwill, his father’s grief has left him cruelly exposed to the world – he looks like a walking nerve-end – and it’s easy to imagine him blurting something out that’ll boomerang on him or his family.

Naturally both sides can only beat their chests now. The White House, still operating under the assumption that this is all just a global version of America’s Most Wanted, is vowing to bring Berg’s killers “to justice,” the same way it swore to bring in bin Laden and the Fallujah mob and Muqtada al-Sadr (and his militia), while for its part Al Qaeda promises an endless conveyor-belt of “shroud after shroud and coffin after coffin.” Oh goody, a war of attrition – those always work out so well. Just before we invaded Iraq the Pentagon screened Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, and even though they learned exactly jackshit from it, maybe it’s time they heard the description of the IRA that can be found in the gangster classic The Long Good Friday: “You can’t wipe them out. Kill ten, twenty – bring out the tanks and flame-throwers, they’ll just pour back. Like an army of ants….You won’t stop them. To them you’re nothing, nothing. The shit on their shoes.” But neither side cares about common sense now – this is a private shadow dance. You and me, we’re only the spectators.

*

You’d have to see the footage of the Deputy Defense Secretary pinned and wriggling on the wall to appreciate how badly he came off when Senator Jack Reed asked him whether it’s “humane” to hood another human being for 72 consecutive hours. Asked once, Mr. Wolfowitz blew all the air out of his cheeks and began to answer some other, easier question that no one had actually put to him; but when interrupted in mid-evasion and bluntly accused of “dissembling,” all he could do was lower his head in surrender, with his troubled silence in that long, heavy second answering the question better than his eventual, reluctant “No” ever could. Compared to Rice and Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz only talks the talk.

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