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Peering Into Darkness

In these murky days, war isn't the choice we would welcome, but it's a risk we must face.

October 27, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

With war on my mind, I reread Joseph Conrad.

"Heart of Darkness" is not a war book. Not about the Mideast. It's not a tale of the global struggle of peoples or the clash of ideals, not about the inflamed fanaticism of religion or the clamors of democracy. For purposes of the moment, let's call it a novel about human irresolution, about ambiguity, about the journey upriver into shadows.

We are strange people in the way we compartmentalize the important things in our lives. In the literature that we rely on to make sense of our human condition, we welcome doubt and uncertainty. These things ignite our imaginations, renew our humility. They help us reconcile ourselves to the fact that much of life is haphazard.

On the other hand, our process of self-governance allows almost nothing for these truths. Whether you see yourself as a down-to-earth realist or a dreamy idealist, you must speak without equivocation if you expect to be heard. Right or wrong? Yes or no? Never mind that war is one of humanity's chanciest endeavors. In the prelude to war, democracy bestows on adherents a remarkable capacity to channel the future without clouds in their crystal balls.

Last time around in the Gulf War, some antiwar isolationists turned out to be right on one important point, but for precisely the opposite reasons they predicted at the time. Yes, we're bogged down in the region all these years later. But it isn't because the U.S. military met its match against the battle-hardened Iraqi Republican Guards. It's because U.S. politicians pulled up short after a 100-hour rout.

Today, those who debate renewal of war against Iraq achieve moral finality chiefly according to where they choose to start the argument. The doves begin with the now. Why now? Peace now. The hawks insist on winding the clock back a few years. How long, they ask, can we ignore this tyrant in Iraq who shoots at our peacekeepers, who impoverishes his people for the sake of his vainglory and who chips away at global harmony with the inducement of oil? The middle-of-the-roaders grasp for tomorrow, for the sake of negotiations and resolution via resolutions.

If you grant these views their logic, indeed their rightness, but if you lack a crystal ball of your own, what choice do you have except to dig deeper into our purpose and into our nature? I reread Conrad.

I wasn't looking to draw simple-minded metaphors from the title, but to remind myself that when we are afloat on restless events, complacency and peril are not always on opposite banks of the river. The righteous clash of the hardheads and the soft-hearts serves neither. It has not made us more secure. It has not diminished our enemies or comforted our friends. It has not made the world a saner or more hopeful place. It has not left our nation a prouder country. At the turn of the century, our power exceeds our wisdom to use it. You can set your moral compass there.

The evidence can be seen in Iraq, where a loss of resolve in 1991 only deferred woe. Or in the face of unimaginable slaughter in Rwanda, where President Clinton promised all the help we could give and gave almost nothing. It was plain during the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, when the U.S. and the U.N. were frozen numb by animal fury. It showed in Somalia when Clinton lost his nerve and reneged on peacekeeping in one of the most anguished countries of the world. Because I was there to witness some of these events, because I found myself ankle-deep in human goo, because after that you cannot wash off the smell of human suffering, I believe the U.S. must rouse itself.

Events in this shrinking world have closed off the path of retreat. The ground on which we stand is not solid. When you are abroad, Americans sometimes look like the people they despise; the gawkers who cannot bring themselves to step in and stop a rapist. You can include the U.N. too. Improbably, it is President Bush who has stepped forward. He has played big-stick diplomacy the only way it can be played, with bravado. In turns, he has been steely and scary, unrelenting and relenting. It is startling, unnerving, even bewildering, to see this novice kick up such vast clouds of dust. But really, the only door he has closed is to inaction.

War? It's not the choice, but it's the risk. Bush's polarizing domestic pursuits have left many thoughtful Americans with good reason to doubt his word and his judgment. Has he chosen the right target at the right time to make this stand? Probably. And that may be as much certainty as we'll ever have with the world now ordered as it is. No despot anywhere is so universally condemned as Saddam Hussein. No place in the world produces so much hatred for our way of life as the gridlocked Mideast, where even 5-year-olds learn to shake their fists at the Great Satan. Why now? Why not now?

I don't trust crystal balls. But some things along the journey are worth fighting for. "The horror! The horror!" Those were Kurtz's last words in "Heart of Darkness." Could that be a rallying cry against war? Or against hesitation and diffidence? Conrad himself suggested the answer, writing to a friend: "You know that in cowardice is every evil."

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