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The Nation announces the winners of Discovery/The Nation, the
Joan Leiman Jacobson Poetry Prize of the Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd
This essay is excerpted from E.L. Doctorow's new book, Reporting
the Universe (Harvard).
How much, in just twenty years, Donald Revell has changed! From the
Abandoned Cities (1983), his debut volume, included a villanelle, a
sestina, rhymed sonnets and meditative terza rima.
Ever since Clark Kent first donned a pair of oversized glasses and,
somewhat improbably, hid his Superman persona from Lois Lane, questions
of identity have been a staple of the comic-book genr
In the past 200 years, all of the earth's great territorial empires,
whether dynastic or colonial, or both, have been destroyed. The list
includes the Russian empire of the czars; the Austro-Hungarian Empire of
the Habsburgs; the German empire of the Hohenzollerns, the Ottoman
Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the overseas empires of Holland, England,
France, Belgium, Italy and Japan, Hitler's "thousand-year Reich" and the
Soviet empire. They were brought down by a force that, to the
indignation and astonishment of the imperialists, turned out to be
irresistible: the resolve of peoples, no matter how few they were or how
poor, to govern themselves.
With its takeover of Iraq, the United States is attempting to reverse
this universal historical verdict. It is seeking to reinvent the
imperial tradition and reintroduce imperial rule--and on a global
scale--for the twenty-first century. Some elements, like the danger of
weapons of mass destruction, are new. Yet any student of imperialism
will be struck by the similarities between the old style of imperialism
and the new: the gigantic disparity between the technical and military
might of the conquerors and the conquered; the inextricable combination
of rapacious commercial interest and geopolitical ambition and design;
the distortion and erosion of domestic constitutions by the immense
military establishments, overt and covert, required for foreign
domination; the use of one colony as a stepping stone to seize others or
pressure them into compliance with the imperial agenda; the appeal to
jingoism on the home front. True, American officials state at every
opportunity that they do not intend to "occupy" Iraq. But then the
British in the nineteenth century said the same thing. Two years before
the liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone ordered the conquest of
Egypt he declared that his heart's desire was an "Egypt for the
Egyptians." The liberal imperialist Lord Palmerston said in 1842 in
defense of his gunboat diplomacy, "It is, that commerce may go freely
forth, leading civilization with one hand, and peace with the other, to
render mankind happier, wiser, better." When it came to rule, the
British preferred, wherever possible, not "direct rule" but a sort of
covert domination called "influence"or "indirect rule" or "paramountcy"
(the British were as richly inventive of euphemisms as the United States
is today). Then as now, imperialism, in the words of the great
anti-imperialist Ernest Hobson, was "floated on a sea of vague, shifty,
well-sounding phrases which are seldom tested by close contact with
It was one thing, however, for Europeans, in newfound possession of
modern tools of technical and organizational superiority, to subjugate
"backward" foreign peoples in 1700 or 1800 or 1900. But can it be done
again, in our century, in the wake of that project's universal rejection
by the peoples of the earth? So far, the outlook is unpromising. The
United States vowed to bring about "regime change" in Iraq. The phrase
has rightly been criticized as an outrageously mild euphemism--a vague,
well-sounding, shifty phrase if there ever was one--for an extremely
violent act; but now it turns out that the expression defined a deeper
problem. If I am going to change the oil in my car, I must, before I
remove the old oil in the crankcase, have new oil ready to put in.
Otherwise, my car will quickly overheat and break down on the road. This
is roughly the condition of Iraq two weeks after the destruction of its
former government. The United States, it turns out, forgot to bring a
new government with it when it set out from Kuwait to Baghdad. The
troops brought plenty of MREs (meals ready to eat) but no GRR
(government ready to rule). American forces had no intention of becoming
a police force, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told the press. Did the
Administration perhaps take its own slippery rhetoric about not
occupying Iraq too seriously? The result was a vacuum of authority soon
filled by nearly universal looting. Many Iraqis made clear their hatred
of the old regime and their joy at its disappearance; but it appears
that they had little more confidence in the invader. Finding themselves
caught between local misrule and foreign rule, did they perhaps decide
that they had a momentary opportunity to grab something for themselves
and set about sacking their own country? A journalist, upon arriving in
an Iraqi city, described it as "prelooted." Did the Iraqis, in
anticipation of foreign exploitation, "preloot" their whole country?
The United States thus achieved Regime Removal but not the promised
Regime Change. There were, we can now see, no plans even to keep order
in Iraq, much less to administer it, or organize a government there. The
famous war plan was much discussed; the peace plan, it appears, did not
This became clear when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the
raging anarchy in Iraq as "untidy," and America's new viceroy in Iraq,
retired Gen. Jay Garner, newly arrived in the city of Nasiriyah from the
Hilton hotel in Kuwait, likened events to the American constitutional
convention of 1787, remarking rhetorically, "I don't think they had a
love-in when they had Philadelphia." Does he really think that mayhem in
Iraq, including the extinction of the better part of the country's
cultural treasures, has any resemblance to the deliberations by which
Washington, Franklin and Madison framed the Constitution of the United
States? Is such a man fit to run a country?
So far, the American military giant has proved to be a political pygmy.
The Shiite cleric Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was imported into Iraq from
London by the "coalition" forces, was promptly hacked to death by local
people. The gathering of Iraqis invited by the United States to meet at
a US military base has been boycotted by the country's most important
political groups. In Mosul, American troops have fired upon an angry
mob, killing seven. "It's a show of force, but people don't understand
it," a soldier in Mosul told the Times. "They're not grateful."
Before the war began, it was often said that winning the war would be
easy and winning the peace hard. And it was surely always clear even to
the war's opponents that the United States could drive its tanks from
Kuwait to Baghdad, whereupon the regime of Saddam Hussein would
dissolve. Yet was it ever certain that what followed the conventional
engagements would be a peace? With every day that passes, "the peace"
looks more like another war.
Consider this hypothetical situation.
Globalization: Use this word in a sentence, especially as the cause of
something bad, and you will get knowing nods all around.
The quest for El Dorado, the mythic city of gold, is at the heart of the
tumultuous history of the Americas.
Refracted through your tide-washed hours, this prince
drifts through algid brine, kelp-wound: his ship has foundered
in your sky. For his sake you discover land, build