Apr 23, 2003

Review of Vidal, Fallaci, Mailer

Sept. 11, Seen Through the Looking-Glass By Peter Bergen, a fellow of the New America Foundation and the author of 'Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden' Wednesday, April 23, 2003; Page C01 DREAMING WAR Blood for Oil And the Cheney-Bush Junta By Gore Vidal Thunder's Mouth. 197 pp. Paperback, $11.95 THE RAGE AND THE PRIDE By Oriana Fallaci Rizzoli. 187 pp. $14.95 WHY ARE WE AT WAR? By Norman Mailer Random House. 111 pp. Paperback, $7.99 We live in sobering times, so why are the bestseller lists so punch-drunk? In the wake of the traumas of Sept. 11 and after, publishers have rushed out titles that stake strong ideological positions -- particularly when delivered by someone with a modicum of fame -- and watched the nonfiction lists lurch into line. How else to explain the runaway success of books such as Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men" -- now nearing a yearlong run on the New York Times list -- or Michael Savage's "Savage Nation"? Neither title makes any pretense at grappling with serious issues; neither is the fruit of real research. For Moore, Republicans are indeed the stupid white men of his title, while Savage seems to believe that liberals are dangerous subversives who have sold the United States down the river. Clearly a growing segment of book buyers are drawn to famous pundits who will confirm their own strongly held prejudices. They buy these kinds of books not for information, but for affirmation. Now a trio of famous names has followed the Moore-Savage model to produce explanations of the 2001 attacks that verge on the hallucinatory. The central thesis of Gore Vidal's "Dreaming War" is that Sept. 11 was the logical outcome of an American imperial hubris that can be traced back to Franklin Roosevelt's deliberately provoking the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Just as FDR goaded the Japanese, the Bush administration, in Vidal's account, provoked the Sept. 11 attacks so that it would have an unassailable rationale to invade Afghanistan and gain control of the vast energy resources of Central Asia. This line of argument reads like a boozy after-dinner speech to the Chomsky Rotarians, a species of leftist Kabuki theater signifying absolutely nothing. Yet "Dreaming War" is a hit -- for the simple albeit dispiriting reason that conspiracist reading of history is comforting to many confronted with a tragedy on the scale of Sept. 11. There is something, after all, quite troubling in the realization that it to ok only 19 suicidal al Qaeda members armed with box cutters to carry out the attacks on Washington and New York. Surely there must be larger forces at work -- other assassins lurking on this figurative grassy knoll. We know that Vidal is off in an alternate universe when he opens his book: "One year after 9/11, we still don't know by whom we were struck that Tuesday, or for what true purpose." Come again? Sketching out a scenario that would give even Oliver Stone some pause, Vidal writes, "The unlovely Osama was chosen on aesthetic grounds to be the frightening logo for our long contemplated invasion and conquest of Afghanistan." Further, "He was simply a pretext for replacing the Taliban with a relatively stable government that would allow Union Oil of California to lay its pipeline [across Afghanistan] for the profit of, among others, the Cheney-Bush junta." The evidence for this cabal lies, as many conspiracy theories do, in the airy speculative realm of what didn't happen: "Obviously, somebody had ordered the Air Force to make no move to intercept those hijackings." Vidal's essay could be read for laughs, but accusing the U.S. government of complicity in these horrible attacks is not a laughing matter. And his view of the Afghan war as a long-plotted oil-and-land grab shows a touching naivete about basic business principles: Despite the best efforts of regional governments since the fall of the Taliban, not a single American energy company, or indeed any of the world's energy companies, has invested a dime in a proposed $2 billion pipeline to be built across Afghanistan, which is supposed to carry natural gas from Central Asia to Pakistan. Oriana Fallaci's "The Rage and the Pride" is in many ways a negative photo image of "Dreaming War." For Fallaci, it is not a conspiracy of U.S. government-corporate interests that produced Sept. 11; it was the opening salvo of the inevitable battle between the West (very good) and Islam (very bad). For her, the Muslim barbarians are at the gate, literally and metaphorically defecating in the vestibules of the churches of her beloved Florence. Fallaci's book has already sold a million copies in her native Italy, so her operatic reinterpretation of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis amped up to fortissimo has already found a wide audience. Fallaci somewhat amusingly refers to her critics as cicadas. Let me add a couple of my own little chirps to what one can only presume is a swelling cicadian chorus. Fallaci has written an intemperate book. Intemperate books are often better than the hedged qualifications of academic tomes, but not in this case. As best one can determine Fallaci's argument, it runs something along the lines that Western civilization is the highest expression of human achievement. This is threatened by Islam, specifically Muslim immigrants in Italy who are, among other crimes, taking over its "wonderful palaces . . . [which] are now inhabited by pitiless vandals and die like beautiful women raped by herds of wild boars." Fallaci further wants to warn us: "You don't understand or don't want to understand that a Reverse Crusade is on the march." Nonsense. The vast majority of Muslim immigrants to the West simply want to get ahead, as every generation of immigrants before them, and would be flummoxed to be told that they are the v anguard of a Reverse Crusade. In the same heavy-breathing idiom, Fallaci makes a passing, and unforgivable, observation about the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: At the time of the action she thought to herself, "Soviets are what they are, but in this case we should thank them." In this moment of sublime self-regard, she manages to overlook the minor matter of more than a million Afghans killed by the Soviets -- as well as the genuinely astonishing heroism of the Afghans who fought the jihad that drove the Soviets out, in the process hammering some final nails into the coffin of the Soviet empire. Seeking to explain not just Sept. 11 but the war on terror and the Iraq war, Norman Mailer convinces us in a few short pages that he's bitten off far more than he can chew. "Why Are We at War?" is a thin book in every sense, consisting of meandering interviews and a reprinted lecture. As a result it is difficult to determine why Mailer thinks we are at war. He makes no claim that it is due to U.S. government malfeasance, and since he inexplicably opines at one point that "maybe half the people in Muslim countries may want secretly to be free of Islam," he is clearly sanguine about at least the demographics behind an impending clash of civilizations. Surveying our present difficulties, Mailer settles back into what seems to be his default position: "Our first problem is . . . the American corporation. That is the force that has succeeded in taking America away from us." Of course, most of the victims of Sept. 11 worked for American corporations. They went to work at those corporations early on that sunny Tuesd ay morning, and they did so willingly, perhaps even happily. That thought alone should stand in stark relief against the unseemly, opportunistic work that Vidal, Fallaci and Mailer, and scores of other armchair pundits, have churned out in the wake of a singular tragedy. The post-Sept. 11 world demands fresh and penetrating analysis, not the warmed-over nostrums of the old left and right. © 2003 The Washington Post Company