Essay: Iraq Aftermath

June 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: We tend, I think, to reserve the grammar of intimacy to things like these: The tender proximity of lovers or family or friends.

But violence, war even, is a kind of intimacy. And in the aftermath, both sides– victor along with the vanquished– are wed by their terrible encounter. Boxers and wrestlers speak of the kinship that unites opponents and separates them from spectators.

The same is true, I think, of soldiers engaged in violent conflict. Their intimacy with the other becomes a shocking carnal knowledge. The pope calls war a perversion of love, a perversion of intimacy. Certainly war often represents a refusal of the imagination by those who declare war.

Nonetheless, for soldiers war involves an intense confrontation with the other, and they become proxies for a larger entanglement of cultures and nations. This spring as we watched from a safe distance of thousands of miles as tanks entered Baghdad exalting the American flag, who would have supposed that future history books might mark this, the spring of 2003, as the beginning of the Arabization of the United States?

One notices often in documentary footage and photographs how during periods of occupation, sworn enemies seem besotted with one another. Their eyes lock, their lips almost touch.

We know, of course, that rapes and the consequent miscegenation have often been part of the history of war and its aftermath. Mexico, for example, tells a story of its 16th-century birth, the Spanish conquistadors’ conquest over the Indian, as the story of rape– metaphorical and literal.

I owe my own birth to the violence of that bloody encounter, so I’m interested, but not really surprised to see blue- and green-eyed children, distant descendents of the crusaders, all these centuries later, wandering the streets of Amman or Damascus. Contrary to the scenarios of military strategists and indeed historians, it is not always useful to distinguish the victor from the vanquished. Often the victor and the vanquished form a third.

President Bush addressed Iraqi Americans in Arab Detroit, promising them a Democratic Iraq. One could as easily foresee the Arabization of America. In the aftermath of war come new civil relationships, curricula, bureaucracies, even hatreds, even dependencies. Occupying armies become bilingual or the defeated learn the victor’s language and learn the foreigners’ ways until those ways seem no longer so foreign.

Somewhere on the desert tonight, I am certain of it, a young American soldier is momentarily entranced by some aspect of the world he has entered to convert. The music or the spices, the colors, the voices, the eyes. He will return home himself converted, because he has experienced an intimacy by which I mean he has eaten, he has looked, he has breathed.

Even as Washington plans to reconfigure the desert, the Middle East draws ever closer to the average American. Islam is now so much a part of the American imagination and the American landscape, it will be impossible hence forward for participants at a congressional prayer meeting not to name Islam along with Christianity or Judaism, for Islam is now a major faith of the American people.

And American college students who could not put their fingers on the capital of North Dakota, nevertheless are already able to distinguish the Kurdish north of Iraq from the Shiite south. The victor is always surprised. Who in France could have foretold that a result of French imperial ambitions in North Africa would be an Arabic Marseilles?

And look at England. England invented the fiction of the nation we call Iraq, as it invented many another. Now London– replete with curries and mosques and tambours and turbans, and some of these we have come to call Arabesque– London is the brownest capital in all of Europe.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.