April 10, 2003
War and Passover
Of course this Passover will be different from all other Passovers. This Passover is being broadcast on Fox News.
The retelling of the Exodus resonates with the real images of a real war. The Israelite liberation echoes in the words of President Bush, who now casts the war almost exclusively as a battle to free an oppressed people.
Think of the years leading up to the invasion as the Ten Plagues. Sanctions forced hardship and sometimes death on tens of thousands of Iraqis but left their leaders unmoved. The punishments mounted, until the skies above Iraq were darkened from smoke as if by hoshech, the biblical Darkness.
Then came the Apaches, the drones, the hornets, swooping low beneath the cloud cover -- the locusts. Then the horrid destruction: 2,000-pound bombs surgically leveling their targets, but often taking down homes and people in the immediate vicinity. Raging firefights that inflict death on innocent Iraqis, not to mention the tragic deaths of our own young men and women.
Stare at the image in the April 14 Time magazine of the young Iraqi boy who was caught in such a crossfire last week. He lay in a hospital bed, severely burned, both his arms amputated, unaware that his entire family was killed in the same fighting. Here it is, the slaying of the first born -- and still Saddam is not moved (if, in fact, he's still alive).
U.S. troops go into urban warfare with cans of spray paint and masking tape. Once they determine a home is clear of enemy forces, they mark it with an "X." The other troops pass over it.
I asked several writers to attack this week's cover story, to apply the themes of Passover to the war in Iraq. They demurred.
Historical analogies are a trap, they warned me. Is Saddam Pharaoh? Sure -- though for years, he was our Pharaoh. Does that make the U.S. armed forces God? Are the Iraqis the Israelites? And what about that armless, orphaned boy -- is he now free, or oppressed?
Still, the urge to think forward and back is unstoppable. It's built into Passover, during which we don't just reread our history, or even retell it, but relive it through the seder and reingest it through matzah, maror and charoset.
"I believe that the taste of freedom and the taste of food may be much more closely linked than at first they appear to be," wrote anthropologist Sidney Mintz. Passover, when we make a current meal of ancient history, is the best evidence of that.
Seeing American soldiers handing MREs out to hungry villagers, Iraqi boys tearing into them, their faces smeared with chocolate and smiles, it is impossible not to wonder if, for those boys, that, too,Â is the taste of freedom.
The answer, of course, is: It depends.
The thing about the Passover narrative is its neatness. Ten Plagues. Four questions. Two zuzim. One God.
The thing about history, and war and liberation itself is its messiness. To some we are liberators. To many others, conquerors. We see our dead soldiers and mourn their selfless acts of courage. Others see our invasion as a greedy push for power.
"The doctrine of legitimate self-defense, in Washington's eyes, has now been expanded to allow one country to attack another based on the strategic equivalent of a hunch," wrote Rami Khouri, editor of The Daily Star in Lebanon. "Killing to promote life is a morally flawed and politically obtuse policy." But again, the morality is messy: How many lives did our invasion save, how many souls have we rescued from Saddam's destruction, at the cost of our own sons and daughters?
"How will you know when to declare victory?" a journalist asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a Pentagon press conference Monday. Rumsfeld seemed uncharacteristically stumped. "That's a good question," he stalled.
A war of liberation has proven to be dangerous and deadly, like all wars, but relatively easy. Actual liberation, as Rumsfeld knows, will depend on what happens after the war: Will crueler dukes carve Iraq up into crueler duchies? Will America stay around long enough to preserve order and help rebuild, but not so long to create the separate hell of occupation? Will Iraqis turn temporary freedom into full-fledged liberation?
Just as the Israelites had to wander in the desert for 40 years to shed the mentality of enslavement, perhaps it's a bit much to expect Iraqis to molt 25 years of extreme political oppression and grow democracy overnight.
The images starting to trickle in of smiling, cheering Iraqis recall the rejoicing of Moses' sister, Miriam, as the children of Israel reached dry ground, the chariots of Pharaoh submerged in the waters behind them.
We know the celebrating was a bit premature: There was not a little hardship and sorrow ahead. So we sit down to our seder this year, mindful that sometimes the only thing more treacherous than slavery is freedom.