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The Tentacle


September 19, 2007

Iraq: Into the Heart of Darkness

Kevin E. Dayhoff

For those who have grown weary of the longest presidential campaign in history and the war in Iraq, last week was long and bewildering.

Against the backdrop of the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker provided a narrative to committees in both houses of Congress on the status of the Bush administration's "troop surge" initiative in Iraq. It was Kabuki Theatre at its best.

Pick your own highlight of the week, whether it was the New York Times subsidized MoveOn.org advertisement attacking the character and integrity of General Petraeus, or New York Sen. Hillary R. Clinton scolding General Petraeus, saying his testimony required "a willing suspension of disbelief."

Of course, as one pundit put it: "The general has devoted his life to defending this country, whereas the only thing Hillary Clinton has ever defended is Bill."

It appears that Americans have many more long weary months ahead. All indications are that a political reconciliation will occur in Iraq long before any progress will be made in curbing the sectarian violence in Congress and getting the warring factions in Washington to come together for the benefit of the American people.

It reminds one of what it would be like to be in the sequel to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

Mr. Conrad first published this short novel in 1899. It appeared as a three-part serialized parable which scathingly criticized western colonialism in "Blackwood's Magazine," a now defunct British periodical.

The story has remained controversial ever since. It involves a journey on the Congo River, yet it begins on the Thames.

In our "Journey into the Dark Heart of Mesopotamia" the sojourn is on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the trip began on the Potomac.

"Heart of Darkness" begins with four men onboard the "Nellie" on the Thames River: an anonymous narrator, Marlow, the "Director of Companies," and the Accountant.

If you have read the book - and whether you are for or against the war in Iraq - you can argue over coffee for hours with your own compare-and-contrast as to what contemporary actor on the national and world stage plays the role of the different characters in the intricately layered storylines.

After the narrator begins the saga, Marlow takes over and embarks on retelling a saga about how he ventured into the "dark continent of Africa" (Iraq.) "No one wants to listen but he continues anyway."

"And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth," says Marlow about London (Washington) as he begins his tale.

The narrator explains that Marlow is "a meditating Buddha" as a result of his experiences in the heart of Africa (Iraq) and now he is philosophic, stoic, and introspective.

Marlow is transported to Africa by a French vessel. He continues his journey down the Congo River to find an ivory agent named Kurtz, who has disappeared in the darkest regions of the country.

One of the major premises of the story is the na´vetÚ of western civilization about the complicated, overlapping variety of evils that lie in the Congo. Of course, the major theme is Hagel's Dialectic Progression in that all of history can be explained as the conflict between good and evil.

Only, in "Heart of Darkness," no one is wholly represented as all good or completely evil. Ultimately Mr. Conrad ridicules the arrogant misperceptions of western civilization towards a foreign culture.

We find out that Marlow's predecessor died in search of Kurtz. Several days into his journey, Marlow gets to "central station," with the hopes that his mission has been accomplished. There he meets the "Chief Accountant," who has been there for three years and still manages to maintain himself spotlessly - in an aloof, distant, and "uptight" demeanor.

It is here where Marlow is aghast to find the indigenous population that is romanticized at home but treated poorly; and nothing is what it seems as deception and misconceptions rule the day.

The steamship which he was to have used to complete his mission has sunk and there is a cast of various nefarious, duplicitous characters, such as the brick maker who makes no bricks.

After some time has passed the ship is finally repaired and righted and he continues on his journey with a crew of cannibals. He quickly finds himself in a fog and is attacked by friendly, but scary "natives." The only person killed in the bewildering encounter is his helmsman, who was tasked with steering the boat through the treacherous waters. Marlow says, as a matter of fact, as he tossed the dead helmsmen overboard: "This I did directly, the simple funeral was over."

After he arrives in the heart of continent, he is greeted by a character, "Harlequin," a Russian fool "who seems to survive in the heart of the continent by not knowing what's going on around him" and "was an insoluble problem."

The subject of his quest, Kurtz is found. Kurtz mistreats the native population and they, in return, worship him. He is very ill - and has taken a wife, in spite of the fact that he is engaged to a woman who faithfully awaits his return to England. In order to survive, he must return to England, but he does not want to go.

Marlow manages to bring Kurtz into custody but he soon after dies. "I had immense plans," says Kurtz. "The horror, the horror."

Which is exactly what both sides of the debate over the war in Iraq said last week, only to be joined by everyone who is tired of hearing about it and even more weary of the 2008 presidential campaign.

"The horror, the horror."

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org.



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