The war on terror, or the Iliad revisited

"What has been taking place in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War, including the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the export of democracy and the pressure exerted on Muslim countries to prevent them from achieving nuclear power status, brings to mind the war between the European Achaeans and the Asiatic Trojans, as described in Homer's Iliad." *Percy Kemp.
On the day that followed the July 7, 2005, London bombings, Percy Kemp shared his views with us.

Véronique Anger : Percy Kemp, you are a consultant in international affairs. You are also a writer, and your novels often have geopolitical undertones. How do you interpret the bombings perpetrated in London on July 7th, when terrorists originating from a world in which you were raised, violently attacked a country to which you belong?
Percy Kemp :
Being born to a British father and a Lebanese Arab mother, I am, symbolically at least, both a victim and an executioner of the 7/7 London bombings. You will therefore understand that I do not wish to express myself on the subject in my capacity as an "expert". This indeed requires a distance from the event which I lack. However, I will readily confide to you my feelings as a human being and as a writer. Confronted with these bombings, I cannot help think that fate is at play and that the sad London events were somehow pre-ordained by other, and equally sad, events in which the victims had been executioners.

VA : What do you mean by "Fate"? Is it the Arabic "mektub"? Is it your Oriental half expressing itself here?
PK :
The fate I speak of is neither heavenly nor supernatural. It rests on historical grounds. The 7/7 London bombings, together with the 9/11 US bombings and the 3/11 Madrid bombings, were predictable. From the moment the West decided to extend its domination over the Muslim world following to the collapse of the Soviet Union, terrorism became the inevitable corollary of this Western will for power. There is no need, really, to be an expert or a strategist to understand what's going on. One merely needs to read the Iliad more carefully. This epic poem illustrates the Achaeans' drive for power and their settlement on the coast of Asia Minor, beyond the Hellespont. Both Herodotus and Thucydides considered the Trojan War as the first expression of the conflict between Asia and Europe, between East and West. And here are our leaders today, embarking on another Trojan War. Taking advantage of the implosion of the Soviet Union, they sought pre-eminence in South-West Asia after half a century of absence due to the decolonisation process and to the Cold War, and this intrusive and aggressive Western policy triggered a violent reaction on the part of some Muslim Arabs. What has been taking place in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War, including the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, the export of democracy and the pressure exerted on Muslim countries to prevent them from achieving nuclear power status, brings to mind the war between the European Achaeans and the Asiatic Trojans, as described in Homer's Iliad.

VA : President George W. Bush, draws his inspiration from the Bible, and more specifically from the Book of Revelations. Are you not doing the same with the Iliad?
PK :
George Bush has a Manichean vision of the Bible, dominated by the struggle between good and evil. It is a black and white vision which leaves no room for grey. I have a more historical perception of the Iliad. The Iliad is not concerned with good and evil: Homer does not depict the Greeks as nice, civilised people, in opposition to wicked Trojan Barbarians. Indeed, the very word Barbarian, in Greek, merely refers to the nations that do not speak Greek. The absence of value judgements in the Iliad is all the more remarkable since Homer has an obvious bias for the Greeks. Besides, George Bush refers to the Book of Revelations in order to act upon and shape the world, whereas when I read the Iliad, I seek in Homer's epic poem an analytical frame that might help me better understand the Western ethos and interpret in light of it the events with which we are confronted. For instance, we now know that Saddam Hussein's regime, for all its unsavoury aspects, neither possessed weapons of mass destruction nor was involved in international terrorism. We therefore know that the war against Iraq was based on lies, and that US President Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair are, well, liars. In the Iliad, it is equally clear that the Trojan War was not caused by Helen's abduction (Helen being the wife of Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother) by Paris, the son of Priam King of Troy. Paris had in fact ravished Helen in the literal sense of the word: He had seduced her, and she had followed him of her own free will. By waging war on Troy, Agamemnon was mainly seeking to loot the immense riches of the city while avenging the flouted honour of his cuckolded brother. Helen's abduction was but a pretext for Agamemnon to rally his allies to the Atreides. It is as simple as that. As simple, in fact, as the fallacious pretexts invoked by Bush and Blair in order to convince their public opinion and their allies to back them in their war against Saddam Hussein. Reading the Iliad, I realise that Bush is not acting any differently from Agamemnon. That he is neither better nor worse than Agamemnon. And I sleep better for that.

VA : What do you mean by that?
PK :
I mean that as a human being and as a Westerner, I had to come to terms with the contradictions that haunted me and I had to bring myself to the idea that the war against Iraq was founded on lies. I also had to reconcile myself to the fact that, despite their obvious lies, the two leaders of the Coalition were subsequently and triumphantly re-elected by their own people, which happens to be my people. I then had to reconcile myself to the fact that those Western leaders, who had initially refused to follow Bush on Iraq (hence, German Chancellor Schroeder, French President Chirac), eventually rallied to his side and condoned his actions. Oddly enough, it is Homer's Iliad that enabled me to resolve all those contradictions. The Iliad teaches us that the false pretexts put forward by Agamemnon - protector of his people- to launch his war on Troy do not in any way detract from his glory. Why is that? Because beyond his petty lies and the equally petty goals he pursues (avenging a cuckolded brother, ransacking Troy), Agamemnon objectively serves a design that is greater than him: A Grand Design. Agamemnon symbolises the Greeks' will for power and embodies their strong desire to expand. That is what the Iliad teaches me. The Iliad enables me to go beyond Bush's clumsy lies, beyond Cheney's lust for wealth, beyond Rumsfeld's thirst for vengeance, beyond Wolfowitz's lack of physical courage, and even beyond the greed of Halliburton and of the oil majors, to view the war in Iraq and the US plans for the Middle East as being the historical embodiment of the West's renewed dynamism and their rekindled will for power in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. All of which goes far beyond subjectivity and far beyond the egotistical and short-sighted motivations of this or that Western leader. Reading the Iliad, I understand that I must make a choice. The same choice to which Kipling's Kim was confronted when the holy man realized he was but a little white man. I either accept to be part of this Western will for power and I help spread the values of freedom, democracy and good governance (even if the spreading of such values is based on blatant lies), in which case I must follow Bush-Agamemnon, right or wrong, or else I refuse and I become an outcast (a su'lûq, as the Arabs say). In either case I would have resolved my contradictions. I would then be at peace with myself, and I would sleep soundly at night.

VA : Is it not too much honour comparing Bush to Agamemnon? Are you not taking the risk of proving him right?
PK :
Once again, my point is not to pass judgement on President Bush, or on King Agamemnon. The comparison between the two men makes historical sense. Both are God-blessed heroes, and this is a mere matter of historical "casting", not of personal worth. Agamemnon was no doubt as arrogant, as fallible and as venal as Bush is, but this is beside the point. We could broaden Homer's historical cast and compare today's Western leaders to the Greek chieftains of the Trojan War. Besides Bush as Agamemnon, I see Sharon as Menelaus, urging his elder brother Agamemnon to go fight the Trojans, one of whom had wronged him. I can picture myself Tony Blair as Ulysses, more cunning than strong and more clever than rich. Chirac, the oldest G8 leader, I see as old Nestor, the only Greek chief who fights on a chariot, and the only one, too, who does not kill anyone under the walls of Troy. As for the anti-war liberals, I see them as Thersites, mocking and stirring up ill feelings, but unable to stand their ground.

VA : In that case who would be Achilles, the most glorious and fearsome Greek warrior, and the archetype of the mythical hero ?
PK :
Alas there is no Achilles in our modern Iliad. For there can be no Achilles without a Hector. Achilles' glory matches Hector's glory. Yet we deny our enemies any heroism. We deny them worth and courage: Saddam is but a bloodthirsty dictator, Ben Laden a murderous madman, Zarqawi a second-rate criminal, Muslim kamikazes are suicidal cranks, Iraqi insurgents are drug-addicts and drop-outs, the Taliban are lunatics, the new Iranian president is a despicable hostage taker, etc. How can we possibly gain glory by fighting such enemies? Caesar drew his glory from Pompey, Richard the Lionheart from Saladin, Wellington from Napoleon, but what kind of hero can possibly produce a war waged against madmen, maniacs, lunatics, cowards and criminals? We will only have an Achilles when we will have acknowledged a Hector in the opposite camp. And the same thing goes for the Asians, who still refuses to acknowledge an Achilles in the Western camp.

VA : But these terrorists attack innocent people.
PK :
You are right. George Bush is St George, and Usama Ben Laden is the dragon. I would nonetheless remind you that the West burst onto those people uninvited. Western crash-gating indeed goes back a long way. Along the road, we had colonisation, the creation of the State of Israel and the constant support given by Western countries to local regimes lacking totally in legitimacy. The dragon only came out of its cave when Saint George sought to impose his law upon him. Worst still, the dragon was invoked by George who needed the dragon to be St. George! My point, however, is not to judge, but to understand. In order to understand, I have to shift the debate from a moral perspective to an historical one. What do we see, historically? Soon after the First World War, the Western powers refused to set up an Arab State on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, preferring, instead, to carve up the land and dominate it. Later, the West used a secular Iraq to fight Khomeinist Iran, then unhesitatingly broke down the Iraqi State and imposed sanctions on Iran. The West further emasculated Pakistan by neutering its "Islamic bomb", and it kept Muslim Turkey at bay as if it were a mistress one ought to be ashamed of. In truth, the West did it utmost all along to prevent the emergence of a strong Arab or Muslim State in the Middle East. Ought we be surprised, then, if orphaned Arabs and Muslims now turn en masse to the modern incarnations of the Old Man of the Mountain and of the sect of the Assassins?

VA : But past or present Western wrongdoings can hardly justify the bombings and the death of innocent people!
PK :
Innocence is a moral notion. Politically, innocence makes no sense whatsoever. Politically speaking, there are only embarrassing deaths and others deaths that can be exploited. What is far more interesting that this moral issue is the fact that those who are killing people in New York, Madrid and London, but also in Indonesia, Turkey and Iraq, do it without distinction of race, nationality, or religion. In other words, their victims, be they British or Iraqi, Christian or Muslim, are not politically embarrassing for them. The terrorists are as disconnected from their own society as they are from the Western society they are fighting. They do not need their co-religionists any more than they do the "infidels". It is the principle of takfîr wa hijra- that is to say "excommunication and exile"- according to which the holy warriors anathematise the society in which they live (takfîr), before excluding themselves from it (hijra) and waging war against it.

VA : The use of terrorism would thus be the proof of infinite powerlessness. Is that to say that the new Trojan War is about to end?
PK :
Terrorism is indeed the weapon of the weak and the remaining New Trojans may well be about to succumb. Yet the war will not end with the fall of Troy. As Carl Schmitt once wrote, war is not a test of strength but a test of will: One is only defeated when one acknowledges defeat. The Muslim Arabs, who do not seem to have elaborated a political theory of defeat (in the same way the Germans and the Japanese did after World War II), still do not consider themselves beaten. And on the subject of the Trojan War, may I remind you that despite the Greeks' victory and the destruction of Troy, Aeneas - a Trojan hero and a member of the royal household - survived to the fall of the city. Homer tells us that his sons ruled over parts of Troad after that, and Augustus, the Roman emperor, later strived to build himself a mythical genealogy linking him to Aeneas In the fifteenth century, Mehmed II, the Ottoman sultan who had conquered Constantinople, identified himself totally with Aeneas and his descendants. Once, passing by Troy, he is said to have exclaimed: "God bestowed upon me the privilege of avenging this city and its inhabitants: I tamed their enemies, devastated their wealth (…) For, those who had devastated this city were Greeks, Macedonians, Thessalians and Peloponnesians, and it was their descendants who finally paid back to me the debt that their impious folly had contracted towards us, the Asians." One of these days, soon maybe, some Asian hero, feeling Trojan to the core and identifying himself with Aeneas, might well bloody the Westerners' nose and make them pay back the debt he would consider their "impious folly" to have contracted towards the Asians. The epic tale of the Greeks and the Trojans is, alas, a never ending one, and now and then the fortunes of war simply change side. This is precisely the reason why I started our talk with a reference to an historical fate.

VA : Can one escape this vicious circle?
PK :
The answer to your question is probably in the Iliad. In the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, Homer tells us that the Olympian gods were more or less equally divided between the two camps: whereas Poseidon, Hera and Athena fought for the Greeks, Apollo, Artemis and Ares fought with the Trojans. The Greeks and the Trojans indeed worshipped the same gods, and Priam sacrificed to Zeus as did Agamemnon. The Greeks and the Trojans were not so much separated by the gods than by water: by the strait of the Hellespont. A far cry from the new Trojan War! Bush's god has nothing in common with Ben Laden's. In his preface to the French translation of the Iliad, Pierre Vidal-Naquet rightly points out that a king of Chios (a Greek island, therefore) was named Hector (a Trojan name); that Hector was worshipped in Thebes (a Beotian Greek city); that one of the brotherhoods of Thasos, five centuries BC, had taken the name of Priam; and that eight centuries later, in the third century AD, one could still see in Troy a statue of Hector facing one of Achilles. If we truly want to break the vicious circle of war between East and West, we ought at least to acknowledge that Judeo-Christian civilisation and Arab Islamic civilization are but two aspects of a single reality. For what is the East, if not the place where the sun rises? And what is the West, if not the place were the sun sets? Yet whether it rises or sets, the sun god, Helios, remains the same.

VA : Nonetheless we have trouble acknowledging this. The fierce opposition, within Europe, to the entry of Muslim Turkey into the European Union, testifies to this?
PK :
True. Zeus, the supreme power, may have as much sympathy for the Trojans as he does for the Greeks, but underneath Zeus less important Olympian deities are still settling scores through human proxies. As long as we are willing to be the playthings of the minor gods, we will continue to relive, again and again, the Trojan War that sticks to us like some karma. And as long as we do, we will remain prisoners of the Iliad where the gods treat humans as they would toys, and we will be unable to embark, as we should, on the Odyssey where man truly begins to master his own destiny.

*Percy Kemp's latest novel: The Cuckoo Then, On Every Tree, Mocks Married Men, a spy thriller, is published in France under the title Et le coucou, dans l'arbre, se rit de l'époux (Paris: Albin Michel, 2005).