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Fifth Anniversary

03/19/08 5:55PM By Jay Parini
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(HOST) On this Fifth Anniversary of the War in Iraq, commentator, poet and teacher Jay Parini reflects on this particular war - and war in general.

(PARINI) Decades ago, as a student during the height of the conflict in Vietnam, I was reading Homer’s great epic of war, The Iliad. The death of Hector in defense of Troy struck me as one of the most moving things I had ever read. To this day, I remember weeping over the pages of Homer, and wondering that humanity could be so cruel and stupid. Was there really any point to war? Did anybody ever really "win" a war, in that the cycle of violence seems only to pass on to the next generation, and there is never relief from the bloodshed and misery.

I had, wildly and foolishly, hoped that the Vietnam debacle had taught Americans a good lesson in humility. It doesn’t pay to attack foreign countries that do not threaten us in any immediate way. Diplomacy is always the first route, then second, and the third. War should be reserved only for desperate act of self-defense, a means of throwing in the towel. It is an act of despair.

I didn’t actually believe the U.S. would invade Iraq. I had been on several panel discussions beforehand, had talked with expert on the region. I had myself visited the Middle East many times. I was involved with the Poets Against the War movement, and was interviewed on a radio show in Seattle where I said, echoing others, that such a war would cost billions, it would lead to thousands of death, it would strengthen Iran, and would do nothing for American prestige in the world. Why take such a risk? Well, I underestimated - or overestimated - the Bush Administration.

Five years on, what can we say about this war? We have wasted not billions but trillions of dollars, borrowing this money from our grandchildren, who will pay dearly for our mismanagement. Nearly four thousand American soldiers have died, with no end of the slaughter in sight. The number of dead Iraqi civilians remains in question, but the number is appalling, unimaginable - with dear children among them. Two million Iraqi refugees have fled their homes in fear. And Iran laughs at us, as well they should; they will inherit this part of the world, as we inevitably withdraw. And we have no choice but to withdraw. We can do it now, next year, or the year after. But we cannot occupy Iraq forever, and will not.

After many years, I’ve been rereading Homer’s Iliad and I find great wisdom there. In Book II, Zeus speaks to the King, Agamemnon, in a dream, telling him that he’s a leader, and should behave prudently. Foolish Agamemnon wakes, and decided to attack Troy, misreading or ignoring this message from heaven. And so Homer writes of the king:

He woke and thought he’d conquer Troy
that very day. What a fool he was! He had no clue
Of what Zeus really meant - How war would bring,
as ever, suffering, more cries of sorrow, a blunt brutality.
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