When I was younger, I called Vietnam – the conflict of my youth and my generation – “the war that never ends.”
Now Iraq is threatening to become that war as we are drawn back into its political and humanitarian crises. It was, of course, the wrong war, which President Barack Obama pointed out when he was a senator, the war for al-Qaeda being the province of Afghanistan. But we went anyway, little understanding the culture (echoes of Vietnam) or the lesson of Alexander the Great – that to conquer you must immerse yourself in a place and be prepared to risk being seduced, being conquered, by the place itself.
Alexander – the Greco-Macedonian conqueror of the Persian Empire – never left Iraq, dying in Babylon a month short of his 33rd birthday. We left, but in leaving, stayed.
Iraq figures into one of the four story arcs that make up my new novel, “Water Music,” about the tennis prodigy Alí Iskandar – a favorite character of my readers, perhaps because his story is so poignant and he himself is so vulnerable. He longs to escape, to make a secure, peaceful life for his Iraqi Catholic family and himself. But desperation is a kind of dance with the devil. It blinds you to the real cost of the sure thing and the real meaning of the kindness of strangers. Alí pays a terrible price for “peace” and ambition, for what he discovers is that war – the ultimate game men play – is everywhere, everywhere is war, because he has internalized it.
There’s a marvelous Vietnam War-era sculpture at Kykuit, the historic Rockefeller family estate at Pocantico Hills, N.Y., called “Alexander Before Ecbatane” (1965), a bronze by Jean Ipousteguy. Ecbatana (modern-day Hamadan in Iran) was the summer residence of the Persian emperors, the seat of the empire’s treasury. It was also the place where Hephaestion, Alexander’s soul-mate, died some six months before he did. The sculpture shows Alexander lunging forward, all sharp angles as if he were a war machine. For that is what war does. It makes men – and women – cogs in its gigantic wheel of destruction.
“Do you know this place?” a woman of Middle Eastern descent asked me anxiously after one of my readings, in which I tell some of Alí’s story. I could see she bought my book in part because she was looking for answers where there are only questions.
I told her I knew this world only inasmuch as a writer with an imagination knows a world. This I do know, however: Someday we will leave Iraq.
But it will never leave us.