The Truth, Mainly - 02/11/1991

Instead of war, a Bush-Saddam tough talk contest in the desert
by Leon Satterfield

"Saddam will eat you Americans alive," a Jordanian refugee yelled at us last month. "He can eat everything. He can eat rocks, snakes, donkeys, trees, missiles and soldiers."

As brag talk goes, that's not bad. More colorful and imaginative, anyway, than some of the things the allies have been saying: "We're going to neutralize the enemy with all the coercive potential of our available assets."

Americans used to do better brag talk than that. Back in the 19th century, there was a whole school of such talkers—they called themselves half horse, half alligator—and Mark Twain and other frontier writers liked to quote them.

"I'm the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!" Twain has one such specimen saying as he squares off against another one. "I'm the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam'd by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the smallpox on my mother's side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar'l of whisky for breakfast when I'm in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I'm ailing….Blood's my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear. Cast your eye on me, gentlemen, and lay low and hold your breath, for I'm about to turn myself loose!"

Now come on. Doesn't that beat "We're gonna kick some ass"?

The other guy calls himself the Child of Calamity and Twain has him respond: "The kingdom of sorrow's a-coming! Hold me down to the earth, for I feel my powers a-working! I'm a child of sin, don't let me get a start….Contemplate me through leather— don't use the naked eye! I'm the man with a petrified heart and biler-iron bowels! The massacre of isolated communities is the pastime of my idle moments, the destruction of nationalities the serious business of my life!"

The lovely thing about Twain's two braggarts is that they wear themselves out talking like that and they don't have any meanness left for fighting.

And that suggests yet another Gulf peace proposal. With both sides apparently hellbent for a ground war, this probably won't be taken seriously, but what's lost? The two sides don't take serious proposals seriously either.

Here's the proposal:

Instead of a ground war, let's have the two heads of state meet in single combat in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert for a Half Horse, Half Alligator Tough Talk Contest—a battle of wits that, given the participants, would be pretty benign.

We'd want a couple of weeks to get the two contestants in shape. Reading a little Twain would help George Bush understand that referring to another head of state as "SAD-dumb" might have been funny the first ten or twelve times, but it's lost its zing by now. Saddam Hussein could take lessons in humorous hyperbole from that Jordanian refugee—the boast that allied troops will swim in a river of their own blood isn't very funny—and someone could tell him that Western sensibilities aren't much moved by metaphors like "the mother of battles." He'd make better contact with "the mother-in-law of battles," or "the drunk uncle of battles."

The contest would be judged by 100 randomly selected Iraqis and Americans, and there'd be stringent rules. U.N. monitors would count yawns and as soon as any brag was yawned at by 51 of the judges, the speaker would be declared the loser and he'd have to resign.

If Saddam Hussein loses, Iraq would have to apologize to everyone and withdraw from Kuwait. Even more humiliating, Iraqis would have to submit to an election with an American-style political campaign—18 months of 20-second sound bites. And most galling of all, Iraq would have to accept military aid once again from the allies. Saddam himself would have to clean up the oil spill with a toothbrush, then live out his life waiting tables in a motorcycle bar in Tel Aviv.

If George Bush loses, the U.S. would have to withdraw from the Gulf and cede the Texas panhandle to the Kuwaitis for their new homeland. The President would have to keep a straight face while telling the country it'll be in good hands with President Danny Quayle. Then he'd have to live out his life as a uniformed chauffeur to Kuwaiti Crown Prince Sheik Saad al-Abdallah al-Salem al-Sabah in the new Kuwaiti capital city of Amarillo. And he'd have to call him by his full name. Correctly pronounced.

In one fell swoop, we'd elevate the rhetoric and lower the death rate. George and Saddam would probably win the Nobel Peace Prize—or at least the gratitude of friends and families of those troops lining up on both sides for a ground war that may in fact be something to contemplate through leather, that may unite both sides in a kingdom of sorrow—or petrify hearts everywhere.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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