The Truth, Mainly - 05/24/2004

One more letter to the President
by Leon Satterfield

Dear Mr. President:

I need to get something off my chest.

As I was reading Seymour Hersh's account of what led up to the recent unpleasantness at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, one line jumped off the page at me. It was about Donald Rumsfeld's plan to make the prison into a huge CIA operation for extracting—via whatever methods necessary—information from the bad guys.

It was supposed to be a secret. Only a select few in our government were to be in on it.

Hersh quotes an anonymous intelligence agent saying this:

"We're not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness. The rules are 'Grab whom you must. Do what you want.'"

The line that jumped off the page wasn't the one about the unencumbered violence allowed by the "rules." It was the preceding sentence where the enterprise is called "our heart of darkness."

I hate to give you more bad news, Mr. President, but somebody in the CIA has been reading Joseph Conrad.

More specifically, his 1899 novella called "Heart of Darkness."

It's a dangerous story.

I know you're a busy man with the war and the election and all, so you probably don't have time to read Joseph Conrad, even though he was a Brit and the Brits seem to be about the only ones who still like us.

The thing about "Heart of Darkness" is that it seems to bear some resemblance to contemporary events. Let me tell you a little bit about it.

It concerns a guy named Kurtz who starts out as a very idealistic Englishman overcome with the notion that he should bring the light of Civilization to the darkness of interior Africa.

Conrad, though, didn't buy that notion of the relationship between European countries and Africa. The purpose of "Heart of Darkness," he wrote a reviewer, was to expose "the criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work in Africa."

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Turns out that Kurtz becomes far more interested in collecting African ivory to sell back in Europe than he is in bringing the natives out of the heart of darkness into the enlightenment of European culture.

And to that end, Kurtz resorts to horrific uses of power to coerce his African workers to bring in more—and still more—ivory. And get this:

His coercion takes the form of terrorizing his workers by surrounding his house with posts, each one with a human head mounted on it.

Kurtz eventually dies, apparently of terminal greed and terminal cruelty to the Africans he had come to escort from the darkness into the light. His last words acknowledge the mess he's made of his idealism: "The horror! The horror!"

So what, you may be wondering, Mr. President, does all this have to do with you? What have you to do with an idealistic enterprise gone terribly wrong?

Whaddya think? Might a cynic see analogies between Kurtz' story and yours?

Might a cynic say our heart of darkness isn't in Africa now; it's in the Middle East? And might he further say that while our effort in Iraq isn't corrupted by our desire for ivory, there's a whole lot of oil under that desert just waiting to be exported for big bucks?

And am I not a cynic?

We may be too civilized—or too squeamish—to put our victims' heads on posts. That's an activity hooded Iraqi murderers seem to relish when they behead an American on videotape. They're responding, they say, to pictures of what our sadists have done in the prison Saddam Hussein built. Are things getting mixed up or what?

Knowing about revenge makes it even more excruciating to watch our GIs, both male and female, take such apparent pleasure in tormenting their prisoners.

And who among us—cynics and idealists alike—can look at them for very long without at least thinking "The horror! The horror!"

Well, I suppose the senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, might be immune. He's the guy, remember, who said he was outraged that others were outraged by what went on after we took over Saddam's prison.

All this, Mr. President, must be very troubling to a man of your religious inclinations.

So why don't you talk to someone about it? Not Mr. Rumsfeld or Mr. Cheney or Sen. Inhofe, but maybe with that CIA agent who called our war in Iraq our "heart of darkness"?

Or an even more audacious suggestion: Why don't you talk it over with your family? You know, see if you can explain it to Laura and the twins?

Mr. President, I double-dog dare you.


Leon Satterfield


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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