J. M. Coetzee is the South African writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature last month. In "Waiting for the Barbarians," a novel he published in 1980, his protagonist is an aging magistrate in a town at the edge of an empire. The time and place is unimportant: Empires are interchangeable, history's recurrences not much less so. Even the magistrate isn't interested in history or his place in it. "I have not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times," he says. But the barbarians are rattling the empire's fringes, or so "the rumor went; the Empire should take precautionary measures, for there would certainly be war."
Soon the magistrate's world of "tranquil certainties" is shattered, and his middling decency with it, not just because he is briefly complicit as the empire's insecurity turns to imperial brutality. The modern and the civilized have their well-tended gardens of illusions, but "at any moment their work can be brought to nothing by a few men armed with spades! How can we win such a war? What is the use of textbook military operations, sweeps and punitive raids into the enemy's heartland, when we can be bled to death at home?"
"Waiting for the Barbarians" comes to mind when one reads the famous "long, hard slog" memo Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote last month about those vague wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the vaguer "war on terror" rattling the fringes of the American imagination. The memo is full of questions about barbarians, of whom there seems to be a perfectly endless supply to ensure that (as Harper's Magazine reports) the Pentagon will spend more money in 2004 than it did in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. To the truth of things, fiction is generally more accurate, or at least more honest, than any factual account. Which is what makes "Waiting for the Barbarians" and Rumsfeld's memo part of the same timeless story, a call-and-response duo where fact and fiction are as interchangeable as good guys and barbarians.
Rumsfeld's memo: The Department of Defense "has been organized, trained and equipped to fight big armies, navies and air forces. It is not possible to change DoD fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror." Coetzee's magistrate: "No one can accept that an imperial army has been annihilated by men with bows and arrows and rusty old guns who live in tents and never wash and cannot read or write."
Rumsfeld's memo: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" Coetzee's magistrate: "Some say that the entire thousand-mile frontier has erupted into conflict, that the northern barbarians have joined forces with the western barbarians, that the army of the Empire is too thinly stretched, that one of these days it will be forced to give up the defense of remote outposts like this one to concentrate its resources on the protection of the heartland."
Rumsfeld's memo: "Is our current situation such that 'the harder we work, the behinder we get'?" Coetzee's magistrate: "They -- the barbarians! They lured us on and on, we could never catch them. They picked off the stragglers, they cut our horses loose in the night, they would not stand up to us!" Rumsfeld's memo: "It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog." Coetzee's magistrate: "Others say that we receive no news of the war only because our soldiers have thrust deep into the enemy's territory and are too busy dealing heavy blows to send dispatches. Soon, they say, when we least expect it, our men will come marching back weary but victorious, and we will have peace in our time."
I especially like that last line, recalling as it does Neville Chamberlain's famous last words on his return from Munich in 1938, all atwitter under Hitler's spell. Historians (and novelists) always fail to quote the equally ironic line Chamberlain uttered that night from the steps of 10 Downing Street: "Go home and get a nice quiet sleep." Rumsfeld is no Chamberlain, nor is his would-be Churchillian boss. But their promise of peace in our time amounts to the same iconic slogan, now that they've engaged us in wars for the ages. The justification of these wars as battles between good and evil, between the civilized and the barbaric, are the lies necessary to mask the increasing commingling of the two: We've taken the bait, we're fighting the barbarians on their terms, not ours, and are therefore condemned to behave in their image.
"What has become important above all," Coetzee's magistrate says when civility's pretenses have been shattered, "is that I should neither be contaminated by the atrocity that is about to be committed nor poison myself with impotent hatred of its perpetrators." But it isn't possible not to be contaminated. Daily we see pictures from the fringes of empire of American soldiers searching the pockets of little barbarian boys, of soldiers binding and gagging barbarians, of soldiers looking aghast at the latest ghastly suicide attack by the barbarians, of soldiers panicking in ghastly ways against crowds of barbarians, and we should wonder: Who are the barbarians? The advice from on high is soothing. Leave the fighting to us. Enjoy your tax cuts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.
© 2003 News-Journal Corporation