The Region: Can you handle the truth?

Captain Queeg, Colonel Jessep, and the war in Iraq.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
In 1951, Herman Wouk wrote a novel called The Caine Mutiny which won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1989, Aaron Sorkin wrote a play entitled A Few Good Men. Both were made into highly successful films. If you want to understand how the West deals with the Middle East, consider the differences. Wouk's book is about a small group of officers on a US Navy minesweeper during World War II. The captain is unstable and one of the officers, an intellectual, ridicules him, persuading the others to join in. In the end, the captain cracks and the number-two officer succeeds in taking over, but is subsequently court-martialed. The defense lawyer gets the mutineers off by showing that the captain has serious mental problems. But at the celebration party, the lawyer, Lt. Barney Greenwald, tears into his own clients. When they were having a good time and playing football, he says, it was men like the captain who were protecting freedom. If they had only supported him - as was their duty - everything would have been all right. Indeed, his clients were guilty. Here is what Greenwald said: "While I was studying law and old Keefer here was writing his play for the Theatre Guild, and Willie here was on the playing fields of Princeton, all that time these stuffy, stupid [people] in the Navy and the Army were manning guns. Of course we figured in those days, only fools go into armed service. Bad pay, no millionaire future. So when all hell broke loose and the Germans started running out of soap and figured, well it's time to come over and melt down old Mrs. Greenwald - who's gonna stop them?... Meantime, who was keeping Mama out of the soap dish? Captain Queeg." I once read an interview with Wouk in which he explained that the story was an analogy of the relationship between people and God. The deity had not always done a good job lately, but this showed all the more the need for humans to act in support of divine goals. Undermining faith and the democratic social order made things worse and those who did so - those most valued in mainstream intellectual circles - had nothing to be proud of. NOW FAST-FORWARD almost 40 years. Sorkin's play is about the Marines at Guantanamo Bay base. A Marine is murdered by his comrades and the colonel in command covers it up to protect the corps' reputation. He is court-martialed and convicted, his career ruined. A friend of mine who was in the play, and had two brothers in the US Navy, laughed out loud at Sorkin's ignorance about how the military actually worked. While at times clearly drawing on Wouk's work, Sorkin's moral is the exact opposite: It is the colonel who is responsible for the killing by giving bad orders and hiding the truth. The most famous speech in the film is that of Col. Nathan Jessep, which comes close to plagiarizing Greenwald's outburst. Here is the key section: "You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You?... You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives... You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall." But remember, Jessep is the villain and the speech comes across as one more example of the use of national security as an excuse. Jessep is sort of a stand-in for Richard Nixon. Unlike in Wouk, it is not the mockers who should feel guilty but those who claim to be protecting them. Wouk's respect for the military and the need for tough national security efforts and even the readiness to use force came after World War II and the sad mistakes preceding it that perhaps made it inevitable. Sorkin is the product of Vietnam. AND NOW on top of Vietnam we have Iraq. I am not judging here the facts of the case or the situation on the ground, but the impact on the Western psyche, or at least the Western elite psyche. Now what does this have to do with the Middle East? First, is the one who tells you the truth the good guy or the bad guy? Sure, it's nice to believe that the radicals will be turned into moderates, that all the conflicts can be talked away, and that the swords will be beaten into computers and CD players. But are we going to accept the reality that you cannot make deals with extremists and that the terrorists mean what they say? That the Palestinians are incapable of making peace or building a peaceful state? Or will all this be explained away because it is too unpleasant - and requires too much from us - to face? Second, should the main emphasis be on the brave efforts of the countries, leaders and individuals who are combating the greatest threat to freedom and progress since Berlin fell in 1945? Or should it be on their failings? Is it our proper task to highlight every shortcoming of those fighting for the right, to dig up every excuse for the extremists and terrorists, to place the good guys on an equal plane with the villains of our time, or even below them? You can fill in the specifics, I'm sure. So, can you handle the truth? The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.