Into the Desert

At its highest levels, the literature of war is often about a hero gone bad, a hero, in fact, who becomes indistinguishable from his enemy. Achilles, to begin at the beginning, outrages the gods by his desecration of the body of his slain archrival, Hector, and it takes a message from Zeus to persuade him to relinquish the body for burial.

In America, the closest we've come to having a Homer of our own, "an epic, tragic, national poet," is probably John Ford, the tormented, alcoholic Irish American director who invented both the classic Western and John Wayne in his 1939 film Stagecoach. But it's the film Ford made immediately after that, Young Mr. Lincoln, starring young Henry Fonda, that may be the single most lyrical and compelling evocation of the American ideals of justice and community ever crafted by an American artist. No one did heroes as well as Ford.

So it's all the more startling to see Ford's late Western The Searchers, his ninth picture with Wayne, which came out in 1956. Suddenly, Wayne no longer personifies the chivalrous ideals he embodied as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach or the military officers in Ford's cavalry films. In The Searchers, Wayne plays a former Confederate cavalryman who rode off to avoid surrendering to the Yankees and who is possessed by a raging hatred of Indians. As the self-appointed protector of isolated frontier settlers who are subjected to murderous raids from a band of Comanches, he becomes as savage as the Comanches themselves -- his hatred culminating in a shot in which he scalps the Comanche chief he has tracked for five years.

Nor does Ford let even his beloved cavalry off easy, showing us the bodies of squaws killed in a raid on a Comanche encampment. In the film's famous closing shot, with the camera positioned inside a settler's home looking out the doorway to the desert beyond, the Wayne character returns his niece, whom the Comanches had kidnapped five years earlier, to the settler's family. She enters the house; other characters enter the house; and Wayne remains outside, looking in, then turning, then walking away into the desert as the door closes and the picture ends.

Defend civilization by becoming as barbaric as its enemies, Ford suggests, and you are no longer really part of that civilization. Or perhaps you are, but that civilization has lost some of its ideals, its raison d'être, in the process.

These thoughts of Homer and Ford on men in war are occasioned by the story of the Syrian-born Canadian computer engineer whom the Mounties misidentified as an al-Qaeda associate and whom our own government then spirited off to Syria in September 2002 so he could be tortured into revealing what he knew. After nearly a year of torture, it was clear that he knew nothing, because he wasn't an al-Qaeda associate.

What's striking about this story (and it's just one of many things that are striking about this story) is that we sent him to Syria, which was providing us with some assistance during the period between September 11 and our invasion of Iraq but which also was an authoritarian regime that knew no constraints in the treatment of its presumed enemies. We sent him there because he'd be tortured, because the Syrians would do the kinds of things that the same administration officials who devised this policy feared the Syrians, given half a chance, would do to us.

But why rely just on the Syrians? At the same time, as the president acknowledged this month, we ourselves (that is, CIA employees) had embarked on our own round of torture of al-Qaeda suspects, some of them the genuine article, some not. As the president asserted during his news conference Friday, that doesn't mean that we've become our enemy, that we're in any sense the moral equivalent of al-Qaeda. But it most certainly means we've abandoned our own moral and legal norms, as the administration's determination to create a loophole in the Geneva Conventions makes unmistakably clear.

Lindsey Graham, John Warner, Colin Powell, and above all John McCain know firsthand what war can do to men and why we need laws to keep men from becoming their nightmare image of their enemy. Their knowledge is as old as Homer, as American as John Ford.

As events would have it, though, our nation is led by men who have carefully avoided both war and literature. By men devoid of a sense of the nation's and their own moral fallibility. By men who have led us into a moral desert and aren't even looking for a way back home.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect. This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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