When the hurly-burly's done

Stephen Vicchio

March 12, 1991|By Stephen Vicchio

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE chooses to open his tragedy "Macbeth" with a question posed by one of three witches: "When shall we meet again?" The second witch's answer: "When the hurly-burly's done, when the battle's lost and won."

The world's 128 nations must meet again now that the witch's conditions, and those of George Bush, have been met.

The allies have vanquished their foe. And in the eyeblink that is our American stay on the planet, we see ourselves as the victors. We understand ourselves as those who have heroically brought good out of evil. The president said as much in his speech last Wednesday. The world is once again ready for peace -- and we have made it that way.

The ancient Egyptians thought twilight would never come on their day in the sun. The Greeks suffered from the same kind of admirable hubris. Archaeologists have spent only the last century or so digging up the remains of these civilizations dead now thousands of years.

One day America, too, will be just a few strata higher in the archaeologists' excavations than the civilizations of the pharaohs and Pericles. And what will they say of us in thousands of years? What will these archaeologists of the future conclude about America?

They will say, I think, that we were noble, courageous and kind. But they will add that we were myopic in our moral vision. They will say we did what we thought was right. But they will also point out that, like the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, we had a penchant for blowing up other Homo sapiens.

They probably will not ask if this was a just war, particularly if the end of our race comes with a bang and not a whimper. They will not be impressed with our conditions for a just war, but rather with the fact that we had so many of them.

The archaeologists, I should think, will take the long view of history -- a perspective that places this moment of American euphoria in its larger deadly context. For them, this war will have lasted the length of a heartbeat when measured against the backdrop of all human history.

Iraqis and Kuwaitis, Palestinians and Jews, Americans and Russians -- all will be put together. We will be given a single place somewhere in an unbroken line of violence stretching back to the Sumerians. We will be measured by our likenesses. We will all have blood on our hands.

These archaeologists of the future will, more than likely, be unconcerned about the winners and losers in this war and those that preceded it. They will perhaps marvel at the horror and perversity that war took on in our time.

And if this unbroken line of violence were to come to an abrupt end, it will not, in all likelihood, be a peaceful one.

These future archaeologists probably will muse that we thought each of our wars would be the last. We always thought we were fighting for peace. We believed there would be a new world order -- that each war was the war to end all wars.

And if these sifters of history look back on one last war, on Armageddon, the irony will not be lost.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His latest collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," will be published by Momentum books in the spring.

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