Israel’s Ajax: The Tragedy of Mr. Sharon

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Sophocles once wrote a magnificent play about the Greeks’ greatest fighter at Troy after Achilles — Ajax, as irreplaceable in war as he proved expendable in peace. During the struggle for Troy, the Greeks were often saved by the towering, clumsy “donkey.” Without the dash of a youthful, handsome Achilles or the divine dispensation of a crafty Odysseus, Ajax battered down the Trojans — fighting out of a sense of duty, personal honor, and perhaps a sheer love of combat.

Yet once the victory was obtained, danger past, and spoils allotted, the more politically astute and glib heroes — like the sons of Atreus and Odysseus — came away with all the honors and prizes. In a fit of madness, Ajax killed himself — bewildered that the race goes not to the swift, and the memory of men is short and of the moment. In the increasing democratization of fifth-century B.C. Athens, the playwright Sophocles was apparently captivated by a few old war-horses still in his midst who had once built Athens by blood and toil — and yet were clearly unfit for the nuances and subtleties of the duplicitous politics of the contemporary freewheeling assembly.

Films such as High Noon and Hombre draw on elements of the classical tragic hero, the man who does society’s dirty work, but receives no accolades for his sacrifice — and as often as not ends up as publicly shunned as he is privately admired from a safe distance. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films played on the theme of an over-the-top and often out-of-control cop, who bent the rules to thwart evil as he saw it. Shane was a similar figure. The solitary and much-needed gunman saved the homesteaders from the cattle barons; yet his skill at killing murderers ensured that such a dangerous gun-toting firebrand had no real role amid the very peace he alone had created.

Of course, Sophocles and Hollywood did not invent such figures, but rather their art was modeled after the rare mavericks who occasionally come into and out of democratic cultures — men who are blunt, unsubtle, uncompromising, and deadly in their anger. William Tecumseh Sherman was such a figure. Brilliant, but purposely uncouth, his fiery rhetoric (“I can make this march, and make Georgia howl”) and brutal marches terrified enemies, frightened his superiors, ended the war — and earned him eternal hatred for saving far more lives than he took.

It was probably fortuitous that the undiplomatic Patton died in December 1945, after his work at destroying Nazi Germany was done — but before his lunatic fire and brimstone clichés repelled the country he had helped save. His boasts that his GIs would “cut up” “Krouts” played well during the war. But after his enemies were vanquished, the media increasingly found his rhetoric dated — if not downright inflammatory in peace.

Others as raw come to mind — Arthur “Bomber” Harris and Curtis LeMay. The former resurrected a morbid British Bomber Command, burned down Hamburg and Dresden, helped to wreck the German economy, and was lauded during the conflict for the outright carnage he inflicted on England’s fascist enemies, who were butchering thousands each day of the war. After 1945 it was a different story. The portly general was quietly ostracized during the peace as more an unpleasant Neanderthal with the blood of children on his hands than the King’s valiant warrior.

Over his long career, Curtis LeMay said ghastly things (“We’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”) — and sometimes did the same. Taking his magnificently designed, high-tech B-29s down from a safe 30,000 feet to firebomb at low levels, he dropped leaflets of warning and then burned down Japan’s major cities — in the “collateral” damage killing innocent civilians, combatants, and factory workers alike indiscriminately, as well as wrecking Japanese communications, rail works, and storage facilities. During the war he was seen as a genius who saved millions of lives who would have been lost in the anticipated and much dreaded long land war against a fully armed and stocked pristine Japan — a dictatorship that at the time was killing thousands of American soldiers in the Pacific and far more innocents in China, Korea, and the Philippines. In peace, the cigar-chomping LeMay became the model for the repugnant and mad General Buck Turgidson of Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove, who bragged of Armageddon (“only 10-20 million Americans killed, tops”).

Ariel Sharon is a similar figure. His past is checkered. Critics cite his negligence in not restraining Lebanese militias from massacring Palestinians. His former opposition to peace accords has emboldened settlers — and gave encouragement to dangerous zealots and radicals. Opponents remember all that and more — forgetting that in 1967, and especially 1973, his service to Israel was heroic and life saving. Five years ago no sane person in Israel thought that the widowed, obese, sweating, blunt-speaking, untelegenic bulldog would ever be prime minister; five years from now no sane person will ever quite believe he actually was. But now? At this moment of Israel’s greatest peril? Israel is lucky to have the likes of him — one last time.

Without Israeli retaliation, Saddam Hussein’s rained Scuds into Tel Aviv to the cheers of Palestinians (who apparently hoped their payloads were gas-laden as promised); the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon brought not the hoped-for peace, but the shelling of Israel proper; and the giveaway at Camp David offered almost all of the West Bank and instead sired the intifada — all that implanted the impression to many in the region not that Israel was magnanimous, but rather tired, dispirited, and ready to call it quits. And so the utopians, peacemakers, and conciliators, for all their forbearance, got the murder-bombers — planned deliberately after Camp David, but blamed on Mr. Sharon’s single visit to the Temple Mount.

Despite being besieged by murder-bombers and hounded by the Europeans, the United Nations, and many in our state department, Mr. Sharon nevertheless did what all such gunslingers do. He said “no more,” and plowed into the West Bank to hunt down, kill, or capture the culprits. He barked out that he probably should have had Arafat shot years ago. He promised to bring a terrible retribution to the West Bank, which harbored, cheered, and aided killer bombers. He said all that and more — without make-up, scripts, or damage-control spinners and handlers.

Yet the reality was that his soldiers were far more humane than Russians who blew up entire neighborhoods in Chechnya. His men probably killed fewer civilians than did our outnumbered and trapped heroes in Mogadishu. Unlike the Kuwaitis, Sharon did not ethnically cleanse Palestinians; unlike the Jordanians he did not murder them in the thousands; unlike the Syrians he did not wipe out an entire town and pave it over; and, of course, unlike the Arab heroes, Nasser and Saddam Hussein, he did not gas civilians.

No, he sent combatants house-to-house, to pry out killers from boobytrapped parlors, in narrow streets where gunmen shot and then ducked into living rooms. No matter — he was Mr. Sharon and his soldiers were Israelis, and so the world dammed this new Sherman come alive. A corrupt international community that ignored thousands who were beheaded, incinerated, and blown apart in the Congo, Bosnia, India, and Rwanda has demonized him for a “massacre” in which less than a 100 Palestinians were killed in efforts to apprehend the murderers among them.

Sharon expected all that condemnation and worse, but cared little — knowing instead that his duty and his proper role, at this time and at this moment, were to reestablish the first principle of Israel’s existence: Attacks on the Jewish state will invoke reprisals of such magnitude that no one will dare again murder or maim its citizens in peace. The world believes he is a little mad; but the world also trusts that when the murder-bombing starts up again he will go back in to root out murderers and make clear to their supporters, both tacit and open, the bitter wages of sanctioning mass killing.

Pessimists now claim that the situation in the Middle East is worse for “Mr. Sharon’s War.” Pundits proclaim nightly on the purported Sharon “fixation” and “feud” with Mr. Arafat. Again, the weary warrior is an easy target of the blow-dried, chattering classes — aged, plodding, with heavily accented English, in poor health, and solitary. Indeed, Sharon seems to belong better with a shovel and wading boots on his farm, or astride a tank than trying to conduct a press conference in a cheap blazer with an ample belly.

Yet the truth we dare not speak is that had not Mr. Sharon acted, we would have seen another dozen or so suicide bombings by now, hundreds of more blown-up Jews, the increasingly frightening reality that Israel would not or could not act — and a corrupt international community’s sigh about butchered Israelis that “perhaps it had to come to this.” Due to Mr. Sharon’s resolve, his absolute disdain for the amoral posturing of European statesmen (who really do have the blood of Bosnians and Kosovars on their hands), his unconcern with the venom of the Arab world, and the irritation of the United States, Israel is more, not less safe — and peace for all concerned is more, not less, likely.

Now in his mid-70s Sharon will be lucky to get six months of retirement back on his farm for his trouble. When he goes, Americans will sigh relief. Most Israelis will learn that peacemaking will come easier for his absence. The Europeans in time will be wily enough to say, “Sharon did it, not the Israelis.” And so in his lifetime, Mr. Sharon will get no credit and much blame. At home most of his rivals who follow him to craft a peace will soon conclude that “Sharon was right, but his methods were not nuanced”; the best he can hope for abroad is something like “Well, the Palestinians asked for Sharon, when they started murdering women and children.”

No one will admit that Sharon’s warmaking was necessary to save lives and establish peace — and far more humane than the fighting that is characteristic of the Russian, Indian, and Pakistani armies — and all the Arab militaries without exception. You see, Sharon, is an Ajax. And all we “civilized” and “sophisticated” armchair critics can find personal redemption and smug self-righteousness in demonizing such men — but only when their necessary work is done and we are no longer being blown to bits.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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