Babble on, junior historian

August 8, 1990

I see lately that my good friends in the mass media -- our motto, "We bring good things to your attention'' -- have taken to comparing Iraq's latest escapades with Germany's MOA in the late 1930s. First, you rag incessantly about how unfairly your harmless, inoffensive little neighbor has been treating you, amass a million men-at-arms or so, and blitzkrieg them like crazy, defensive artillery be damned. Then you start making hungry eyes at the next neighbor. It worked well for Germany, for a while.

It's nice to hear about Third Reich methods again. No one wants to talk about Third Reich tactics in the context of Europe, especially in the context of a Fourth Reich. It's not polite, sort of a prickly subject, the kind of thing British officials tend to get fired over for saying in public. Let bygones be bygones, people say. After all, we're all good civilized Westerners, aren't we?

But Iraq doesn't get that benefit of the doubt. Iraq hasn't been a good citizen lately. But Iraq is no Germany, and I don't mean that in a bad or a good way. Iraq has learned a thing or two from Germany -- chemical warfare, blitzkrieg tactics, and the art of making excuses for invasion that not even are inclined to believe, for example -- but Iraq's habits go back a bit farther, back to an aggressive little tyke that crawled out of the cradle of civilization thousands of years ago, a little tyke called Babylonia.

Good old Babylon. Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Cradle of civilization and all that. I remember that much from school. We just tend to forget that the Tigris and Euphrates are still there, and between those rivers are more or less the same people who terrorized the Near East 4,000 years ago. Every few centuries or so, they try conquering Persia, and usually fail, but most of the time they sit around being ticked off at American school children for failing to recognize them at a map and then kick themselves for having changed their name to something stupid like Iraq. No wonder American kids don't recognize Mesopotamia anymore. Kids have a hard enough time finding the United States. They'd be completely lost if this country changed its name to, say, Fred, or Mesopotamia.

Kids just don't recognize shapes well enough. Iraq should be shaped like a recognizable object, like a mitten, or a boot. It needs an identifiable coastline, at least. Maybe that's what's on President Saddam Hussein's mind. He's probably sitting around in the Iraqi equivalent of the Oval Office (crescent shaped, no doubt), looking at a map and saying to himself, "There now, tack on Kuwait, a little bit of Saudi Arabia, maybe a chunk or two off Iran while they're not looking . . . There, a nice hat-like shape."

Iraq gained the attention of the world. And all it wanted was the attention of American schoolchildren.

If only it had gotten their attention earlier. Americans don't understand the region well. Anything happens that they can't explain, and we just shake our heads and say, "Well, you know . . . Islam .'' Islam is supposed to explain everything. They're not Christian, after all.

Well, it goes a little deeper than that. Map companies selling to Islamic nations often show the Moslem world as one big, happy conglomerate, with no national borders between neighbors. But Babylonia and Persia were around long before Mohammed, and they're not known for respecting borders, friendly or otherwise.

Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine and all those other neat biblical places used to be fertile, if violent, places. A few thousand years ago, they were timber and savannah. But after centuries of invasions, they got a little footworn. The Roman habit of burning everything to the grounds and plowing the fields with salt didn't help, either. After a while, those areas became uninhabitable, downright hostile. But people still live there, and they'll live and die for those wastelands.

We tend to forget those things here. The history of this country as a quasi-European nation goes back less than five centuries. We're not a nation that holds a grudge well, and certainly not one for 4,000 years. Look at England. We like England. Look at Germany. We sort of like Germany now. We're even feeling warm and friendly towards the Soviet Union. And we've only been seriously hostile to them for 45 years. Yeah, we invaded them back in 1919, but we weren't very serious about it. As a nation, we're a well-armed babe in the woods. We play at world policeman with no clear idea of why everybody hates each other. We blunder in as peace-keeper and the bad guy is whoever shoots at us first.

I hate to say it, but for once, Israel was right. It wasn't the rock-throwing children they've been talking about these past few years. It was Iraq. In the meantime, we were entertained as Babylonia and Persia fought against each other in the largest infantry battles since World War I. It was an interesting display of American and Soviet weaponry pitted against each other, without servicemen of either superpower getting shot at, except for the Stark, and that was understandable. A high-performance, radar-equipped jet in the hands of a Babylonian could occasionally be dangerous. We didn't raise a fuss.

Israel knows Babylonia and Persia. They've all been in the business of fighting over sand for some time now.

© 1990 Randel Shard. First published in The Minnesota Daily on August 8, 1990