After the Decapitation

A cautionary tale on the Iraqi "dragon"


"Can you believe it? This war has been dragging on for six whole minutes, and there's still no end in sight." This line comes from a fictional work that casts a sharp satirical eye on war, dictatorship, propaganda, and idealism—written in Russia more than half a century ago.

I was prompted to reread "The Dragon," a brilliant dark comedy by the Russian playwright Evgeny Schwartz, when it occurred to me that some passages in it were remarkably relevant to current events. It turned out that I didn't even know how remarkable the relevance was.

The play (unfortunately, unavailable in English) takes place in the fantasy setting of a medieval city ruled by a dragon who, as dragons are wont, demands an annual sacrifice of a maiden. A wandering knight named Lancelot challenges the dragon to a battle—much to the dismay of most people in the city, who have gotten used to life under the dragon and see him as their protector.

What first made me think of "The Dragon" was the sight of Iraqi officials spinning a war in which their military forces and political power bases are being pummeled by the United States and its allies. They denied the surrenders of Iraqi soldiers and bragged of having lured the enemy into a quagmire. "We beg them to come to Baghdad so that we can teach them a lesson," said Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.

In "The Dragon," as Lancelot battles the dragon in the skies over the city and clearly starts to prevail, the dragon's human flunkies give "news updates" to the crowd gathered on the square, explaining that "the military action is unfolding in full accordance with the Dragon's battle plans."

When one of the monster's three heads is severed by the hero's sword, the people are told that "the Dragon has temporarily released one of his heads from military service and placed it into the reserves." When a second dragon head tumbles down into the square, his lackey opines that having only one head is good strategy, since one head is much easier to defend than three.

Schwartz's acid satire was rather transparently directed at Stalin's propaganda machine and its spin of the devastating defeats Soviet forces initially suffered in the war against Hitler's invading armies. Today, it can be seen as applying not only to the Stalinesque Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein but, to some degree, to the reckless promises of a quick and easy victory many of our own leaders and pundits offered in the early days of the war.

But it's not just the stinging commentary on military strategy and spin that makes "The Dragon" relevant to current events. The message of the play (which was published in the Soviet Union during the post-Stalin liberalization but was banned from the stage) is that killing the monster does not ensure a happy ending.

A year later, returning to the city he liberated, Lancelot finds little improvement. The city is now governed by its corrupt mayor and his son, who have used the people's fear of an uncertain future and their habit of slavish obedience to establish their own tyranny as brutal and greedy as the dragon's. The people who once groveled before the dragon now grovel before their new rulers.

What happens once Hussein is out of the picture and his regime is destroyed is the great unanswered question of the war in Iraq. Some supporters of the war, neoconservatives and liberals alike, talk about a postwar future in which a liberated Iraq is rebuilt as a thriving democracy and becomes a model of freedom and prosperity for the Arab and Muslim world. It's an attractive vision, to be sure. But it's also just the kind of noble dream that has a way of turning to a nightmare.

Even if the Western nations make a full commitment to the reconstruction of Iraq, there is little reason to believe that a country ravaged by war and dictatorship can be easily transformed into a liberal democracy. Tyranny, "The Dragon" reminds us, grows roots deep inside the human soul. Add to this the fact that much of the opposition to the Hussein regime within Iraq comes from Muslim fundamentalists whose plans for a free Iraq are very different from those of American visionaries.

Like Schwartz's Dragon, the Iraqi regime probably had to be destroyed. Whether this story can have a reasonably happy ending is something we may not know for years.