St. Petersburg Times
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Heading to the unknown in Samarra

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

In 1934, John O'Hara published his first novel, Appointment in Samarra. He took the title from the play Sheppey by W. Somerset Maugham, in which Maugham retells an ancient fable about an encounter between Death and a servant in Baghdad.

In the fable, a merchant sends his servant to the marketplace to buy provisions. There the servant is jostled by a woman. He turns to see that the woman is Death. Death seems to make a threatening gesture and the servant runs back to his master. He begs for a fast horse.

"I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate," the servant says. "I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me."

After the servant has fled, the merchant goes to the marketplace to confront Death. He demands to know why Death threatened his servant that morning.

"That was not a threatening gesture," Death said. "It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

Reading that fable today, it's hard not to think of the fate that awaits American soldiers as they push through the Iraqi desert bound for Baghdad. So much is at stake -- the lives of soldiers and innocents, the future of a troubled region and the security of our own nation.

We are riding to Samarra, among other places. It is not literature. It is not metaphor. Samarra, north from Baghdad, is reputed to be the location of a prime production facility for Iraqi mustard gas and nerve agents, according to U.S. intelligence.

A chain of events has begun and while it plays out we wonder what it is that we have set in motion. Is there an ineluctable fate that awaits us?

In the fable, Death presents the kind of threat you don't have to think about responding to. Outgunned, so to speak, the servant chooses to run.

On Wednesday night, President Bush described Iraq as a "grave danger." With the firepower advantage on his side, the president has chosen to fight.

"We will meet that threat now with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities," Bush said.

But you don't have to oppose this war to question the president's certainty.

What effect will occupying Baghdad have on the Muslim world's already miserable opinion of us? Will our invasion encourage terrorist attacks at home even as we are trying to neutralize a terrorist threat abroad? We were confident of victory at the end of the Persian Gulf War and yet here we are, a dozen years later, redefining success.

Even as he promises the U.S. will prevail, Bush concedes that "a campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict."

That's just it. We don't know how long it will last. Nor do we know what victory will look like, what exactly we intend to do with Iraq should we conquer it. We don't know if we can rebuild it alone should we fail to mend torn alliances. We don't know anything. We don't even know if there is such a thing as fate.

A lack of omniscience makes it possible to argue both sides equally unconvincingly.

Was it fate that caught your taxi in traffic that made you miss the flight that crashed? Or was it simply that, as always, you were late going out the door? Were you spared by fate or a character flaw?

That's why the fable is so beguiling. It simplifies everything.

If you subscribe to its moral, there is nothing to fear in leading your life as you wish. Fretting over the right response to a situation won't help. There is no right or wrong answer. No matter what you do -- fight or flee -- you will end up in Samarra.

Had the servant not bumped into Death at the market, he would undoubtedly have been sent on an errand to Samarra later that afternoon. So instead of being on time for his appointment, he was early.

But we don't lives our lives with this resignation. We like to say, "When your number's up, hey, your number's up," but we don't believe it. We struggle mightily to avoid undesirable outcomes.

After all, what is the United Nations if not a massive attempt to avoid the very worst outcomes -- war and death -- through negotiation and debate? That it hasn't worked out that way does not lessen our desire to live in a more peaceful world, or our belief that there is something we can do to bring that about.

President Bush's solution is now almost four days old. If everything goes as planned coalition forces should be nearing Baghdad, maybe even there already. But nobody thinks that will be the end of the ordeal. We will preside over a regime change and wait to see if the change produces more stability or less. Or if it produces democracy at all.

And what of other regimes (Iran, Syria and North Korea, for example) that may feel threatened by our policy of preventive warfare? Will they, as Paul Krugman of the New York Times suggests, "arm themselves to the teeth and perhaps strike first?"

The plot of O'Hara's book has nothing to do with Iraq and only metaphoric connection to the fable.

It takes place in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pa., a stand-in for his hometown of Pottsville. Late at a drunken country club party, Julian English, the WASPy owner of the local Cadillac dealership, throws a drink in the face of a powerful up-and-coming Irish Catholic. That insult, utterly unprovoked, begets Julian's downward spiral.

O'Hara set the novel in 1930, at the beginning of the Depression. The country was preoccupied with its financial instability and consumed by religious and ethnic bigotry. Look what happened to Al Smith, the 1928 presidential candidate who was successfully smeared for his Catholicism by a coalition of Protestant politicians (inside and outside his own Democratic Party) and the Ku Klux Klan.

War was still fresh in the minds of Americans; only 11 years separated them from the end of World War I. When the book was published, Hitler had seized power of the Nazi party and war in Europe was only five years away.

Most everyone whom O'Hara asked hated the title, but he thought it "fitted nicely into the inevitability of Julian's death."

With his wife about to leave him, Julian closes the garage door, turns on the engine of his Cadillac and slowly gases himself.

O'Hara, because he was a particularly good writer and he didn't deal in pat conclusions, knew there was a destination beyond Samarra.

"Our story never ends," he wrote.

"You pull the pin out of a grenade, and in a few seconds it explodes and men in a small area get killed and wounded. That makes bodies to be buried, hurt men to be treated. It makes widows and fatherless children and bereaved parents.

"It means pension machinery, and it makes for pacifism in some and for lasting hatred in others. Again, a man out of the danger area sees the carnage the grenade creates, and he shoots himself in the foot. Another man had been standing there just two minutes before the thing went off, and thereafter he believes in God or a rabbit's foot.

"Another man sees human brains for the first time and locks up the picture until one night years later, when he finally comes out with a description of what he saw, and the horror of his description turns his wife away from him . . ."

One thing leads to another but the destination can't be known. We're riding a fast horse to Samarra. Who knows what will be waiting when we get there?

-- Bill Duryea is a Times staff writer.

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