In the Falluja uprising and elsewhere in Iraq the bloody toil is appalling. In a week, 60 US soldiers die. It's one of the bloodiest periods for American forces since the war began. The toll for Iraqis is, as usual, not known. Some estimate 600 Iraqis dead in Falluja, with 1200 injured, mostly women and children.
Kut and Kufa are taken over by the national resistance, the militia army of Moktada al-Sadr, or "thugs" depending upon who's talking. Najaf falls.
Meanwhile, President Bush is silent.
He's tucked away in his Crawford ranch hideaway, driving around in his pickup truck. He tours his ranch with, among others, Wayne LaPierre Jr., chief executive of the National Rifle Association. (1) He gives an interview to the Ladies Home Journal and makes jokes at South Arkansas Community College about Barbara Bush's hair. He says to a surprised stranger, "You and my mother go to the same hair-dye person." (2)
The supposed "cakewalk" war goes up in flames. Yet there are no Presidential speeches expressing concern about the US troops, no re-assuring words to the American public. At least, not until Saturday when President Bush serves up bromides on his weekly radio program: "Our decisive actions will continue until these enemies of democracy are dealt with." (3)
It's reminiscent of the Roman Emperor, Nero, happily fiddling during the nine-day fire that devastated Rome in AD 64.
Actually the Roman Emperor, Nero, didn't fiddle. He dressed up in robes, strummed his lyre and sang about the fall of Troy. Meanwhile, block after block of Rome went up in flames. About 200,000 people became homeless. (4)
The fire that leveled much of Rome's center city was dramatic. Flames burned brightly, leaping sky-high. Nero enjoyed lavish spectacles. Why not express his awe with a little lyre strumming?
The citizenry of Rome was appalled by the destruction. Rumors quickly erupted that Nero had deliberately set the fire. But the arson charge has never been proven.
Besides being callous about suffering, what else do Bush and Nero have in common?
An illegitimate ascension to power? Nero got rid of competition for the post of Emperor with a little poisoning, a few dagger thrusts, knocking off both his step-brother, Britannicus, and his mother, Agrippina. Not that Bush engaged in actual murder, but in terms of the US Supreme Court's dubious anointing in 2000, he certainly "got away with murder."
A taste for gawdy, public displays? Nero loved to make a spectacle of himself. He dressed up (often in transgender costumes), recited bawdy and macabre lyrics, acted in disreputable plays. Since the Emperor craved applause young men -- in the thousands -- were hired to attend the performances. They were coached to applaud wildly at the right moments. (5)
Bush would cringe at the idea of transgender costumes. Still think about Bush's carefully orchestrated landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in full pilot regalia (complete with a padded crotch, according to some pundits). There's the elaborately staged entrance -- and quick exit -- from a hanger in Baghdad with a plastic stuffed turkey. These spectacles have a touch of Neronian megalomania.
The President's crass joking at the Radio and Television Correspondent's dinner on March 24th seals the case. Bush pretends to look for weapons of mass destruction. He peeks under the desk in the Oval Office, peers out the window - all the while joking, "Nope, no weapons over here" and "Maybe, under here." It's classic Nero buffoonery.
Other similarities? Nero couldn't stand a lack of applause. Soldiers beat up those audience members at the various contests Nero starred in (as lyre-player, singer, dancer, or chariot-racer) who didn't applaud enthusiastically enough. Persons not sufficiently laudatory were quickly removed from his entourage. (6)
This prickliness is reminiscent of the White House's hatchet job on anybody who dares to question Bush policy. A case in point is the quick punishment of ex-Ambassador to Gabon, Joseph Wilson, after he punctured the alleged plot by Saddam to buy uranium from Niger or the vicious slurs about Richard A. Clarke.
There are big differences between Nero and Bush. Nero threw massive numbers of Christians to the lions. He also dallied with castrated boys and homosexuals. Clearly, actions President Bush would abhor.
Yet another difference: Nero's interest in empire was tepid. Unlike Bush who likes to topple governments halfway around the globe, Nero was too fascinated by bawdy saturnalias, gladiator contests, and chariot races at home to care about distant lands.
We also won't get rid of Bush as easily as Rome dispensed with Nero. Declared an enemy of the people, the 31-year-old Roman Emperor slunk off and committed suicide.
No such luck is coming our way in the US.
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New
York City. She can be reached at
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