I was at a talk recently given by one of my favorite Boston journalists and bloggers, Jules Crittenden. The conversation turned—as conversations often do these days—to the war and occupation in Iraq.
One of the themes that came up is the pace of change in a nation such as Iraq, previously subject to decades of bitter strife and vicious violence. This is where the realms of the political and the psychological intersect; generations brought up under a system such as was present in Iraq under Saddam are likely to hold different assumptions about the social contract, cooperation, and violence as a political tool than people brought up in a more civil and peaceful society tend to share.
That’s one of the reasons I always thought the postwar occupation of Iraq was going to have to be longer, and more directive, than those planning it seemed to think it would need to be. I had hoped they were correct, but it turns out they were not. Part of the reason, it must be said, is not anything about the Iraqi people themselves, but rather the intervention of their non-good neighbors Iran and Syria. But part of the reason is the understandably heavy and destructive psychological, political, and sociological legacy of the Saddam years.
I don’t believe, as some therapists do, that the mind is set virtually in stone very early in childhood. But I do believe that fundamental change is difficult, and that it is much easier to work with a younger generation to effect change in a society than it is to count on the older people.
As the tale goes, after the Jews were freed from slavery they wandered in the wilderness (that’s the correct translation; it was not technically a desert) for forty years, one of those numbers in the Torah that is meant to stand for “a long time.”
Why? Why weren’t they rewarded by being shown the Promised Land instantly, or at least more quickly? The text says that they sometimes pined for the safety of their days of slavery in Egypt, and yearned after some of the good food that wasn’t available to them any more (manna from heaven apparently wasn’t quite as tasty as good old Egyptian melon).
The interpretation that I learned years ago, and that appeals to me most, is the following:
The [story] teaches us that there are no short-cuts to the Promised Land, and no instant transformation from bands of liberated slaves into responsible, self-governing nation; no generation of redemption (dor geulah) without a generation dying out in the desert (dor ha-midbar) preceding it.
So it’s not surprising that things are going slowly and laboriously in Iraq, and as I’ve written earlier, I never expected otherwise. Trying to create fundamental change in a broken society is one of the most difficult things to effect, and always has been, but as I wrote in the piece just linked, all the alternatives we faced (and still face) were worse.
It would be great if the Iraqi people had forty years in which to wander in the wilderness. But they don’t; the forces trying to destroy what they are trying to build are too powerful. But they certainly need and deserve more than a couple of months of our continued patience.