Commentary by Claudia Honeywell
The path from virtue to violence is a common theme in Greek tragedy. Think Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, a character who begins with the good intention of maintaining order in Thebes but under the pressure of internal rebellion issues the hubristic and unethical order to leave the body of his nephew Polyneices unburied. Lt Col Sassaman and the men he commands respond to the escalating violence with their own escalating callousness, a consequence of Sassaman’s failed attempts to negotiate with the Sunni sheikhs. In Filkins’ portrayal, this hardened, post-diplomatic commander displays a previously unacknowledged appetite for violence: “‘Come back in a couple of weeks,’ he said. He smiled as he spoke. His eyes were glowing. ‘We are going to inflict extreme violence.’” Violence fosters in Sassaman’s unit a new lack of respect for the Iraqis that betokens for Sassaman a corresponding loss of self-awareness: “The only thing they understand is force—force, pride and saving face.” As Sophocles’ Creon turns on those he had trusted, Sassaman comes to suspect all Iraqis of participating in a conspiracy against law and order.
Sassaman describes his circumstances as “incredibly unfair.” When he honored his diplomatic agreements, the insurgents took advantage of him: “As Sassaman had promised, he had scaled back the number of patrols in the Sunni countryside. The insurgents had used the pause to organize and step up their attacks.” Trained to use force should diplomacy fail, Sassaman cannot make headway with either strategy. Sassaman soon trusts no one outside his unit and protects his own men at all costs.
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