April 2003

Desert Power?

As military action in the Middle East became inevitable during the Ides of March, I marveled at the Sci Fi Channel's sense of timing. On the weekend of March 15th, as the Coalition of the Willing marched closer to war with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, the cable network reran its year 2000 adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune and premiered the new follow-up miniseries, Children of Dune.

Why is this important? Well, Frank Herbert's 1965 outer space tale of political dynasties has never been more relevant - or powerful; than on this date. Any viewer with even the tiniest bit of awareness will recognize that Herbert's science fiction classic concerns the kind of intervention now occurring in the Middle East.

For those that need a refresher, the story of Dune and its sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, is one of colonialism and of the noblest intentions gone wrong. Specifically, two great and powerful houses in the galactic community, the Landsraad (the United Nations?) have been bitter rivals for years. On one side of this conflict stands the Atreides family of Caladan and on the other is the Harkonnen family of Giedi Prime.

With an emperor named Shaddam (Saddam?) behind them, these parties squabble over the right to administer the valuable resources of a barren desert terrain, the planet called Arrakis (or Dune). Importantly, Dune is the only world in all of space that produces the important "spice," the fuel, as it were, that permits space travel in the galaxy and powers the engines of galactic commerce.

But the indigenous people of Dune, the desert people called Fremen, are the rightful inheritors of this resource and the lands of Arrakis and soon see their traditional values threatened by the new, imperialist custodians on their world. The Fremen come to view themselves as freedom fighters combating a brutal regime, but the Harkonnens and the Emperor behind them see these natives only as "terrorists" and "primitives."

Now examine what has happened regarding Iraq in 2003. Two "great" and powerful families, the Bushes of America and the Husseins of Iraq are locked in a dynastic war. Bush the Elder tried to oust Hussein the Elder in the Gulf War of 1991. Hussein responded in 1993 by trying to assassinate Bush Sr. Now in 2003, Bush's son controls the office his father once held and wages war against the family that attacked his papa. Hussein's own two sons are in the picture too, like Harkonnen nephews Feyd and Rabban, waiting in the wings to continue this legacy of hatred.

More to the point, America under the House of Bush has launched a battle, an invasion force, on a barren, desert terrain (Iraq, not Dune). This is a region of great resources (oil, not spice), resources that power our vehicles (SUVs, not cosmic cruisers) and keeps our economy humming. Furthermore, the indigenous people of the battlefield region (Arabs, not Fremen) see the attack as a religious battle for the land that is rightly theirs to control.

What will be the end result of this military thrust into Iraq? According to the experts in the FBI and CIA, we should expect new terrorist and suicide attacks in America, abroad, and in occupied Iraq. One must wonder: what will we term these new attackers and murderers when they strike? Terrorists. But, contrarily, the men and women fighting against the powerful, technologically advanced occupation force will probably consider themselves freedom fighters, liberating their people from oppressors. Who is right?

The parallels between the imaginary world of Frank Herbert's Dune and America's war on Iraq point to some truths many of us would rather not face. Is dynastic rivalry the true motivation behind this war, or is it the control of Iraq's valuable oil that is the prize? And what's with this "shock and awe" terminology? Is not the "shock and awe" of 3000 bombs dropping on Baghdad merely a euphemism for "terrorizing?" How can we deplore terror on one hand and then use terror in a military campaign with pride?

Of course, lest we forget our cause, Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator. He boasts a long list of atrocities to his name and most Americans (myself included) believe that he is hiding dangerous weapons of mass destruction that must be dealt with in some forceful manner. But Children of Dune is a reminder of a very important lesson. In that follow-up, Paul - the good guy of the Dune saga - eventually discredits his own war of liberation, the very war that brought him to power. He is subsequently replaced on the throne of Arrakeen by his sister Alia, a repressive dictator every bit as bad as Baron Harkonnen, Feyd and Rabban. The children of Paul Atreides must then fight another war of liberation against Alia, once more with the Fremen as allies, this time to undo the damage caused by Atreides custodianship of Arrakis.

The moral to this particular story is that colonialism, even benevolent colonialism with the best of intentions is an evil act because it usurps rightful guardianship of the land and stifles the freely chosen destiny of a people.

No doubt that America and her allies will provide medical care to the wounded, monetary funds to re-build Iraq and even food to sate the starving people. I'll even go further in my support. I believe that President Bush's intentions are honorable and that he will indeed deposit revenues from Iraqi oil into a trust fund for the rebuilding of the country, not merely turn it over to Harkonnen, er Haliburton, as some have speculated.

But the fact remains: even if Americans become the most careful, gentle and kindly custodians of Iraqi lands and resources, there is still a point when all thinking adults want to control their own fortunes. The Arab world, like the Fremen society that first believed Paul a savior but then considered his name "a curse," may some day feel the same way about us. The Fremen, as their name suggests, wanted to become "free men," and American custodianship of Iraq, even in the short term, stifles that desire in the developing Arab countries.

The Sci Fi Channel's Dune adaptations have come at the right time, much like the Kwisatz Haderach, demonstrating how a timeless science fiction legend set on alien worlds can nonetheless speak powerfully to human issues and help us ask important questions about the actions of our government. The fascinating history of the planet Dune, with liberators turned oppressors, stimulates the questioning mind and reminds the world to take care and tread gently in this foreign venture, lest the (sand) worm turn....