The war in Iraq might leave us a new word to match a new sense of our own limitations
By Cullen Murphy
When worlds collide, the sparks are sometimes linguistic. Not long ago, in a Q and A on the Web site of The New York Times, an Iraqi translator was asked to explain the points of difference he saw between his own people and the Americans he encountered in Iraq. He brought up the Arabic phrase “inshallah.” The Americans, he said, “have respect for time”; Iraqis, in contrast, “use the word inshallah, which means ‘if God wishes,’ to postpone things.”
It may be that this point of difference won’t be a distinction much longer. An American colonel in Iraq, writing to The Washington Post’s Thomas E. Ricks, recently observed: “The phrase ‘inshallah,’ or ‘God willing,’ has permeated all ranks of the Army. When you talk to U.S. soldiers about the possible success of ‘the surge,’ you’d be surprised how many responded with ‘inshallah.’” The phrase seems to have permeated all ranks of the diplomatic corps, too: Zalmay Khalilzad, when he was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, once stated at a press conference, “Inshallah, Iraq will succeed.”
It’s a truism that words migrate because the concepts they connote have also migrated. When the Romans established commercial ties with the German tribes, introducing the idea of money, the Germans acquired from Latin the word they still use for “coin,” Muenze. They also took from the Latin word cauponor, meaning “to trade,” the word they still use for the verb “to buy,” kaufen. In both instances the words filled a vacuum. Will inshallah transplant itself to American soil?
Will it fill a need and find a home?
It can be perilous to generalize broadly about the United States. Journalistic lore cherishes the story of the English reporter— for The Economist, if I had to guess— who began an article with a continent-wide weather report: “It was raining in America on election day.” One editor I know forbids the use of the phrase “the typical American,” on the grounds that there’s no such thing as a typical American. But I’ll venture a generalized proposition anyway: that up to now, the typical American has not been the inshallah type.
By way of rebuttal, some may point to the pervasiveness of the slacker term whatever. This interjection, which even Bob Dole and John McCain have used, is not the same thing at all— it drips with impatience, irony, dismissiveness, disdain. Inshallah is something else—resigned, accepting, neutral, passive. It is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It is the opposite of can-do. (“This is not an inshallah time,” warns General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.) And its spirit is nowhere to be found in America’s primal document, the one that begins with an aggressive flourish—“When in the course of human events”—and ends with the signatories pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to the Revolution.
To Americans the future is malleable, and it lies in our human hands to shape. Options are always on the table. At the end of his adventures, Huck Finn says “no thanks” to “sivilizin’” and decides to “light out for the territory” to the west. Baseball, the national sport, has no fixed time limit; a game could theoretically continue in extra innings forever. We nurture venture capitalists, but also a breed of “venture philanthropists” bent on bringing forth the novus ordo seclorum—a “new order of the ages”—proclaimed on our dollar bills. The ending of The Sopranos may have dissatisfied some viewers, but it left open the door to multiple imagined futures, American-style. In a passage in one of his newly published Notebooks, Robert Frost contrasts the sensibility on the opposing shores of the North Atlantic. He describes Europe as clotted with an overabundance of culture, and writes of America: “Our most precious heritage is what we haven’t in our possession—what we haven’t made and so have still to make.” As our TV announcers say, “Stay tuned!”
This attitude toward the future affects our attitude toward the past. Many nations feel weighed down by history. Wisely or naïvely, America thinks of history as building material—less a millstone than a steppingstone. In Kansas, at Fort Leavenworth, the military runs a Center for Army Lessons Learned. The case-study approach to teaching has spread from schools of business to schools of government to schools of journalism. During both the Carter administration and the Reagan administration, historians advanced proposals to establish a Council of Historical Advisers, similar to the Council of Economic Advisers. In response, mindful that presidential councils have political agendas, other historians called for the creation of the Historical Analogy Police, a kind of independent rapid-reaction force that would swing into action against “weak historical reasoning, the irresponsible use of evidence, dangerous analogizing, or missing historical facts.” But both sides agreed on one thing: the past, like the future, is a place of infinite possibility.
For better or worse, philosophical acceptance has rarely been America’s default frame of mind. As the Historical Analogy Police might hasten to note, here’s one place where analogies with a previous superpower, imperial Rome, break down badly. The Roman elites were a supremely self-satisfied lot whose motto might well have been the old advertising slogan “It doesn’t get any better than this.” With a faith that’s sometimes messianic, sometimes endearing, and often very destructive, Americans believe they can always make it better than this. From diets to diplomacy, we’re suckers for regime change.
Is it possible that a little less faith in our convictions, and a little more skepticism toward our capacities, would itself be a form of self-improvement? It may yet be a while before Waking the Tiger and Getting to Yes are knocked off the shelves by If It Happens, It Happens and The Seven Habits of Humbly Accepting People. What we can say for sure is that many hundreds of thousands of Americans have endured tours of duty in Iraq. They are writing blogs and e-mails with a new word at their fingertips. They are returning home with a new word on their lips. It will have an impact on the American Experiment, inshallah.
Cullen Murphy is the author of Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, and editor at large for Vanity Fair.
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