I tried to relax. “What do you want to talk about?” I said.
“The Century War,” said the Time Traveler.
I blinked and tried to remember some history. “You mean the Hundred Year War? Fifteenth Century? Fourteenth? Sometime around there. Between . . . France and England? Henry V? Kenneth Branagh? Or was it . . .”
“I mean the Century War with Islam,” interrupted the Time Traveler. “Your future. Everyone’s.” He was no longer smiling. Without asking, or offering to pour me any, he stood, refilled his Scotch glass, and sat again. He said, “It was important to me to come back to this time early on in the struggle. Even if only to remind myself of how unspeakably blind you all were.”
“You mean the War on Terrorism,” I said.
“I mean the Long War with Islam,” he said. “The Century War. And it’s not over yet where I come from. Not close to being over.”
“You can’t have a war with Islam,” I said. “You can’t go to war against a religion. Radical Islam, maybe. Jihadism. Some extremists. But not a . . . the . . . religion itself. The vast majority of Muslims in the world are peaceloving people who wish us no harm. I mean . . . I mean . . . the very word ‘Islam’ means ‘Peace.’”
“So you kept telling yourselves,” said the Time Traveler. His voice was very low but there was a strange and almost frightening edge to it. “But the ‘peace’ in ‘Islam’ means ‘Submission.’ You’ll find that out soon enough”
Great, I was thinking. Of all the time travelers in all the gin joints in all the world, I get this racist, xenophobic, right-wing asshole.
“After Nine-eleven, we’re fighting terrorism,” I began, “not . . .”
He waved me into silence.
“You were a philosophy major or minor at that podunk little college you went to long ago,” said the Time Traveler. “Do you remember what Category Error is?”
It rang a bell. But I was too irritated at hearing my alma mater being called a “podunk little college” to be able to concentrate fully.
“I’ll tell you what it is,” said the Time Traveler. “In philosophy and formal logic, and it has its equivalents in science and business management, Category Error is the term for having stated or defined a problem so poorly that it becomes impossible to solve that problem, through dialectic or any other means.”
I waited. Finally I said firmly, “You can’t go to war with a religion. Or, I mean . . . sure, you could . . . the Crusades and all that . . . but it would be wrong.”
The Time Traveler sipped his Scotch and looked at me. He said, “Let me give you an analogy . . .”
God, I hated and distrusted analogies. I said nothing.
“Let’s imagine,” said the Time Traveler, “that on December eighth, Nineteen forty-one, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke before a joint session of Congress and asked them to declare war on aviation.”
“That’s absurd,” I said.
“Is it?” asked the Time Traveler. “The American battleships, cruisers, harbor installations, Army barracks, and airfields at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere in Hawaii were all struck by Japanese aircraft. Imagine if the next day Roosevelt had declared war on aviation . . . threatening to wipe it out wherever we found it. Committing all the resources of the United States of America to defeating aviation, so help us God.”
“That’s just stupid,” I said. If I’d ever been afraid of this Time Traveler, I wasn’t now. He was obviously a mental defective.“The planes, the Japanese planes,” I said, “were just a method of attack . . . a means . . . it wasn’t aviation that attacked us at Pearl Harbor, but the Empire of Japan. We declared war on Japan and a few days later its ally, Germany, lived up to its treaty with the Japanese and declared war on us. If we’d declared war on aviation, on goddamned airplanes rather than the empire and ideology that launched them, we’d never have . . .”
I stopped. What had he called it? Category Error. Making the problem unsolvable through your inability – or fear – of defining it correctly.
The Time Traveler was smiling at me from the shadows. It was a small, thin, cold smile – holding no humor in it, I was sure -- but still a smile of sorts. It seemed more sad than gloating as my sudden silence stretched on.
“What do you know about Syracuse?” he asked suddenly.
I blinked again. “Syracuse, New York?” I said at last.
He shook his head slowly. “Thucydides’ Syracuse,” he said softly. “Syracuse circa 415 B.C. The Syracuse Athens invaded.”
“It was . . . part of the Peloponnesian War,” I ventured.
He waited for more but I had no more to give. I loved history, but let’s admit it . . . that was ancient history. Still, I felt that I should have been able to tell him,or at least remember, why Syracuse was important in the Peloponnesian War or why they fought there or who fought exactly or who had won or . . . something. I hated feeling like a dull student around this scarred old man.
“The war between Athens and its allies and Sparta and its allies – a war for nothing less than hegemony over the entire known world at that time – began in 431 B.C.,” said the Time Traveler. “After seventeen years of almost constant fighting, with no clear or permanent advantage for either side, Athens – under the leadership of Alcibiades at the time – decided to widen the war by conquering Sicily, the ‘Great Greece’ they called it, an area full of colonies and the key to maritime commerce at the time the way the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf is today.”
I hate being lectured to at the best of times, but something about the tone and timber of the Time Traveler’s voice – soft, deep, rasping, perhaps thickened a bit by the whiskey – made this sound more like a story being told around a campfire. Or perhaps a bit like one of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories on “Prairie Home Companion.” I settled deeper into my chair and listened.
“Syracuse wasn’t a direct enemy of the Athenians,” continued the Time Traveler, “but it was quarreling with a local Athenian colony and the democracy of Athens used that as an excuse to launch a major expedition against it. It was a big deal – Athens sent 136 triremes, the best fighting ships in the world then – and landed 5,000 soldiers right under the city’s walls.
“The Athenians had enjoyed so much military success in recent years, including their invasion of Melos, that Thucydides wrote – So thoroughly had the present prosperity persuaded the Athenians that nothing could withstand them, and that they could achieve what was possible and what was impracticable alike, with means ample or inadequate it mattered not. The reason for this was their general extraordinary success, which made them confuse their strengths with their hopes.”
“Oh, hell,” I said, “this is going to be a lecture about Iraq, isn’t it? Look . . . I voted for John Kerry last year and . . .”
“Listen to me,” the Time Traveler said softly. It was not a request. There was steel in that soft, rasping voice. “Nicias, the Athenian general who ended up leading the invasion, warned against it in 415 B.C. He said – ‘We must not disguise from ourselves that we go to found a city among strangers and enemies, and that he who undertakes such an enterprise should be prepared to become master of the country the first day he lands, or failing in this to find everything hostile to him’. Nicias, along with the Athenian poet and general Demosthenes, would see their armies destroyed at Syracuse and then they would both be captured and put to death by the Syracusans. Sparta won big in that two-year debacle for Athens. The war went on for seven more years, but Athens never recovered from that overreaching at Syracuse, and in the end . . . Sparta destroyed it. Conquered the Athenian empire and its allies, destroyed Athens’ democracy, ruined the entire balance of power and Greek hegemony over the known world at the time . . . ruined everything. All because of a miscalculation about Syracuse.”
I sighed. I was sick of Iraq. Everyone was sick of Iraq on New Years Eve, 2005, both Bush supporters and Bush haters. It was just an ugly mess. “They just had an election,” I said. “The Iraqi people. They dipped their fingers in purple ink and . . .”
“Yes yes,” interrupted the Time Traveler as if recalling something further back in time, and much less important, than Athens versus Syracuse. “The free elections. Purple fingers. Democracy in the Mid-East. The Palestinians are voting as well. You will see in the coming year what will become of all that.”
The Time Traveler drank some Scotch, closed his eyes for a second, and said, “Sun Tzu writes – The side that knows when to fight and when not to will take the victory. There are roadways not to be traveled, armies not to be attacked, walled cities not to be assaulted.”