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Decapitation, Old Style

The incomparable Peter Simple—a pseudonym—writes in London’s Daily Telegraph that he has always supported lost causes. “In our age, lost causes are almost the only causes that deserve support. The cause of Saddam Hussein, however, is an exception.” (Phew!) Simple goes on, “We shall not be found among those who lament his downfall.” But something rubs him the wrong way: “a certain ambiguous pathos in press photographs of American soldiers lounging among fake antiques in the various Saddam palaces. When the mighty fall, however detestable and uncivilized they may be, we cannot help being shaken.”

Hear, hear! When the mob stormed Versailles, it would have taken a republican heart of stone not to shed a tear for Marie-Antoinette’s fineries ending up in the hands of the great unwashed. Worse was the case of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The grease monkeys climbing all over the Tsarina’s beautiful furniture must have been as awful a sight as anyone can imagine. Not to mention the sack of the Summer Palace in Peking, where western barbarians ran riot. The intrusion of the rabble has always been shocking, starting with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Black Tuesday. The Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Paleologos, knew his number was up, and—unlike Saddam—descended with great dignity and joined the last Greek defenders. He was slain by a brute almost immediately, but legend has it that the victor, Mehmet II, had the killer executed. Noblesse oblige and all that. Still, the Turks jumping all over the gold and purple elegance of Byzantium was an aesthetic outrage, a barbarism to end all barbarisms.The great Napoleon was no barbarian. He married Marie-Louise, the Hapsburg great-niece of the murdered Marie-Antoinette, for political reasons, although he always claimed that Tsar Alexander was his good friend and that he would have preferred to have married into Russian nobility. (A blood pact with the most powerful state in Eastern Europe? Alexander wouldn’t hear of it). At Austerlitz, the main armies of Russia and Austria were destroyed by the Corsican in a battle generally regarded as Bonaparte’s most brilliant victory. The Austrian emperor sued for peace the next day, as did the Russian Tsar. The Peace of Pressburg was a civilized affair, without any—God forbid—unpleasantries exchanged. Then everyone concerned returned to their respective palaces. Seven years later, Napoleon found himself in Moscow while the city burned, but it was Kutusov who had set the place alight, not the invaders. Three years after, Wellington was not as gracious as Napoleon. He not only “slept in Bonnie’s bed,” he also slept with the emperor’s mistress. (She claimed,“Monsieur le Duc est le plus fort.” She would, wouldn’t she? Wellington, after all, was the winner).

Like many things, magnanimity in victory began with the Greeks. Here’s Alexander the Great at Persepolis, having wiped the floor with the Persians. (Attention Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush: Persians now go by the name of Iranians.) On seeing a huge statue of Xerxes overturned by his men, Alexander stopped and addressed it: “Are we to pass you by and leave you lying on the ground because you campaigned against Greece or are we to set you up again because of your otherwise high-minded nature?” Now for God’s sake don’t get me wrong. I’m not referring to Saddam’s statue being knocked down, only to the magnanimity of great men like Alexander. When Alex and his band of Greeks captured the daughters of Oxyartes, an Iranian baron, the great one chose Roxanne, known as the most beautiful lady in all of Asia. Roxanne means “little star” and Alexander fell rather hard for her. Marriage to a local noble’s family made sound political sense—for example, a bit like Tommy Franks and a local Shi’ite lassie—but Alexander had really lost his heart.

When I first heard Pentagon newspeak refer to assassination as “decapitation,” I naturally thought of Charles I and Louis XVI. Both men had their heads chopped off. Two hundred years later decapitation means something different altogether. On the fateful day of June 18, 1815, at Waterloo, Bonaparte was spotted galloping towards his headquarters by an eagle-eyed British gunner. “I’ve got the ogre on my sights,” he yelled to a superior officer. But he was refused permission to fire. “We don’t do this sort of thing …”

Marshal Murat was once surrounded by Cossacks in the days leading up to the battle of Borodino in 1812. He was recognized by his flamboyant uniform and plumed hat. The Cossacks bowed in respect and showed him the way back to his lines. When Napoleon was finally defeated and exiled to St. Helena, the allies had decided no more nice guys à la Elba, where the Corsican had enjoyed his court in full. This time he was permitted to take with him a group of courtiers and a dozen servants—his Mameluke bodyguard, a butler, a cook, three valets, three footmen, an accountant, a pantryman, and a lamp cleaner. (One of the courtiers, the Marquis de Montholon, was chosen because he had a very pretty wife, Albine, who eventually left under a cloud for having cuckolded Napoleon, whose mistress she became, with one of the English officers.) Ah, and one last thing. Throughout the miserable six years that Bonnie stayed on the rock, he never ceased to sneer at Hudson Lowe, the governor, for never having heard a shot fired in anger. But that was untrue. Lowe had fought, but never against Napoleon, which in the latter’s mind was like not having fought at all. I wonder what the emperor would have thought of the neocons, to a man volunteers for Vietnam?

Which brings me back to the horrors of modern warfare. Hitler made sure he did not fall into enemy hands because of the humiliation involved. The Reich Chancellery was a Spartan maze of practical office space and sleeping quarters. There was nothing fancy about the place for the Russian soldiers to pillage. Mussolini’s grandiose offices in Piazza Venezia were never sacked because the Italians have too much style to take it out on the furniture. Musso’s offices survived intact, but he had the worse fate of all. To be caught dressed like a German soldier fleeing the country he ruled for 22 years, to be shot like a dog, and then be strung up by his feet with his mistress in a Milan piazza must be the least heroic of deaths.

And now to Saddam. As of this writing, he may or may not be alive. Most likely he’s hiding like the proverbial rat. Saddam was accused of many things but never of having any class. Classy dictators, however cruel or monstrous, know when the bell tolls.

I particularly liked Raphael Leonidas Trujillo, who having had an afternoon session with the young Pepita in his country place, was ambushed on his way back to Ciudad Trujillo, as it was back then. Despite his afternoon exertions and his advanced girth and age, old Leonidas took out his pistol and managed to shoot one of his assailants, dying in the process. Mind you, Saddam did stay and did put up a sort of fight. His style of fighting, however, was as bad as his style of furniture—Peter Simple again—“the usual appurtenances of the most vulgar type of tyrants: gold baths and bidet taps, pearl-inlaid plastic gnomes, figurines of ballerinas” and so on, worthy of a Saudi or a Kuwaiti nabob, the kind our leaders suck up to ad nauseam. Just imagine if the tyrant’s possessions had been in refined taste and of respectable antiquity. I might have done a little looting myself.

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