Can you imagine settling an argument that could lead to another war by having just two guys slug it out? This was one way, in times past, of settling disputes and in the first week of February 2003, the leader of Iraq - Saddam Hussein - offered to resurrect this old practice by calling out George Bush!

Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan said "If the United States really wants a fight, it should make it personal. Forget about the Marines, let's have a duel: a president against a president and vice president against a vice president, with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as referee." Not surprisingly, the challenge went unanswered.

In the U.S., though, duels were once common, one having occurred at Plymouth as long ago as 1621. Duels were frequent during the 18th and early 19th centuries and were usually fatal. In 1777 the American patriot Button Gwinnett was killed in a duel, and one of the most famous American victims of a duel was the statesman Alexander Hamilton, who was killed by his political rival Aaron Burr in 1804.

Another U.S. president did fight a duel and win, in times past. Andrew Jackson - Old Hickory - seventh president of the United States, did so on May 30, 1806, in Logan County, Kentucky, facing off in a duel of honor against fellow horse breeder Charles Dickinson. Dickinson aimed and fired, striking Jackson in the chest. The ball broke two of Jackson's ribs and lodged just inches from his heart.

Meanwhile, general Jackson took cold methodical aim, and shot Dickinson dead. Though many thought the general guilty of murder; no charges were ever brought, though the scandal remained with him. Duels actually do have a long history in Western culture; and fairly well defined rules that actually seem to the advantage of Messrs. Bush and Cheney, once you've figured out whether we're talking about a "judicial duel" or a "duel of honor.

Judicial duels date back to the Germanic tribes camped out on Rome's northern border, who preferred to settle legal disputes with swords where words failed. Germanic judges, when arguments failed to solve a problem, put the question to the test of battle - Setting a time and place for the opposing sides to meet in a duel and let their conflicting claims be judged by heaven.

They believed that right makes might, and God would guarantee victory for the guy with truth on his side. If the loser of the duel survived, the law presumed his guilt and dealt with him accordingly. Judicial duels eventually became common law, introduced to England by King William I in the 11th century, where it remained on the books until 1819.

France had judicial duelling as well, royally authorized until 1547. From the 15th century on, however, most duels dealt with matters of honor, not of law. Such duels became common in the Renaissance, when gentlemen could become duellists at practically any provocation, because it wasn't about the law anymore; it was personal.

Eventually strict rules came in, partly as an effort to ensure that duels could satisfy a man's honor without meaning someone had to die. By 1777, a group of Irishmen had come up with the "Code Duello," with specific rules on everything from how an apology might (or might not) suspend hostilities, to who may serve as the duellists "seconds" (vice presidents will do), to what types of injuries could bring the matter to a close - ("Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves and necessarily make the hand shake, must end the business for that day").

This Code Duello formed the basis for duelling in Ireland, England, and America. South Carolina governor John Lyde Wilson revised the code to account for American practices in 1838. Most American duellists between 1750 and 1850 did the deed with large-caliber, smoothbore flintlock pistols--notoriously inaccurate and mercifully unreliable weapons. Generally, you had to discharge your weapon within three seconds. Aiming for any longer simply wasn't gentlemanly.

According to the Code, the challenged person "has the right to choose his own weapon." When former New England whaler S. M. Harvey found himself challenged in New Orleans, he opted for 10-foot-long, hickory-handled whaling harpoons at a distance of 20 paces. The opponent withdrew his challenge.

Perhaps if George Bush were more like 'Old Hickory', he would have accepted the challenge of Saddam, preferring to risk his own life rather than those of the troops he ultimately commands. Even if the two of them failed to survive, the threat of war would be averted, and the world would have the satisfaction of getting back to addressing real problems, like poverty and starvation.


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