John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’: War As Entertaining, Compensatory, Lullaby

Reading Kath Kenny‘s wonderful essay on the Australian poet John Forbes–a personal and literary take on his life and work–reminded me that because I was introduced to Forbes’ poetry by his close friends, I came to feel, despite never having met him in person, that I had acquired some measure of personal contact with him. Her essay reminded me too, of a Forbes poem that is my personal favorite:

LOVE POEM
Spent tracer flecks Baghdad’s
bright video game sky

as I curl up with the war
in lieu of you, whose letter

lets me know my poems show
how unhappy I can be. Perhaps.

But what they don’t show, until
now, is how at ease I can be

with military technology: e.g.
matching their feu d’esprit I classify

the sounds of the Iraqi AA—the
thump of the 85 mil, the throaty

chatter of the quad ZSU 23.
Our precision guided weapons

make the horizon flash & glow
but nothing I can do makes you

want me. Instead I watch the west
do what the west does best

& know, obscurely, as I go to bed
all this is being staged for me.

I am not comfortable offering literary criticism of poetry so I can only point, dimly, in the direction of what it is that makes this poem such a pleasure to read for me.

Forbes skillfully invokes an iconic image of the early nineties–that of the aerial bombardment of Baghdad which kicked off the First Gulf War, and set the stage for the second–to remind us that we were spectators and consumers of that war; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life. Forbes’ invoking of the sounds of war is especially clever–especially the double ‘th’ sound in the sixth stanza. War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Forbes’ killer lines, the ones that haunt me, are the ones that close the poem. They bite, and they bite deep and hard. War is where the west reaches its zenith, its summum bonum, this is where it all comes together. The beautiful machinery of science and technology, the west’s proudest achievement of all, its signature triumphs of rationality, speaking to an unassailable mastery of nature, its domination of world history and its peoples, now pressed into the service of mass killing, putting on a spectacle for its citizens to reassure them that all is well, that old hierarchies remain, that the uppity ‘other’ has a long way to go before catching up with the master. The sounds of war are a lullaby, lulling us to sleep, bidding us turn to dreams while the dirty work carries on outside.

We know this is a show we paid for; we know this is ‘staged’ for us; we own it. All we have to do is buy the popcorn, settle down, and watch. Especially if there is no love to be found elsewhere in this world we have built for ourselves; let us be seduced by this instead.

A Theological Lesson Via Military History

In Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (J. B Lipincott, New York, 1966, p. 85), Bernard B. Fall describes the build-up which foretold the grim military disaster to unfold at Dien Bien Phu–the lack of adequate defenses and ammunition, the poor tactical location etc–making note, along the way, of that curious mixture of arrogance, complacency, and overconfidence that infected French military leadership. There were ample notes of worry too, of course, and finally, even of the grim resignation that is often the military man’s lot. The deputy chief of staff of the French commander General Cogny, Lt. Col. Denef had written in an assessment to his commander that “It is too late to throw the machine into reverse gear….That battle will have to be fought on the scale of the whole Indochina peninsula or it will become a hopeless retreat.” As Fall notes:

In transmitting this report…Col. Bastiani, the chief of staff added a note of his which was deeply significant:

I fully agree…in either case, it will have to be the battle of the Commander-in-Chief. I think he must have foreseen the necessary requirements before letting himself into that kind of hornet’s nest.

This was the ultimate excuse of a staff officer: the situation was hopeless, the action made no sense, but there might after all be higher reason for all of this. “The Führer must know what he is doing.” This phrase had been repeated a hundred times over by the German defenders of Stalingrad as they senselessly fought on toward catastrophe.

The analogy that may be drawn with theological responses to the problem of evil is inescapable and irresistible. There is, all around us, misery and suffering and disease and pestilence afoot, all apparently for no good reason. How is this reconcilable with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God? One answer: evil is a ‘local’ disaster, the ‘badness’ of which vanishes when viewed from a broader, all-inclusive, synoptic perspective–the one God has.  From our epistemically limited perspective, we might be surrounded by catastrophes that suggest disorder and untrammeled badness, but zooming back reveals a larger plan within which these seeming disasters fall into place, directed onward and upward by a grand teleological scheme of greater order and good. (The chemotherapy kills healthy and cancer cells alike, but it heals the body. Trust the doctor; he knows best; he will make sense of your nausea, your hair loss, your weakened body. Or something like that.)

So if we are to ‘endure’ these disasters, we must reassure ourselves that someone, somewhere knows what time it is, what the score, the deal, is. Much like the determined soldier marching into battle, ours is not ask why, but to do or die. Our lot, of course, would be considerably improved if we knew why this was all necessary; after all, as Nietzsche had pointed out, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” For the theologically inclined and the militarily obedient, the ‘why’ is supplied by faith in the benevolence of the Supreme Commander. The rest of us are left to weakly reassure ourselves that this too shall pass. Or not.

Veterans And The Dallas And Baton Rouge Shootings: Wars Return Home

Today, on Facebook, Chad Kautzer offered some brief reflections–“not interested in condemning or justifying”–on the shootings in Baton Rouge. They begin as follows:

First, the police have to stop killing black and brown people. I say that up front, because it’s the social relation and institutional practice that frames everything. Period.

Second, although it’s too soon to call it a pattern, it is significant that Micah Johnson, the shooter in Dallas, and Gavin Long, the shooter in Baton Rouge, were military veterans. These guys have been trained to confront force with force and violently take down an enemy. When you put people like that into a situation of social conflict and division, the impulse to exercise one’s lethal skill set is strong. Countervailing factors, such as strong community and familial relations, often mitigate the impulse to violence, but when they’re lacking or weak the risk increases. It is thus not surprising that both shooters explicitly stated that they were not affiliated with any group. They were not trained in ways to effect social transformation. They were not taught the history of social movements and thus how social change happens. They were taught that the most effective way to defeat an adversary is to take out as many of their soldiers as possible, so in times of conflict that’s what they do. [links added]

In a previous post on Hillary Clinton’s bellicose response to the Orlando massacre, I had written:

[T]hose bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Kautzer’s second point reminds us of another dimension of wars returning home: military veterans, who come back home bringing their memories, experiences, and scars with them. They have left behind–permanently–many who went with them on a tour of duty. Modern battlefield medicine and improved emergency care ensure death rates are not as high as they were in the wars of yesteryear; this means more veterans who would have died previously are now alive, even if grievously injured and crippled for life, perhaps requiring extensive and expensive rehabilitation and follow-up care. The lucky ones are only injured in the body; yet others carry scars in the mind too. Post-traumatic stress disorder and disrupted personal environments contribute to a shocking suicide rate: twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day.

Most relevantly to Kautzer’s observation, veterans–especially black and brown ones–find that they have returned to a society increasingly riven by economic inequality and racial discrimination (and awash in guns.) They find out, just like veterans of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, that they might fight America’s enemies abroad, and yet return to find themselves enemies at home. Second World War veterans returned to Jim Crow in their home states; Vietnam veterans got spat on by anti-war protesters; the modern veteran of color might find himself shot by a policeman at a traffic stop or outside his home itself. They see their communities at home patrolled by policemen just like American soldiers patrolled ‘hostile territory’ overseas. There is the same brusque stop-and-frisk, the same harsh impromptu interrogation, and sometimes, all too frequently captured on video, a fatal resolution of conflict. Those kinds of resolutions, as Kautzer points out, are what veterans are used to; and so they act to bring them about in the struggles of most personal and emotional interest to them, in the ways they know best. Except that the enemy now is an American policeman.

The Battle Of Winterfell And The Napoleonic Wars

The prelude to the Battle of Winterfell looked familiar: two armies arrayed at dawn, glaring suspiciously at each other across a patch of land soon to be called a battlefield, horses nervously and impatiently pawing at the ground in front of them, weary soldiers waiting for the slaughter and carnage that has always been the grunt’s fate, and finally, kings and generals sizing up the scene, waiting for the moment when they would cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. So did the battle itself: brutal hacking fights with sword and spear and hand, bloody confusion, piles of bodies, men crushed to death, and then, finally, a decisive cavalry charge.

Those with an interest in military history–and within it, the gory details of the Napoleonic Wars–will have visualized many such scenes in their readings. (The extensive use of bows and arrows and the phalanx in the Battle of Winterfell makes it resemble older battles of the medieval and Roman eras too.) In Sergei Bondarchuk‘s epic Waterloo, the opening scenes of the battle–before the first French artillery barrage–show the resemblance of the prelude to combat quite clearly. Moreover, as in Bondarchuk’s production, the makers of Game of Thrones were decidedly old-fashioned: they relied, even if not as heavily as Bondarchuk, on actual masses of men, materiel, and horses. (Bondarchuk, of course, had no recourse to digital effects the way the makers of Game of Thrones do.)

The many descriptions of famous battles of the Napoleonic era, such as, for instance, those of the Battle of Borodino during the fatal Russian campaign in 1812–which Napoleon himself described as the ‘most terrible’ of his long and storied career–in turn, were re-invoked while watching the Battle of Winterfell. Consider, for instance, the following:

Inside the redoubt, horsemen and foot soldiers, gripped by a frenzy of slaughter, were butchering each other without any semblance of order…

The Raievski Redoubt presented a gruesome sight. ‘The redoubt and the area around it offered an aspect which exceeded the worst horrors one could ever dream of,’ according to an officer of the Vistula Legion, which had come up in support of the attacking force. ‘The approaches, the ditches and the earthwork itself had disappeared under a mound of dead and dying, of an average depth of 6 to 8 men, heaped one upon the other.

The Lifeguard Horse was deployed to the left of the Guard Cavalry. Its four squadrons were formed in one line, squadron by squadron with intervals. When the trumpets crashed out with brazen voice the two outfits began their magnificient advance. The fighting itself took place on a rye field and the onrush on both sides was so terrific that some of the most forward horses and men went down like poppies in a hurricane.

Because I mentioned the Battle of Waterloo, let me close with the final key resemblance between a Napoleonic conflict and the Battle of Winterfell. The latter was ended by the arrival of the Arryn cavalry (a surreptitious supporting force arranged by Sansa Stark and Littlefinger.) The Battle of Waterloo–the last Napoleonic battle–was brought to its conclusion by the arrival of the Prussian forces led by General Blücher; till then, even though Wellington‘s forces had seemed ascendant, a final coup de grace had not been delivered. Wellington himself desperately awaited relief; as he grimly noted, “Night or the Prussians must come.” When they did, it must have seemed like a scene right out of the movies. Or a television show.

Hillary Clinton’s War Abroad Will Come Home Soon Enough

Hillary Clinton’s response to the Orlando massacre reminds many why they are nervous about a person who carelessly voted for the Iraq war becoming US president:

Whatever we learn about this killer [Omar Mateen], his motives in the days ahead, we know already the barbarity that we face from radical jihadists is profound. In the Middle East, ISIS is attempting a genocide of religious and ethnic minorities. They are slaughtering Muslims who refuse to accept their medieval ways. They are beheading civilians, including executing LGBT people. They are murdering Americans and Europeans, enslaving, torturing and raping women and girls. In speeches like this one, after Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, I have laid out a plan to defeat ISIS and the other radical jihadist groups in the region and beyond.The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear, we cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it. And the good news is that the coalition effort in Syria and Iraq has made recent gains in the last months. So we should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground and pushing our partners in the region to do even more.

On Facebook, Corey Robin responds and draws a damning conclusion:

Forget about policy, just examine the rhetoric. The way Clinton escalates and turns it up to 11, moving us away from Orlando and a police investigation, away from any domestic considerations and social concerns, to the platform of civilizational warfare, to a cosmic evil that isn’t containable but must be destroyed and defeated, to internationalizing and militarizing the whole thing. This is the language of George W. Bush.

I’m afraid Robin is right. The little excerpt above is very similar in tone to the kinds of speeches George W. Bush made when he was infected by the spirit of 9/12–which seems to mean ‘national unity’ for some, but which in point of fact turned out to be a paranoid, vengeful, misdirected, wasteful, rage. It resulted in the war crime called ‘the Iraq war’ and if you really take causal analysis seriously, ISIS itself.

Perhaps the most crucial sentence in the excerpt is the opener. For there, Clinton makes quite clear that no matter what we learn about the actual motivations of the killer, her focus on ISIS will not waver. That is where the easier action lies; that calls for saber-rattling and bombing, all the better to unify a nation with (the one doing the bombing, not the one getting bombed, as Libyans and Iraqis will testify.) In the next four sentences, the rhetoric is ratcheted up with ‘genocide,’ ‘medieval,’ ‘slaughtering,’ ‘beheading,’ ‘executing,’ ‘torturing,’ ‘raping,’ and ‘enslaving.’ The following four sentences showcase  a segue into aggressive plans for action, which are curiously and ironically informed by a sense of futility: the threat of ISIS “cannot” be contained; it requires–implicitly–a fight to the death. (Which as we all know, often tend to take down more than just the protagonists in the battle.) And then, finally, to wrap up, there is the nod to a global battle–waged on distant lands, from air, naturally, the American way, while hopefully, ‘allies’ sacrifice their foot soldiers to the maws of war.

There is no mention of homophobia, guns, masculinity, cultures of violence; there is no mention of domestic pathology. There is a problem; and here is a bomb that will fix it. Somewhere else. Never here. But those bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Wars are not just waged abroad.

Robespierre On The Iraq War

In 1792, Revolutionary France debated, and prepared for, war. It was surrounded by monarchies who cared little for this upstart viper in the nest; and conversely, a sworn “enemy of the ancien regime” could not but both despise and fear what lay just beyond its borders: precisely the same entity in kind as was being combated at home. War often seemed inevitable in those days, and it would come, soon enough, on April 20th, when France declared war on Austria. But Revolutionary France, true to its spirit, devoted considerable time and energy to debating the decision to continue politics by such means.

Some, like the war’s most “categorical…passionate [and] persuasive” proponent, Jacques Pierre Brissot, “imagined war rallying the country behind the Revolution and forcing the duplicitous King [Louis XVI] either to support the war and the Revolution or reveal his counterrevolutionary intentions.” But just as important, was the “crusading” aspect of the war:

War would carry liberation to the oppressed peoples of Europe, groaning still under the despotism France had thrown off. [Jordan, pp. 84]

The most passionate opponent of the war was Maximilien Robespierre. His denunciation of war plans had many dimensions to it. They remain remarkably prescient and insightful.

First, Robespierre noted that “during a war the people forget the issues that most essentially concern their civil and political rights and fix their attention only on external affairs.” Because war is conducted by the “executive authority” and the military, during war, the people direct “all their interest and all their hopes to the generals and the ministers of the executive authority.” Such slavish devotion to those in power–especially since in conducting the war, Revolutionary France would have been “fighting under the aegis of the Bourbon Monarchy”–results in a characteristically eloquent denunciation: War is “the familiar coffin of all free peoples.”

But it was the “crusading” and “utopian” aspect of the war that seemingly most troubled Robespierre, for in it he could detect an internal incoherence. The vision of lands and peoples invaded by Revolutionary France welcoming their conquerors struck him as risible:

The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a political thinker is to believe that it suffices for a people to enter, weapons in hand, among a foreign people and expect to have its laws and constitution embraced. [It is] in the nature of things that the progress of reason is slow [and] no one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies.

Robespierre did not waver from this conviction. A year after France had entered that period of its history which would be characterized by almost incessant outbreaks and declarations of war, Robespierre wrote that “One can encourage freedom never create it by an invading force.”

The historical illiteracy of those who declared war on Iraq is oft-commented on; here is yet more evidence for that claim.

Note: This post is cribbed from David P. Jordan‘s The Revolutionary Life of Maximilien Robespierre (University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 82-86; all quotes and citations originate there.)

From Austerlitz To Auschwitz

I’ve only recently read Elie Wiesel‘s Night (last week, in fact), and as is my habit, I skipped the preface (by Robert McAfee Brown) and the foreword (by François Mauriac) and went straight to the text. Once I was done, I returned to these preliminary sections. In the foreword, I read Mauriac describe his encounter with a young Wiesel, and how it led him to memories of the Occupation (of France):

I confided to my young visitor that nothing I had seen during those somber years had left so deep a mark upon me as those trainloads of Jewish children standing at Austerlitz station. Yet I did not even see them myself! My wife described them to me, her voice still filled with horror.

I read these lines with some puzzlement. Austerlitz?  I knew of only two Austerlitzes: the first, the scene of Napoleon’s greatest military triumph; the second, W.G. Sebald‘s novel (which I have not read yet.) Didn’t Mauriac mean ‘Auschwitz’ instead? Had his wife–whom I knew nothing about–been to Auschwitz, survived, and brought back these visions of deported Jewish children? If Mauriac did mean ‘Auschwitz’ then surely this was the most bizarre typo I had seen in a very long time. For it would have run together a place which has now passed into our collective memory as a zone of unimaginable atrocity, and a venue of military conflict, whose name has come to represent the zenith of one of the most remarkable lives of all time. Had Mauriac, somehow, unthinkingly, as he sat down at his typewriter, run together the typographic similarity of these two words in his mind, and pressed the wrong keys? But even if that was the case, how had such a howler made it through the editing gauntlet?

As might be expected, I went online to assuage my confusion. There I found that Mauriac had not made a mistake. He was indeed speaking of ‘Austerlitz station.’ To be precise, he was referring to Gare d’Austerlitz “one of the six large terminus railway stations in Paris…situated on the left bank of the Seine in the southeastern part of the city, in the 13th arrondissement.” It was built in 1840, the year Napoleon’s remains were returned from Helena to be buried at Hôtel des Invalides. During the Second World War,  the Vichy Regime set up internment camps to hold Jews being deported to concentration and death camps. Among them was Drancy internment camp, which included five subcamps; three of these were the Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano camps. When these Jews were finally sent to their final destinations, they departed from one of Paris’ stations. One of them, of course, was Austerlitz station, where Mauriac’s wife would have seen the sights she reported to her husband. Perhaps some of the children she saw went to Auschwitz too. (This photograph shows deportees at Austerlitz station in 1941.)

So no typo, but even then, what terrible irony. A symbol of French military ingenuity and brilliance and valor, where Napoleon took on the Old Empires and beat them to establish a new European order, sullied by these associations with the greatest European atrocity of all.