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.

Satadru Sen on Eagles Over Bangladesh

Satadru Sen has written a very thoughtful and engaged review of Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War. His generally positive review also strikes some critical notes in it, and I’d like to respond to those. These critical points are all largely concerned with how well the book succeeds as (generally) military history and as (particularly) a history of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh, and about how the narrowness of our focus in the book detracts from that task.

A couple of preliminary remarks. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I self-consciously restricted ourselves to documenting the air operations in our book. We chose this narrow perspective for two reasons: a) to make our task manageable and b) to not obscure the treatment of the air operations. The definitive history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and especially the conflicts that preceded it might yet have to be written, but attempts have been made and we did not intend to try doing so ourselves. There has been no history attempted though of exclusively the air component of the war. (Incidentally, our book is only the first volume of an intended two-volume project; the second will cover air operations in the Western Sector; this should give you some indication of the magnitude of the task at hand.) We took our contribution to be toward filling the gap in the aviation history literature and not necessarily to contribute to the very interesting debates that surround the genesis of the Bangladesh war, its conduct, and so on.

Now, in general, air war histories and naval warfare histories are more specialized in their focus than the conventional war history. Books on the Battle of Britain, for instance, detail the air operations–the dogfights, the bombing etc–in far more detail than anything else; what they primarily focus on, which we do as well, is the operational context: the aircraft used, the decisions that led to the planning of air campaigns as they proceeded, the technical infrastructure, some detail on combat tactics and so on. We do not expect these kinds of histories to provide the kind of political histories or context that Sen finds missing. In large part, this is because, prior to the First Gulf War and the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign air power, despite what its most enthusiastic proponents might say, has not been the primary weapon of choice in accomplishing tactical or strategic objectives; it has supported boots on the ground. Given this, it is only natural that histories of air campaigns are largely operational histories, with some strategic and planning detail provided to make sense of operations.

Now, on to Sen’s more specific critiques.

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