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.

Bury My Journalism At Bended Knee: The Press And Donald Trump

A journalist who speaks truth to power, not a megaphone, not a stenographer. That, hopefully, would be the identity a conscientious journalist would seek; such has not been the case with the US press corps for ever so long. (The Iraq War is the prime exhibit in this brief, but many others can be found with a little work.) Matters have not improved in 2016, a year which has seen the press continue to fawn over the powerful, to pay more attention to tawdry scandal than genuine political and moral crisis. The latest exhibit in this sorry display of sycophancy and servility is now upon us as we learn of the secret, off-the-record meeting that media executives held with Donald Trump this past week–the ‘optics’ of which suggested nothing less than courtiers lining up to meet the king.

As Glenn Greenwald notes:

[W]hy would journalistic organizations agree to keep their meeting with Donald Trump off the record? If you’re a journalist, what is the point of speaking with a powerful politician if you agree in advance that it’s all going to be kept secret? Do they not care what appearance this creates: the most powerful media organizations meeting high atop Trump Tower with the country’s most powerful political official, with everyone agreeing to keep it all a big secret from the public? Whether or not it actually is collusion, whether or not it actually is subservient ring-kissing in exchange for access, it certainly appears to be that. As the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone put it: “By agreeing to such conditions, journalists expected to deliver the news to the public must withhold details of a newsworthy meeting with the president-elect.”

As Greenwald goes on to note, such secrecy can only protect details of some kind of ‘working relationship’ the media hammers out with the president-elect, a relationship that is entirely irrelevant to their work: their job is to investigate and report. (Moreover, details of the meeting will be leaked eventually–selectively and strategically. As has indeed happened because the ‘media stars’ were upset at being–surprise!–harangued by a known loose-cannon, and ran hither and thither to complain about their hurt feelings.) Did the attending journalists imagine that they would receive some list of topics that were verboten and another of topics that could be covered? If so, they should have torn up any such list–and never have agreed to put themselves in a position where such ‘negotiations’ could take place. The press don’t seem to keen to assert their First Amendment rights; they’d rather accept them in curtailed form from those in power.

Greenwald makes note of the attendees’ rather precious complaints that they were subjected to a tongue-lashing, their claims that such criticisms would not sting for too long, and concludes:

The supreme religion of the U.S. press corps is reverence for power; the more Trump exhibits, the more submissive they will get. “I know I will get over it in a couple of days after Thanksgiving.” We believe you.

The right thing to ‘get over’ is the temptation to submit to power, and the right time to do so is now.

Donald Trump Looks A Gift Horse In The Mouth

A smarter politician than Donald Trump would have realized the windfall Khizr Khan had granted him, one with which he could have pulled off a miraculous triangulation of his own. To do this Trump could have done the following:

  1. Welcomed Khizr Khan’s remarks, acknowledged his family’s sacrifice, and then said, “This is the kind of Muslim we want living in this country. This is the kind of Muslim we need; we want them to be patriots, loyal Americans, to show themselves to be the kind of people who are willing to put their lives on the line for the United States, who are willing to die for the United States, standing shoulder to shoulder with other Americans. I welcome Mr. Khan, and all other Muslims like him, who have shown by their actions and their deeds, that they are loyal Americans, committed to the principles and morals of this country and its peoples. They have shown the radical Islamists that their first commitment and their primary loyalty is to America, not to their hateful ideology. They are not going to curse America or hate it; they are going to fight for it! These kinds of Americans, they don’t ask for handouts or favors, they just get to work, they stand on their own two feet!”
  2. Having said this, Trump could have then returned to one of his primary talking points, the mistaken vote that Hillary Clinton cast for the Iraq war. He could have gone on to say “I want to make sure that we as a nation do not continue to fight the wars that took the lives of American soldiers like Mr. Khan. I want to bring jobs back to this nation, so that young men and women can find meaningful employment here, and not go off to foreign lands, fighting a bunch of wars for ungrateful spongers and hangers-on. We are going to make them pay their due; to put their own men and women on the line! Americans are not going to die for foreigners any more!”

As I said, a smarter politician than Trump.

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.)

Chelsea Clinton On The Iraq War: A Worthy Inheritor Of The Clinton Mantle

Chelsea Clinton has been groomed for a long time to take over the Clinton Empire. Her education, which has essentially consisted of a long, slow, drive through the salubrious gardens of the Ivy League and Oxbridge, thus providing adequate insulation against the hard edges of social and political reality, form an important component of this preparation. (Her marriage to a hedge-funder, and early entry to the top-dollar speaking circuit, hasn’t hurt.) Her qualifications as Heir Apparent were never better on display than in the following exchange:

“Has your mother shown any remorse for the fact that her vote cost Iraqis a million of their lives?” a student asked Chelsea Clinton on Monday at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ms. Clinton replied: “She cast a vote based on the best available evidence. Perhaps you had clairvoyance then, and that’s extraordinary.”

Some American folksinger once wrote that “you don’t need to be a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.” Well, I have news for Chelsea Clinton: you didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to see which way an American invasion of a Muslim country in the Middle East, one which had nothing to do with 9/11, would go. You merely had to have the reading skills of a senior undergraduate student, all the better to read a National Intelligence Estimate with, you know the briefings that are given to US Senators to enable them to make, uh, educated and informed decisions with.

As Doug Henwood notes in My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets The Presidency:

Hillary cast her vote for the Iraq War without having read the full National intelligence Estimate, which was far more skeptical about Iraq’s weaponry than the bowdlerized version that was made public. This was very strange behavior for someone as disciplined as Hillary, famous for working late and taking a stack of briefing books home. Senator Bob Graham, one of the few who actually did take the trouble to read the NIE, voted against the war in part because of what it contained. We can never know why she chose not to read the document, but it’s hard not to conclude that she wanted to vote for war more than she wanted to know the truth.

Why would Hillary have wanted to vote for the war, which always looked like being, and eventually became, a moral, political, and economic catastrophe, a crime that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans? Well, at the least, it would have been a politically popular vote, an easy capitulation to expediency, a way to join, and chime in with the warmongering chorus that animated  American politics then. It was a cheap and easy way to proclaim your patriotism, to affirm your desire to exact retributive revenge, to ‘go with the flow.’ It was the kind of thing that a political opportunist would delight in.

It was, in short, a classic, signature, Clinton move. Chelsea Clinton has learned well, and she’s letting us know she’s got the chops. We’re not done with this dynasty yet.

War Criminal Charges Money To Speak At Fundraiser For Veterans

If you declare an illegal war, send thousands of men to their death, and cause the death of hundreds of thousands others, the ones who are bombed, shelled, and then later, become the victims of fratricidal conflict; if you refuse to adequately protect those you send to war, and care little for their eventual rehabilitation–physically, mentally, and socially; if you have been lucky enough to escape prosecution as a mass murdering war criminal because the political class you are a member of protects its own and would rather get on with the business of lining its pockets; then, hopefully, for the sake of this world’s moral orderings, you possess a modicum of self-aware shame that causes you to slink away–post-retirement–into the shadows, keeping a low profile and hoping a prosecutorial boom is never lowered on you.

But if you are George W. Bush, you do no such thing. Instead, you double and triple down, and ask for exorbitant speaking fees at fundraisers for the very community you have done the most to betray: military veterans. And you ask to be flown there in a private jet.

There was a time, when in the midst of some fulmination against the Unholy Troika of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, I would stop and say, “You know, Dubya feels a little less malevolent to me; his mental capacities seem diminished; perhaps one can forgive him just a tad; this much benevolence can be shown to those who are not as blessed as we are.” But that time passed quickly, because Dubya was always as bad as he came across as being. We shouldn’t expect any less from a man whose very rise to the Presidency was ensured by a compliant Supreme Court, who never had a mandate of any kind, but acted as if he had been elected by a landslide, who roped in old, encrusted remnants of another criminal administration as his Vice President and Secretary of Defense.

Dubya’s speaking engagement highlights yet another coach on the gravy train that our elected representatives can look forward to occupying during their long, lucrative careers: the speaking circuit. Fools and their money are parted every day, and there is no end to the national–or perhaps international–obsession with getting ‘big names’ to ‘speak to us.’ Whether it’s commencement or ground-breaking, we, as a species, as a culture, are convinced that among the most profitable–no pun intended–way to spend our time is to pay pontificators large amounts of money. Think silence is golden? Think again. (This disease is noticeably manifest in academia where departments fall over each other to deplete their budgets as quickly as possible so that they may invite a ‘superstar’ to come shower his intellectual benedictions on them.)

The Deadly Trio–Dubya, Dick and Donald–are the most vivid elements of a long, never-ending national nightmare. Having escaped jail time, they now mock us, not from the sidelines, but from the cultural center. Their time on this planet, like ours, is finite. But not finite enough.