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.

Robert Caruso, Clinton Campaign Fellow, Advocates War Crimes (Before Denying He Did So)

Hillary Clinton’s reputation as a warmongering hawk is a well-established one. As the New York Times reported back in April in an essay titled “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk,” she could talk the hawk talk, and walk the hawk talk too:

Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence analyst who conducted Obama’s initial review on the Afghanistan war, says: “I think one of the surprises for Gates and the military was, here they come in expecting a very left-of-center administration, and they discover that they have a secretary of state who’s a little bit right of them on these issues — a little more eager than they are, to a certain extent.”

Other than the financial shenanigans of the Clinton Foundation and the in-bed relationship with Wall Street, no other issue has exercised progressives quite as much. A hawkish American foreign policy means never-ending war, and with it, interminable violations of human rights, moral hypocrisy, budget overruns, appeasement of the military industrial complex, secrecy and surveillance and violations of civil rights at home. A hawkish American foreign policy is a pernicious rot at the roots of the republic; it is, without exaggeration, a cancer that needs excising from the American body politic.

Progressive worries about the Clinton presidency that is looming will not be assuaged by reading a remarkable article by “a former official in Hillary Clinton’s State Department and an associate of the Hillary for America PAC,” Robert Caruso, which lays out a policy argument for a no-fly zone in Syria that included the following gem:

Russia intends to exert political pressure and create the illusion a `shooting war’ would erupt if a no-fly zone was constituted. This is unserious, and should be dismissed as the naked Kremlin talking points they are where ever encountered….It is Russia, not the United States, that should fear American intervention in Syria

But the luster of that jewel pares in comparison to the following:

By no means is the United States limited to overt military intervention in Syria…Henry Kissinger’s strategies in Laos and Chile are models of success that should be emulated, not criticized.

In case it is not perfectly clear: Caruso is recommending the US emulate the actions of a mass-murdering war criminal and engage in murderous, illegal actions like the ones that Kissinger organized.

Caruso’s cheerleading for genocide did not go unnoticed; Huffington Post took down the passage from which the above lines had been excerpted and the online version of the post now no longer carries them. Quite naturally, Huffington Post has not added any editorial notes explaining their excision of this material.

But the entertainment does not end there. When Caruso was pointed to these lines on Twitter, he immediately replied with the following Trumpish denial:

Never said that, and from now on anyone repeating what you say about me is working for Russia.

Well, I’m clearly working for Russia, because I’m repeating it here; I read the article yesterday which had the full paragraph–now immortalized in a screenshot taken by Wikileaks:

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Perhaps the only reassurance afforded here that Caruso does not have the integrity to stand by his words, knowing quite well they are calls to criminal action. Small mercies indeed.

Addendum: The LinkedIn page for Robert Caruso seems to indicate he might not be a Clinton ‘insider’ at all. So his rantings above are certainly not indicative–in any definitive sense–of the contours of a future Clinton foreign policy.

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.

Francine Prose On The Consolations Of Post-Apocalyptic Literature

In reviewing Margaret Atwood‘s Stone Mattress: Nine Tales Francine Prose makes a pair of perceptive remarks in her conclusion.

First,

[T]book offers none of the peculiar comforts and reassurances of such post-apocalyptic novels as Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It denies us the glorious fantasy of flaming out en masse instead of, so much less dramatically, in a bed surrounded by a few grieving relatives; it withholds the consolation of leaving a ruined world–and being spared the certainty that life will go on without us, as if we had never existed. [link added]

And then,

These stories lack the hopeful possibilities lurking within the dystopian novel’s cautionary subtext: since the horrors of the fictive future are usually the result of some existing practice or system, there’s always the chance that, perhaps inspired by the novelist’s warnings, we may yet mend our ways and avert the grisly future the writer has imagined for us.

Prose’s second remark is more commonly made by those writing about post-apocalyptic literature: in essence, these works are not just morality plays, castigating us, informing us of our earth-destroying venality; rather, they offer a blueprint of sorts on how the future may yet be averted. (Marge Piercy‘s Woman On The Edge of Time offers a converse treatment: a traveler from an all-too easily imagined dystopian present travels forward in time to “a utopian world in which a number of goals of the political and social agenda of the late sixties and early seventies radical movements have been fulfilled. Environmental pollution, homophobia, racism, phallogocentrism, class-subordination, consumerism, imperialism, and totalitarianism no longer exist.”)

Her first remark cuts a little deeper. We find post-apocalyptic literature provides the most ‘peculiar comfort’ of all: if we are to die, let us at least die in a world which is dying with us, taking with it everything we held near and dear. We fear death not just because of the uncertainty of the void that awaits, but also because we know that we leave a life and a world behind–our traces soon to be overwritten by the lives of others. How comforting to think that all will be effaced at the same instant. (I wonder if, when lovers or family or friends face death together, the fact of their togetherness provides some comfort in their last dying moments.)

There is yet another dimension to the comforts of post-apocalyptic works: they are escapist, offering fantasy worlds in which an ordinary life suddenly becomes extraordinary, granted an opportunity to redeem itself with unconventional acts of courage, imagination, and fortitude. Fathers step up to the plate; mothers become fiercer; children mature quickly; cowards become heroes. Some of the eagerness with which we lap up news about impending disasters is underwritten by the ‘hope’ that we will now be delivered from our mundane lives into a proving ground of sorts, where hitherto unknown and unimagined personal qualities will become manifest. This is not a new observation: the impatience which greets delays in the declaration of war–and the resultant exultation when it does finally ensue–has been similarly analyzed.

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.

Robespierre On The Iraq War(s)

Robespierre, in a speech to the Jacobin Club, which began on 2 January 1792, and concluded on 11 January, responding to the Girondins call for war:

[T]he most extravagant idea that can arise in the mind of a politician is the belief that a people need only make an armed incursion into the territory of a foreign people, to make it adopt its laws and its constitution. No one likes armed missionaries; and the first counsel given by nature and prudence is to repel them as enemies….start by turning your gaze to your internal position; restore order at home before carrying liberty abroad….reviving through beneficent laws, through a character sustained by energy, dignity, and wisdom, the public mind and the horror of tyranny, the only things that can make us invincible against our enemies…war, war, as soon as the court asks for it; that tendency dispenses with all other concerns, you are even with the people the moment you give it war;….Why distract public attention from our most formidable enemies, to fix it on other objects, to lead us into the trap where they are waiting for us?

During a foreign war, the people…distracted by military events from political deliberations affecting the essential foundations of its liberty, is less inclined to take seriously the underhand manoeuvres of plotters who are undermining it and the executive government which is knocking it about, and pay less attention to the weakness or corruption of the representatives who are failing to defend it….When the people demanded its rights against the usurpations of the Senate and patricians, the Senate would declare war, and the people forgetting its rights and resentments, would concentrate on nothing but the war, leaving the Senate its authority and preparing new triumphs for the patricians. War is good for military officers, for the ambitious, for the gamblers who speculate on these sorts of events; it is good for ministers, whose operations it covers in an impenetrable, almost sacrosanct veil….it is good for the executive power, whose authority, whose popularity and ascendancy it augments….The sort of man who would look with horror on the betrayal of the homeland can still be led by adroit officers to run its best citizens through with steel.

The remarks on war are, of course, more generally applicable.

My posting the passage above is of a piece with a time-honored tradition of showing us that when it comes to the relationship between war, patriotism, militarism, the corruption and mendacity of the ruling class, and the state in any shape or form, it is always the ‘same as it ever was.’

Source: Slavoj Žižek presents Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, Verso, 2007, pp 31-32. The introduction to the Extracts from ‘On the War’ notes that:

Brissot, the leader of the ‘Brissotins’ (Girondins), intervened in the Legislative Assembly in favour of war. On 29 December, he maintained that ‘the war is necessary to France for her honour….The war is a national benefit.’ On 30 December he spoke of a ‘crusade of universal liberty.’