by Gerard Donnelly Smith
(Swans - October 24, 2005) Whether or not you believe in an afterlife -- an afterlife of eternal rebirth back onto this suffering planet or an afterlife of either eternal damnation in a fiery hell or infinite peace in paradise -- you must agree with Sartre that "other people are hell"; in part, because "other people" support War, and wage War. Of course, other people can, for a time, bring you joy, provide ecstatic moments, make you feel warm and fuzzy. Often, I feel joy when I hold my child. Often my wife and I take ecstatic flight, and I fall asleep peacefully.
Sometimes, though, when the world becomes too much, I drink enough to feel warm and fuzzy. Often, I'll pen a poem about a current issue, hoping it may make some difference. Then I begin to check the facts, rather than remaining blissfully ignorant in my creature comfort, preferably several porters. Like an obsessive-compulsive, I read the paper and listen to the news, rather than just write a love poem to my wife.
What I learn is nothing new. The War on Terror continues as the Bush administration squanders the goodwill the Islamic world sent the U.S. after 9/11. The criminal Osama bin Laden is still at large; the international police investigation to find him seemingly non-existent. Britain and the U.S. now threaten Iran, Syria, and all others who supposedly harbor terrorists; the officials in both democratic countries will not considered that their own actions have terrorized the Islamic populations and in some measure fueled the insurgency, and the jihad.
So War continues, despite the contradictions underlying its justification. In the name of peace, our leaders claim they must wage War; in the name of democracy, our leaders say they must torture, detain, murder, and maim; in the name of God, our leaders declare an everlasting War on zealots who declare in the name of God an everlasting war on infidels.
After ten millennia of War, what can one say about humanity's capacity for change? People still kill others to secure scarce resources; people still kill others because they have different beliefs, different faiths, and different skin color. After ten millennia, one must admit, especially in highly advanced societies like the U.S., that the military has gotten much better at killing others. The goal to kill without the risk of being killed in return has almost reached perfection. Some military leaders hope to replace ground troops with remote-control weapons. To kill from a distance while creature comforts wait at home -- that's the dream of some military officers, yet others do pray for peace.
Perhaps, I'm being too pessimistic. The United Nations does oppose, in principle, the development of more effective methods of killing, does oppose genocide and wars of aggression, and does have as their "Millennium Goals," the eradication of poverty. The WHO and the CDC work tirelessly to eradicate disease, to stop the threat of virus. Their work with the current avian flu strain H5N1 may save 7 to 150 million lives.
Perhaps, all people aren't hell, just some people, just those who advocate War and Violence to solve international or domestic conflict, those who believe that viruses like HIV/AIDS and natural disasters like the 2005 Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina are God's reward for sinners.
Maybe, as these fundamentalist believe, these aren't the end times and such self-fulfilling prophecies aren't bringing the apocalypse to my doorstep like some "rough beast, its hour come round at last, "Slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born." But sometimes it sure looks like the end is in sight, feels like an end to suffering must come in some form or another: either fire or ice as Robert Frost suggested, certainly not with a whimper, but a bang.
Perhaps I should never read W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming" again. Maybe I should insist everyone stop reprinting it, reciting it, misquoting it! What did Yeats fear in 1919, when he penned these lines? He didn't know the Mayan calendar ends in 2012, now the "new date" for the "end of the world." Israel hadn't been carved out of Palestine, yet. President Bush had not yet received "visions from God" to create a Palestinian State, as if this were a new revelation! Bush had not yet received divine inspiration to fight his crusade against the so called Axis of Evil and the Global Islamic Jihad, as he has labeled his enemy.
In 1919, the Allies hadn't built the national boundaries that would ensure the current conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Yet, Yeats knew that man's inhumanity to man had reached new heights in trenches where mustard gas left victims writhing in agony, and at post offices where occupation forces shot down civilians and unarmed poets. Poets whose greatest hopes were freedom, democracy, and peace:
AND I say to my people's masters: Beware,
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people,
Who shall take what ye would not give. Did ye think to conquer the people,
Or that Law is stronger than life and than men's desire to be free?
We will try it out with you, ye that have harried and held,
Ye that have bullied and bribed, ....... tyrants, hypocrites, liars!
(From "The Rebel" by Patrick Henry Pearse)
In 1919, what hope did Yeats have that mankind would change its behavior? Wilfred Owen had shown us all what hope could be had in "Dulce Et Decorum Est" in which victims of a mustard gas attack plunge at readers "guttering, chocking, drowning" with their "blood/come gargling from froth-corrupted lungs." Owen's wished to expose the old lie that it is not honorable to die, or even kill for ones country! In writing these poems, did these poets hope the horror would reform politicians, stop generals from ordering insane assaults on fortified installations, convince parents to oppose conscription, and shock imperialist into leaving occupied territories? Did the Vietnam War poets hope their words would stem the tide of blood?
But the lie swings back again.
The lie works only as long as it takes to speak
and the girl runs only as far
as the napalm allows
until her burning tendons and crackling
muscles draw her up
into that final position
burning bodies so perfectly assume. Nothing
can change that, she is burned behind my eyes
and not your good love and not the rain-swept air
and not the jungle-green
pasture unfolding before us can deny it.
From "Song of Napalm" by Bruce Weigl
By exposing the old lies, did the Poets against the War and Sam Hamil hope to change President Bush's heart? Though she understood the power of poetry to transform lives, Sharon Olds recently refused to attend the National Book Festival, at the invitation of Laura Bush:
I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness -- as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing -- against this undeclared and devastating war. But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.
What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.
Does she hope her refusal will cause Laura Bush, while she lies in bed at night with George, to convince him to end his War? Hardly is that question out before one replays the sound bites and the propaganda that justify mass slaughter. Do we poets honestly think poetry can counter the propagandist's onslaught?
Despite the images of torture at Abu Ghraib, though we recoil at the girl aflame with napalm, recoil at the body parts strewn across a street where there is oil or gold or diamonds or soil to be bought with a pound of flesh, the military-industrial complex will continue to secure the resources for its own "national security." As long as middle-class citizens of the world continue to consume the creature comforts which supply the power to global corporations, War will continue. Each image of horror exposed by peace-movement poets and activists, by ethical journalist, and conscientious politicians will be countered with images of patriotism, exaggerated fears of terrorism, and by the injection of mind-numbing entertainment.
Yes, if only in some "smothering dream" the images from the victims' last moments would haunt everyone, then everyone might wish for peace. Instead, the population of the willing believes the censored images, believes that one side is good while the other is evil. When liberation and freedom are the root causes of suffering, when exposed lies and creationism win over rock-solid evidence, then what hope for change?
So "where are we and where are we going?" my good editor asks.
Some of us live in hell and some of us are in paradise. Some of us are burying children, while others bury their heads in books. Some of us are starving, while some of us shit three times a day. Some of us scour garbage heaps, while some of us heap up garbage through conspicuous consumption. Some of us enjoy our creature comforts, while others find no comfort at all. Some of us are writing poetry, while others are wiring bombs. Some of us are heading for heaven; the rest, to hell in a hand basket.