Five Effing Years

If you spend a sizable chunk of your days on political blogs (as I often do), you'll notice a lot of these kinds of posts. Five years now, this nation's military has been in Iraq. And it's only been in the last couple of years that the anti-war movement has gotten any real traction. Howard Dean got a boost in the polls and raised a lot of money in large part because of his anti-Iraq-war stance, but it didn't get him the nomination, because the Iraq War wasn't the electoral albatross it has since become.

And what has the war resulted in? Hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced--I refuse to acknowledge a difference in the casualty figures between US forces and Iraqis. They are all humans, and we are all lessened by their deaths.

Batocchio has a terrific post up about war poetry, about the difference between poets who saw action and those who didn't, which generally resulted in a romantic notion of war versus a far more realistic one. She He cites Tennyson, Owens, and Rosenberg, and notes the despicable nature of King George the Lesser's comments on his envy of the soldiers he visited recently, noting that he had his chance to serve and actively avoided it.

I'd like to piggyback off that post and move forward in time to poetry about Vietnam, as I think it fits the theme a bit more naturally. I want to begin with Wendell Berry's "Against the War in Vietnam."

Believe the automatic righteousness
of whoever holds an office. Believe
the officials who see without doubt
that peace is assured by war, freedom
by oppression. The truth preserved by lying
becomes a lie. Believe or die.

In the name of ourselves we ride
at the wheels of our engines,
in the name of Plenty devouring all,
the exhaust of our progress falling
deadly on villages and fields
we do not see. We are prepared
for millions of little deaths.

Where are the quiet plenteous dwellings
we were coming to, the neighborly holdings?
We see the American freedom defended
with lies, and the lies defended
with blood, the vision of Jefferson
served by the agony of children,
women cowering in holes.
When I first read this poem a couple of years ago, I was struck by its immediacy. Every line could be applied to the Iraq War, from the lies and propaganda that drove a shocked and terrified public into supporting it to the news coverage that minimizes the cost to humanity to the notion that we would be greeted as liberators, with flowers and candy to the harsh reality that it is innocent people who suffer in the name of American freedom.

From Denise Levertov's "Life at War":
We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it:

the knowledge that humankind,

delicate Man, whose flesh
responds to a caress, whose eyes
are flowers that perceive the stars,

whose music excels the music of birds,
whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
whose understanding manifests designs
fairer than the spider's most intricate web,

still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes into pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.
Not so romantic when you look at it that way, and those of us who thought of the human cost of this war from the moment it first began being hinted at, sometime around October 2001 knew it would be like this, not because we had some special intuition, but because it is always like this.

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