Friday, March 21, 2008

Writing about the War

In the East this week, veterans of the war in Iraq testified in an event called WINTER SOLDIER about the atrocities they had committed in Iraq. A documentary film will probably follow, and I am glad for that. I only hope it will be shown on a double bill with the previous WINTER SOLDIER documentary -- confessional testimony of those who served in the American War in Vietnam and committed equally horrible atrocities. The reasons will be the same: "They were not White so we did not see them as human," "I wanted to serve my country and believed my country would not lie to me" -- more than tiresome -- sickening, stupid, although one must have compassion for the victims on all sides. And then in 2045 there will be the WINTER SOLDIER testimony of stupid U.S.Americans committing atrocities in some future war. It is a crime that no-one educates each new generation -- certainly not the cowards of the media (including so-called Public Television). All this made me recall a verse I wrote early on in the war and how writing such a verse means nothing, has no effect whatever. I do not believe in courting despair, or in avoiding action by taking on the escapist attitude of cynicism, but I do wish I knew what asses might most effectively be kicked to try to dislodge this circle of ignorance. I was happy to hear from my friend Martha that Buffy St.-Marie was in Washington, D.C., on 19 March, and sang her song "Universal Soldier" -- It has been maddening to me that no-one -- not one of our so-called radical singers or radical organizations -- has been willing to sing that song or bring back to public attention that great anti-war song. There is moral cowardice on all sides. To urge soldiers to disobey orders is too fearsome, it appears. Anyway, in this mood I picked up the latest issue of POETRY FLASH today, and read this verse that reinforces what I was thinking, and what I am saying:

THE EFFORT - David Ray

He was feverish, nearly manic
when he turned out his poems,

staying up far into the night,
rising early, sometimes before

dawn, for he thought his poems
might stop the war. In time

they were published by a small
press, and received no reviews.

A few friends did not mind
being given copies, even asked

politely for them to be inscribed.
He went on writing poems,

although he now knew the war
would go on, and on, and on.

And no poem would stop it.

The gulf is wide, and the runner with the all-important message will never reach the ear of the distant Emperor (cf. Franz Kafka's brief parable, "The Great Wall of China"). I wrote one of those poems, but I knew that none of the literary journals would ever publish it (it is not dull enough, not abstract, does not conform to contemporary attitudes about writing verse as imposed by the American Academic Poetry cohort, and, on the other hand, it is poetry, and so no political journal would print it):

NOT WISE, NOT RATIONAL (23 March 2003)

Not wanting to add to anyone's pain or anger,
not knowing what's right or wrong, and meaning
no harm, and knowing everyone's beyond what
they can absorb already when it comes to world events,
should I refrain from saying that it feels as if

the white dove is charred meat in the flames
of Baghdad. My tears are molten lead and trivial.
The injured babies of Iraq – with eyes older than mine
or yours – listen to the daily complaints of Americans
and, meaning no harm, puke blood and grieve in our streets.

I cannot, I cannot see why. I cannot,
cannot keep from asking why?

So the male gender can demonstrate its latest
clever toys? Make up your own list of reasons – But, oh,
children of Iraq, don't listen. I wish all words were water,
or medicine, and not so stupid, not so hollow,
not so useless. I would that I could find a way to say Peace,
weaponless as a baby's hand as it shakes a scepter of air.

-- James McColley Eilers, copyright 2008

And here is Buffy St.-Marie's song -- too subversive as it addresses those who accept personal existential responsibility (in other words, none of those happy to get mindlessly diddled by some so-called "God") -- or those who appreciate Bob Dylan's "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters."


He's five feet two and he's six feet four
He fights with missiles and with spears

He's all of 31 and he's only 17

He's been a soldier for a thousand years

He's a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain,
a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
and he knows he shouldn't kill
and he knows he always will
kill you for me my friend and me for you

And he's fighting for Canada,
he's fighting for France,

he's fighting for the USA,

and he's fighting for the Russians
and he's fighting for Japan,
and he thinks we'll put an end to war this way

And he's fighting for Democracy
and fighting for the Reds
He says it's for the peace of all
He's the one who must decide
who's to live and who's to die
and he never sees the writing on the walls

But without him how would Hitler have
condemned him at Dachau
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He's the one who gives his body
as a weapon to a war

and without him all this killing can't go on

He's the universal soldier and he
really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from him, and you, and me
and brothers can't you see
this is not the way we put an end to war.

[She writes, “I wrote "Universal Soldier" in the basement of The Purple Onion coffee house in Toronto in the early sixties. It's about individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all. Donovan had a hit with it in 1965.”]


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