A (very) short poem published in January, 2002 by the U.K.'s current (1999 to date) Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. Also, a node rescue and my first attempt at literary criticism. Of course, as this poem's main (perhaps only!) significance is political, rather than literary, politics must of necessity enter into the critique. So, if you must reflexively down-vote anything that questions your anti-war stance, consider down-voting my work on The United States is already at war with Iraq or on Oil and Gulf War II, I'd really prefer you to judge this write-up based on its merits, if any. Thanks!

They read good books, and quote, but never learn
a language other than the scream of rocket-burn.
Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad:
elections, money, empire, oil and Dad.

Good word play might be that which inducts the reader into thoughts they otherwise might not have. Great word play is more seduction than induction. It should teeter deliciously between intended and unintended meanings, and leave the reader pining to know, does the author intend that or is it serendipity? One expects more from a nation's premier poet than mere "gotcha" cleverness, and one expects to be led to something more insightful than what has become Saddam's party line.

Both the BBC, quite properly in the Entertainment section, and the Guardian, who apparently think this is news, helpfully but incorrectly point out, the title is "a Latin phrase translated as 'causes, motives or pretexts of war.'" The actual Latin phrase is of course "casus belli", and I went a little nuts trying to find out what bizarre Latin declension would cause the noun "casus" to become "causa" -- a gender change plus the letter U advanced to stand right next to the A -- then I realized it was simply a ham-handed stab at the good ole' US of A.

Of course, a cheap shot in the title is completely understandable, if it engages (or outrages) the reader enough to participate in the rest of the poem...and if the rest of the poem has substance. I read "They read good books" with anticipation of a juxtaposition of Bush and Saddam, an echo of the "two old men" rhetoric that was so popular at the outset of the latest Intifada. This would at least have been an interesting and subtle tack, even if one disagrees with the sentiment. But it quickly becomes clear, no such juxtaposition is intended, or even imagined; indeed Motion appears blissfully immune to the irony. For example, Saddam's recently acquired preoccupation with his "good book" (see note below), not to mention his "rockets", "elections" and "empire", are at least equally deserving of "straighter talk". No, for Motion, "They" admits to only one meaning: the Hegelian Other, without opposition to which "we" have no identity; and The Other of course is the USA and Bush. Even the rhyme I most enjoyed, "... never learn / ...the scream of rocket-burn" only rises momentarily above the banal. Bush appears to have learned what his Dad and others never did: the futility of "rocket-burn". He appears ready to end twelve long years of war by finally committing ground troops. Taken as a whole, the poem seems little more than a scud: crude, imprecise, and meteoric.

Apparently the Queen had something to say about the poem and the poor timing of its publication. I can't find a quote, but I have to doubt whether the Queen would mind terribly if an artist, even one with patronage, spoke tastefully and eloquently about the horrors of war. I suspect her comments had more to do with the quaint idea that neither the Monarchy nor the Poet Laureate get to conduct foreign policy. Perhaps in response, the Guardian defends Motion's notion in terms of some of England's true greats:

"Motion's most famous precedent for doing this as poet laureate is Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tennyson included in his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade the controversial and popular lines '... the soldier knew/someone had blundered'.

"However, he was writing after the Crimean War. During the second world war John Masefield as laureate published two patriotic volumes, A Generation Risen and Some Verses to Some Germans."

Motion apparently made his name with a poem about the death of Lady Di, and was drawn to a career as a poet while nursing his mother. Fair enough, but as far as I can tell from Motion's biography, he's had little experience outside of academia. One wonders if a person who "enthuses" to the Guardian about his calling as a poet "...to write poems about various events that seem suitable to me" will write much that will stand the test of time.

To his credit, Motion says if (?!?) weapons of mass destruction are discovered in Iraq, "I may well write a poem supporting going." Let's hope so. Set next to Tennyson's seven stanzas of brilliant imagery honoring the soldiers' elan in the fog of war, and Masefield's first hand knowledge as a medical orderly in World War I France, Motion's paltry paragraph of sophomoric drivel hardly stands up.

Sources and a Note:


About the appointment of the Poet Laureate: http://www.britishcouncil.org/arts/literature/literature_matters_26/laureate.htm

For more Saddam's recent preoccupation with the Koran, read http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,717172,00.html. Apparently, over the years he's had his own blood drawn, mixed with ink, and used to inscribe a copy of the Koran. My Muslim contacts tell me writing the Koran in blood is probably blasphemy; the emphasis on cleanliness in Islam would prohibit a Koran written in blood. As best I can recall, I read this at a user forum on http://www.beliefnet.com/boards/boards_main.AllCategories.asp?Category=46, but their search function is broken. If anyone has a more authoritative source for or refutation of this point, /msg me. Also, even bin Laden questions Saddam's religious authenticity, remarking that he would support Saddam against the West even though Saddam is "socialist".

"The heart of the wasted city is weeping, reeds (for flutes) of lament grow therein, its heart is weeping, reeds (for flutes) of lament grow therein, its people spend the day in weeping." – Lament for Ur

"The wonder is not how the lost were lost, but how the saved were saved." – written 728 AD by Hasan of Basra, Kámil, 91, 14.

“The best place to see who a man is, truly, in the middle of a desert.” – Antoine Saint-Euxpéry, “A Sense of Life” (1935)
I will admit, before all else, an eschewing of emotion. What little I know of the world, a scope admittedly shallow, tends to find expression in obscurities or run stale and aphorismic. Apocryphal minds are broken mirrors and I’ve heard in truthful jest that if Life does grace a party - well, I’m not it. The chilly comfort usually conferred on us corner-huggers: incorrigible introverts at least have their words. But last night, blearily beholding three consecutive hours of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Division’s adrenaline and go-pill powered charge across the glaring Muthanna desert en route to Baghdad, articulation eluded. As the grinning soldiers riding in a high-speed wall of fifty roaring Abrams stopped for granola snacks beside a Bedouin tent and herd of goats, I thought about the meagre contribution words have made to the world in the last six months. The enraged eloquence of millions could not keep the Tomahawks from their explosive arc-lit shadows and a sea of noble verbiage has broken and diffused on a cliff of darker facts. Here are a few we may discern.

First, now that the drifting fields of Babylon are once more echoing with angry spirits, twinned prayers for the helpless and the just should sound - that one may respect, even abolish, the misery of the other and safety hold every innocent, be they soldier or civilian. That some greater good could still emerge from calamity is a possibility many opposed to war do not like to entertain. Often, we have too much invested, intellectually and morally, in hope for peace. Humane commitment does not excuse faulty reasoning. Now that Western soldiers have been thrust into the task, I think it poor form and even sloppier thinking to press on for further negotiation, barter and connivance. “To grieve too soon is to grieve too much.”
“The West, and especially the United States, which has always been a missionary nation, believes that non-Western people should commit themselves to the Western values of democracy, free markets, limited government, human rights, individualism, the rule of law…what is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest.” – Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1997), 184.

”I am not Anti-American, I am not even anti-war. I am anti-THIS war!” – banner carried by two students before Parliament Hill, Ottawa, March 22, 2003.

“We only feel public calamity insomuch as it affects our private interest” –Livy, 30, xliv.
Secondly, the key element of miscommunication between the Bush administration and their detractors has been their mutual confusion over the nature of the war underway, the differentiation between retribution, defence and conquest. Most Americans I’ve heard, read or spoken to seem deeply sceptical, at best, about the defensive advantages to be gained by overthrowing the leadership of Iraq. They instinctively know if another terrorist attack is unleashed on them, the raw materials will be obtained elsewhere. The planet, particularly the US, is awash in weaponry, explosives and hazardous ordinance - and people with the will and motivation to use them do not need to tote them halfway around the world to their target. Any serf or centurion grasps that. The discussion of Iraq’s armament is simply a noble lie.
“Never was it more fully proved, by awful disasters for the Roman people or by indubitable signs, that the gods care not for our safety but for our punishment.” – Tacitus, The Histories (I, iii)

“Ancient civilizations were destroyed by imported barbarians; we breed our own.” – W.R. Inge, The Idea of Progress, 13.
Thirdly, this war being won might be the West’s biggest problem. One of the more renowned historians of our age, Arnold Toynbee, wrote an essay on war (in Experiences) arguing one of the greatest disadvantages for a dominant Power is success itself. “Victors are seldom in the mood for making concessions and a dazzling series of victory is apt to blind one to the truth that military victory is a wasting asset." The upshot of the article, however, underscores two wider themes in his twelve vol. Study of History. One, that a war against a aggressor (i.e. a defensive war) is the only morally acceptable form of violence, and two, that no defender in history, from Babylon to Egypt, from Hellas to China, from the Ottomans to the Americas has ever been able to hold the line in perpetuity.# It may take months, decades or centuries - but every defender eventually flags, every wall tumbles. A perpetual war is one you will always lose. Or as Montesquieu noted, “The Empire fell because it existed - it is after all a fact that everything must fall.”

Neoconservative analysts, think tanks and policy makers truly see the world in these stark terms and have done so since the 1950s: read anything by RAND, flip through a copy of The National Review, skim anything penned by Samuel P. Huntington and his ilk. Welcome to the Project for the New American Century. The difference you may’ve noticed in world politics is largely a symptom of the fact that these not-so-gentle men now have the undivided attention of the military and executive branches of the world’s most powerful nation. Above anything else -commerce or culture, alliances or allegiances - the American establishment now wants a defence against a world gone for them abruptly sour and Hobbesian. Delays, apologies and niceties are now a much lower priority; “ask what you wish, just do not ask for reasons.” Diplomatic posturing and multilateral askesis have now been left to the provincial frontiers of the world.!
"The warrior becomes the hero, and the society celebrates the death and destruction of war, two things the warrior never celebrates. The warrior celebrates the fact of having survived, not of killing Japs or Krauts or gooks or Ruskies or ragheads. That large and complex emotional mess called national victory holds no sway for the warrior." - Anthony Swofford, Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (NY: Scribner, 2003)

“Let us not talk of war. It is through words that it is kept alive.” -Paul Eluard (1916)
To some, this new attitude of the White House is merely insult, to others, onslaught. Witness the current row and pillars of fire flashing above Baghdad, the Humvees and Bradley’s rumbling around the edge of Basra. Oderint dum metuant. That great fighter-philosopher Alexander died in the dust of the Mesopotamian plains having gone too far. Five centuries later, another mighty Global Power, Rome under Julian marched to Baghdad with the mind to settle once and for all the threats from the region. And though their emperor died in the battle, their legions forced into retreat, they finally negotiated a grudging peace. Mission accomplished. That part of the world never bothered Rome again. They never got the chance. A century later, the unthinkable had come to pass - the great Empire was gone, the Eternal City in ruin – and many concluded her martial spirit had been her downfall. "Conquest, unsupported by law, is merely brigandage on a larger scale." Saint Augustine was writing from Carthage, five centuries after Rome had razed it to the ground and sown its fields with salt.

Think about the attitude of the world’s poor and wandering towards the United States for a moment. Think about the chants and banners of protesters moving through Manhattan, Chicago and San Francisco. Now hear out a good friend: “the most lively resentment is excited by the tyranny of pretended benefactors, who sternly exact the debt of gratitude which they have cancelled by subsequent injuries … they beheld before them the wealth and plenty in the midst of which they suffered intolerable hardships." That’s from the 26th chapter of Gibbon, relating the Visigoth nations’ mobilization against her former Roman protectors. As early as Tacitus (The Agricola, 30, 4), English leaders decried Roman expansionism, calling them Raptores Orbis (‘globe gobblers’) – “they pilfer and slaughter and call it empire. They make a void and call it peace.” Today, theoreticians of power might call it operational blowback, others malice borne of envy, still others frustrated abandonment. However, as mentioned, the words themselves matter little. Especially once the killing’s begun and the blood runs.
"Sitting here picturing home with small tears in my eyes, spending time with my brothers who will hold my life in their hands. I try not to think of what may happen in the future, but I can't stand seeing it in my eyes...the only thing I can do is keep my head up and try to keep the faith and pray for better days. All this will pass." - Letter sent home to Conyers, Georgia by Private Rincon, 19, killed March 29, 2003 at Najaf, Iraq along with three other soldiers, lured toward a taxicab which then exploded.

”Valor produces peace, peace repose, repose disorder, disorder ruin.” – Niccolo Machiavelli, History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy, 1525.

“A civilization proves its fecundity by its talent to incite others to imitate it; when it no longer dazzles them, it is reduced to an epitome of vestiges and shards.” – E.M. Cioran, History and Utopia (NY: 1987)
Watching the pundits of the all-news channels move pieces around a giant, color coded map of the Middle East, like some gargantuan gladiatorial game of Risk, is nauseating; seeing the anchormen scoff dismissively from behind their spot-lit desks at young protesters on the streets of the world; knowing what a tiny petroleum elite$ in the US stands to gain from the aftermath; seeing banners like Decapitation 101 run along the bottom of the news screen one second, as Turks are mistaken for Kurds in the next – you gape and cannot believe. Meanwhile, the skyline shot of Baghdad yesterday looked precisely like September’s ruined Manhattan – all smoke plumes, dust and buildings falling into burning rubble. Juvenal wrote, the examples we cite are never so foul that there are not others still worse; most us instinctually know indiscriminate death calls in the desert skies, a thousand forms of horror. It is not all clean detonation via video feed – the reality is cluster bomblets turning human flesh to pink mist, depleted uranium shells spinning white-hot through human bodies, concussion grenades imploding ears and eyes. We may forget war's barbarity; those whose lands it visits do not.

That some $50-200 billion dollars of American taxpayers' money - in ordinance, machinery, manpower, food, medicine and materials - is about to wash over Iraq is staggering. That the United States is the only nation on the planet even remotely able to afford such undertaking is obvious. The most pressing question for most citizens on the USA, however, is what new dangers that monumental investment might bring.@ And it truly is massive, particularly given the state of the economies in the industrialized world at the moment. Most of Europe, assessing the costs, has certainly decided they cannot afford another spate of nation building (esp. given they've picked up the tab for much of the Palestinian Authority and Afghani infrastructure). And it's possible the effort will only bring further resentment. Samuel P. Huntington underlined a single truth at the end of his Clash of Civilizations, that “Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict.”~

"The enemy are caught in an unfortunate catch-22, in that I care for them as fellow men and unfortunates as long as they are not in my riflesight or they're busy being dead, but as soon as I see them living I wish to turn upon them my years of training and suffering, and I want to perform some of the despicable acts I've learned over the prior few years." - Anthony Swifford, Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (NY: Scribner, 2003)

“You may be sure that if science is charged with the duty of furnishing the elements of diplomacy, it will be, in many cases, found to be in the gravest error.” – Ernest Renan, “What is a nation?” (1882)
So what are we seeing now? The remains of an evil proxy being pushed aside, a now useless alliance abandoned by its former suitors. The reasons the American administration seemed so assured terrible weapons were there quite simply was the US provided them. Likely they kept the receipts. Instead of that grim reminder however, the endeavour was sold by other means. How hard is it to be reminded those villains were once ‘our’ villains. The Baath party in Iraq, their soldiers and secret police have intimidated, extorted, tortured, kidnapped, ransomed, murdered, bombed, rigged and warred their way into power for over two decades. The Kurdish people have been cowering in the mountains for almost a decade now, while most of the million "marsh Arabs" of the South had their rivers poisoned or homes bombed from the air years ago. And through all that the West nodded. A sagacious Muslim once wrote that “those who deny the people their rights commits an injustice, it is the ruling dynasty which corrupts from these acts, as does all civilization.” (II, 97)

It is as true now as it was then – ethnic cleansing, chemical gassing, torture, treaty violations, invasions, terrorist sponsorship, censorship, political killings, dissident abuse, mass graves and family exile – these are welts on the world's conscience.+ I may not believe this is truly why1 the war has been launched now, but I cling to hope however delicate that the Iraqi nation could well emerge a far better place, a transformation no other Arab or Islamic state seems interested in assisting. People often oppose war for its immediate cruelty and horror, even if it could potentially stop far more cruelty and horror. χάλεπα ΤάΚαλά – the beautiful is as difficult as evil is easy. Something can and must be salvaged from this; remove the current cabal and restore some true, lasting safety and liberty to the grievously injured soul of Iraq.? Yet one chilling shadow, another precise Hellenic formulation that, darkens where the West is currently meeting the East. Κόρος, ύβρις, άτη , hubris breeds vulgarity which brings disaster. A whole world now prays that will not apply here, ache to be proved wrong.

# “The erection of a limes (fortified border) sets in motion a play of social forces which is bound to end disastrously for the builders. A policy of non-intercourse with the barbarians beyond is quite impracticable. Whatever the imperial government may decide, the interests of traders, pioneers, adventurers and so forth will inevitably draw them beyond the frontier,” wrote Toynbee in his sixth volume. What we inside the West see as border war and insurgency will be known as a heroic age to outsiders later on – that’s a general law of any displaced and dispossessed people, from the Goths onward.

! The Gallic mind seems incapable of passing up an opportunity to engage in some veiled, sanctimonious Orientalist, anti-Semitic flippancy. They also seem to be labouring under the mistaken impression that just because they kicked off the Enlightenment, they’re the only people who’ve been reasonable since. Because l'etat Francais has never fallen prey to nationalist militarism after crowning a megalomaniacal leader emperor for life or undertaken gross colonialist interference and missionary civilizing abroad. And German, Chinese and Russian governments opposed to unilateral, aggressive expansion? One assumes that’s a joke. Jacques Chirac is the one who ordered the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior so French nuclear tests wouldn’t get held up, Putin comes off like Stalin in Chechnya, China’s occupied Tibet for decades and has been threatening Taiwan for as long. French, Chinese and Russian firms have sold close to $20 billion US worth of night vision, anti-tank and missile weaponry to Iraq, with some shipments of Russia continuing even to this day. And these are suddenly the pacifist states of the world? Is it really any wonder United Nations efforts stumbled. It’s pretty tough to conjugate and parse a dictator out of power. Mind you, it took even the Yanks three years in both World Wars to wake up to that fact. Out of all this mess, at least the Brits seem to acknowledge their responsibility– they were the ones who drew the bloody borders after all. See Margaret McMillan, “Iraq’s twisted British roots” in the Globe and Mail, January 23, 2003, p. A17.

$ Toynbee also wrote in Study of History “imposing polities are the last works of dominant minorities in the disintegrating bodies of moribund civilizations. Their conscious purpose is to preserve themselves by conserving the wasting energies of the society whose fortunes their own is bound up in. This purpose is never in the long run fulfilled.” In other words, going to war or expanding an empire – an ancient and favourite ruse - never saves a failing elite for long. It only postpones the inevitable. But you can take a look at the plan anyway at http://cryptome.org/rad.htm or www.newamericancentury.org/.

@ That is a vague estimate being banded out by various media sources, though the White House is still holding back on presenting its accounting to Congress, who will ultimately gauge how generous the US is willing to be. New York Times, March 23, 2003, "Delaying Talk About the Cost of War" (sec. 1, A24) and "Who Will Put Iraq Back Together" (sec. 3, 1) points out only US companies will be contracted.

~ CtF ask if I find this quote a little asinine, which gives me an in to talk about Huntington for a second. He’s a fundamental thinker for a certain subset of influential Washington foreign policy makers at the moment. His theories are detailed, empirical and gravely realist - thus well suited to the current global environment. Personally, I find his conclusions are perverse, seeming an Oswald Spengler equivalent of geopolitical strategy. His underlying pessimism - and the imminent collapse of the West - is apocalyptic nonsense. However, none of that for a second makes him any less important. He's one of those authors whose bold and substantive work spurs others.

+ If you can get your hands on a January 26, 2003 New York Times, read p. 14 in the World section. The story, “The Killing of Iraq’s Ancient Marsh Culture,” details the napalm and chemical bombardment of the Shiite Arabs in the south, sending 140, 000 men, women and children running for their lives, with the soil of the region poisoned and the vital marshland charred. A report by Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/mena/marsharabs1.htm) provides probably the most heart-rending justification for removing Hussein I’ve ever read. Incidentally, the Guardian carried a story April 5, 2003, "Mass grave found in southern Iraq: British troops discover remains of over 200 people in 'makeshift morgue' in Zubayr." You can see for yourself http://stream.guardian.co.uk:7080/ramgen/sys-video/Guardian/Reuters/2003/04/05/05iraqmorgue.rm. The Guardian editors, I might add, have been openly against the war from the beginning; it is highly unlikely that this is Allied propaganda. There were files and photographs detailing the torture and execution of all the persons detained at the camp. The New York Times today, April 6, 2003, also carried photos and the story "British Find Remains of Hundreds Near Basra."

? Eluard again, from his "Lesson in Morality", one of the most poignant discussions of the Spanish Civil War, truly involved literature. There’s also George Orwell's Notes on Nationalism: "...pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States." I think this still holds largely true. We wish, mournfully, that we could think the best of our Western leaders, yet our distrust of their motives runs so terribly deep. Not even the generals and soldiers trust them (see S. M. Hersh, "Offense And Defense: The battle between Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon", The New Yorker, April 7, 2003: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?030407fa_fact1). All that said, every single peace demonstrator, particularly in Manhattan and London, should be proud of their efforts so far – every one I have seen or attended has been well organized, focused and peaceful.

1 Last word, on motives: Richard Perle (Goldman Sachs, global investment banking), Paul Wolfowitz (Trireme Partners PLC, international arms dealers), Dick Cheney (Haliburton, private security, oil and construction), Donald H. Rumsfeld (pharmaceuticals) and Condoleezza Rice (various energy interests) stand at the core of US foreign policy right now. They have not divested their private interests from their political pull. Pearle spoke to a high profile investment conference call about potential 'market effects and opportunities' just last week. This is might be called 'consulting' in certain circles, carpetbagging and profiteering in others. It makes it incredibly difficult not to be cynical about the good faith of US diplomatic negotiations. See "The new carpetbaggers", Globe and Mail, March 29, 2003, F9, or Dan Briody, The Haliburton Agenda: The Politics of Oil and Money (Wiley & Sons, 2004).

Update: Bloomberg just reported that Richard Perle, known in Washington as 'The Prince of Darkness', actually resigned yesterday evening as chairman of the U.S. Defense Policy Board, owing to his entanglements with Global Crossing and DigitalNet Holdings (which builds networks for the Pentagon). See Stephen Labaton, "Pentagon Adviser Is Also Advising Global Crossing," New York Times, March 21, 2003, C1, "Perle's Plunder Blunder," New York Times, March 23, 2003, 13, and "Rumsfeld advisor quits over Global Crossing ties", Financial Post, March 28, 2003, p. 12.

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