Brother Fire Unleashed in Libya

Libyan bomb

Libyan bomb attack

As I watch Muammar Qaddafi turn his air force against his own people, I am trying to imagine conditions on the ground. I asked my father for literature describing the experience, he having once undergone a bombing himself. It occurred in 1944, a couple of weeks after the D Day invasion of Normandy, when the Germans sent an aerial counterattack against Avranches in the battle of the Falaise Gap.  My father and other  American troops were stationed in a hotel, and although everyone else went down to the cellar, he remembers being curled up in an upstairs room.

He reminded me of a poem by Irish poet Louis MacNeice, who witnessed firsthand the German bombing of London in which over 40,000 civilians were killed. In my father’s eyes, “Brother Fire” is one of the great antiwar poems, in part because it captures the bombing so vividly, in part because it makes the point that we and our enemy are not that different. “Oh enemy and image of ourselves,” MacNiece says to the flames as they “slaver and crunch away/The beams of human life, the tops of topless towers.”

One other note: MacNiece describes an almost anarchistic joy as he watches the fire swarm up “city blocks and spire.” Apparently he was not alone. Other Londoners reported being caught up in an excited camaraderie as together they watched their city burn.  This may have occurred as well during the 1944 Allied bombing of Germany, which some feel actually lengthened the war by stiffening the resolve of the German people.

Here’s the poem:

Brother Fire

By Louis MacNeice

When our brother fire was having his dog’s day
Jumping the London streets with millions of tin cans
Clanking at this tail, we heard some shadow say,
“Give the dog a bone”–and so we gave him ours;
Night after night we watched him slaver and crunch away
The beams of human life, the tops of topless towers.

Which gluttony of his for us was Lenten fare
Who Mother-naked, suckled with sparks, were chill
Though dandled on a grill of sizzling air
Striped like a convict–black, yellow and red;
Thus were we weaned to knowledge of the Will
That wills the natural world but wills us dead.

O delicate walker, babbler, dialectician Fire,
O enemy and image of ourselves,
Did we not on those mornings after the All Clear,
When you were looting shops in elemental joy
And singing as you swarmed up city blocks and spire,
Echo your thought in ours? Destroy! Destroy!

In his note on “Brother Fire” in his Poems of War Resistance from 2300 to the Present (Grossman 1969), my father notes the London blitzkrieg was in part a response to England’s own strategic bombing of Germany in May of 1940. This is not to say that the bombing of London was in any way justified, any more than the revenge bombing of Dresden (which Kurt Vonnegut experienced as a prisoner of war) was justified. The fire described by MacNiece is a “dialectician” because, when the dogs of war are unleashed (to quote Julius Caesar), an infernal dialectic is set into motion. We are initiated into–weaned into–knowledge of some inexorable Will that seeks our death and yet still manages to enroll us in its urge to “Destroy! Destroy!”

As an Irishman, MacNeice had seen a dark side of England.  Although he bucked certain Irish revolutionaries when he embraced the English cause during World War II, he had no illusions about England’s moral superiority.

And this is why I believe that we must not enter Libya’s war, even though part of us wants to protect those being slaughtered—just as people wanted to protect the Iraqi people from Sadaam Hussein. I remember reading in 2003 a wise piece by Chilean Ariel Dorfman urging the U.S. not to invade Iraq, even as he spoke of the horrors of Hussein from the vantage point of one who had suffered under fascist dictatorship himself.  Such an invasion, he predicted, could result in far more devastation than that which it was designed to alleviate.  He proved to be remarkably prescient.

Indeed, both the Iraqi people and the U.S. (and its allies) have paid a high price for the Iraqi War.  In addition to all the loss of life and money, the U.S. has lost moral authority.  As Washington Post columnist Annie Applebaum points out, the Middle Eastern revolutionaries are not clamoring for U.S. assistance (some neoconservatives argue otherwise) because they fear a repeat of Iraq.  Furthermore, the American tolerance for torture and indefinite detention has eroded our credibility even more.

War is never a neutral tool that can be wielded dispassionately.  Every time we engage in bloodshed, we are in peril of losing our moral compass. O enemy and image of ourselves.  The U.S. should, by all means, marshal all the non-military resources it has against Qaddafi.  Sending planes or troops into the conflict, however, could once again pull us into the elemental joy of brother fire.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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