Calling Out Trump’s War Enablers


I wrote yesterday about my distress over the applause Donald Trump is receiving for his aggressive moves towards Syria (which we bombed in violation of international law), Afghanistan (where we dropped the largest non-nuclear warhead ever delivered), and North Korea (which Trump appears to be deliberately trying to antagonize). An accolade that characterizes much of the response was MSNBC’s Brian Williams quoting a Leonard Cohen lyric while watching the bombing of a Syrian airfield:

We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Let’s take a close look at the quotation which, like many of Cohen’s images, is surreal and enigmatic. Here are the first four stanzas of “First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin”:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I’d really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those

Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Perhaps, as some have suggested, Cohen is writing about breaking free of musical obscurity and storming two venues where musicians become famous. I suspect, however, that the MSNBC commentator recalls the lyrics because of the contrast between boredom and weapons, between working within a system and taking one’s cues from oneself, between dutifully standing in line and breaking ranks, between losing and winning (“you’re worried that I just might win”). Only suckers play by the rules.

Williams, after all, was a news anchor who himself bent the rules, inventing a story about being in a helicopter that was fired upon in Iraq. If the truth is drab, spice it up with an account of missiles. (CBS fired Williams for the fabrication.) So if Trump rushes in where the past president trod warily, well, that makes Trump all the more edgy.

Does America feel that it was deprived of adrenaline rushes under no-drama Obama and so is demanding them now? I think of James Carville’s 2004 reply to Republican accusations that John Kerry and the Democrats lacked a vision to counter George Bush’s wars:

I have no idea what they’re talking about. Under Bill Clinton, we had peace and prosperity. I don’t know which one of the two so offended them.

Are we a culture so decadent that stability is no longer a positive good? If we’re not sufficiently entertained, do we demand wars?

Whatever the cause, we now have people singing the praises of a president who is so unpredictable that he has the entire world on edge. Here is the very angry song that Brian Williams should have quoted:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion’
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

In a whacky Salon article, Anis Shivan argues that Dylan is our Rimbaud, a prophetic poet in the tradition of Shelley, Keats, and Yeats. “Masters of War” isn’t in their league but I’ll acknowledge that Dylan is a prophet. I quote from Shivan’s piece, preposterous though it is, because its accentuates the urgency of Dylan’s message:

This, right here, is the greatest poem of our time, as I think “The Waste Land” was for the moment between the world wars. We are again in a moment between world wars, though we don’t know when the next big one will come — or possibly we are in the midst of the final one, perhaps with the planet itself, but are not yet aware of it. Here Dylan makes poetry rise to the highest task — of judging and describing reality as it is and assigning tragic value — that it can possibly perform. He does it, in this song, better than any poet has pulled it off in nearly a hundred years.

Dylan’s song is no Waste Land. More to the point, it is no “Strange Meeting,” “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” or “Dulce et Decorum Est,” to cite poems by the greatest anti-war poet of the 20th century. But the song calls out war mongers in a powerful way, which is something that our media should be doing with Trump.

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