Still Falls the (Drone-Delivered) Rain

Predator drone

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Tonight the president and his GOP challenger square off for their third and final debate, this one about foreign policy. One area where I believe Obama should be challenged—his widespread and Congressionally unauthorized use of drones—will probably go unquestioned by Romney since his own approach to foreign policy appears to be “Obama only with more belligerence.” Oh, and he wants to reinstate torture as well.

It’s time to revisit Edith Sitwell’s poem “Still Falls the Rain,” her great anti-war poem about bombing (see below).

The casual acceptance by Americans of U.S. bombing—revealed in a recent poll that says that Americans favor, by a 58-33 percent margin, initiating military action to destroy Iran’s ability to make a nuclear bomb should the country continue on its present course—makes me wonder whether we have learned anything from our various escapades in the Middle East. Do we really think that we can attack without consequences? Although both the region and America itself are still paying for our Iraq debacle, nevertheless we are now hearing Romney’s neocon advisors calling for attacks on Syria as well as Iran. Why do they have any credibility left? And why is Romney turning to Bush II for advisors when Bush I’s staff were the ones who shone in foreign diplomacy?

Sitwell reminds us that there are spiritual consequences as well as material ones to raining down bombs. She wrote her poem following the London Blitzkrieg, and even though the German air attack was as black and white a situation as one could imagine, she nevertheless doesn’t let her own side off the hook. We are all of us capable, like Judas (the “potter’s field,” “the field of blood”), of betraying our loving hearts. We all can set our internal hounds upon the blind and weeping bear within.

Put another way, when Americans accede to the violence that is being done in our name—whether we do it unthinkingly or enthusiastically—a light within us dies. I particularly appreciate Sitwell’s allusion to Doctor Faustus in the next-to-last stanza: Faustus has a chance to turn back to God and regain his soul when he is lying on his deathbed. Instead, he allows himself to be pulled down by his darkness. “Oh save me, Lucifer,” he calls out in the next line.

I don’t know exactly when Sitwell wrote “Still Falls the Rain.” If she wrote it later in the war, she would have known about Great Britain’s revenge bombings, the most egregious of which was the devastation of Dresden, an open city filled with refugees and prisoners (including Kurt Vonnegut). Like Faustus, we have difficulty seeing past our own shallow hurts and desires, even though Christ’s love streams in the firmament. The worm of Cain eats at our brains.

Yet in spite of our fallible humanity, the final stanza shows us the voice of innocence still trying to get through to remind us of the sacrifices that love is capable of. I acknowledge that love seems rather ineffective, losing out far more than it wins. Nevertheless, we can find it encouraging that love’s voice is never entirely silenced.

Love for humankind may not make an appearance in tonight’s debate as it would be regarded as a sign of weakness. I don’t think we’ll hear either candidate expressing moral qualms about the drone attacks and their civilian casualties. Neither will talk about how we continue to crucify Christ, including the Christ within ourselves. But the rest of us should be speaking up.

Here’s Sitwell’s poem, with its pounding, hallucinatory rhythm:

Still Falls the Rain
(The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn)

By Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell

Still falls the Rain—

Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—

Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails

Upon the Cross.

Still falls the Rain

With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat

In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of the impious feet

On the Tomb:

Still falls the Rain

In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain

Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.

Still falls the Rain

At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.

Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us—

On Dives and on Lazarus:

Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.

Still falls the Rain—

Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side:

He bears in His Heart all wounds,—those of the light that died,

The last faint spark

In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,

The wounds of the baited bear—

The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat

On his helpless flesh… the tears of the hunted hare.

Still falls the Rain—

Then— O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune—

See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament:

It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree

Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart

That holds the fires of the world,—dark-smirched with pain

As Caesar’s laurel crown.

Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man

Was once a child who among beasts has lain—

“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.” 

Further Thoughts: I should perhaps add that I don’t downplay the threat that Al Qaeda poses to America, and I do believe that the world is better off without some of the Al Qaeda leaders that have been killed in the drone strikes. Some of these people spend their lives trying to figure out ways to kill masses of civilians in Western countries (and elsewhere). But when military measures have to be taken, especially measures that have a high probability of including civilian deaths, our leaders have an imperative to acknowledge the moral cost. They may be justified in going on with the action, but they must face up to the enormity of what they are doing–or at least they must if they are to hold on to their souls.

Two instances I have seen of Obama losing some moral, or human, perspective in the war on terror is in his two “gaffes” where he described the deaths of the Americans in Libya as “a bump in the road” and “not optimal.” (Of course, his “hollow man” opponent seems to have abdicated any moral center at all in his willingness to do and say anything to become president.) I can’t imagine how challenging it is to be responsible for people’s lives as the president is, but he needs to find out ways to stay in touch with his soul. The power of a poem like Sitwell’s is that, in the very act of reading and interpreting it, we ask ourselves questions that we might otherwise avoid.

On a related issue, I’ve been thinking of my father’s response to the dropping of the atom bomb. My father was in Munich in 1945 as a member of the American army–he witnessed the Dachau concentration camp three days after it was liberated–and he felt that the United States had just forfeited its moral authority with the action. Knowing about his thoughts gives me new insights into one of his finest poems, where he writes, “We all destroy the walls of Troy,/We all carry Helen away.” (I post on the entire poem here.) In other words, be wary of those, whether Greeks or Trojans, who wrap themselves in the mantle of moral superiority.

Update following debate: Romney just said he agreed entirely with Obama’s drone policy. Not a good sign.

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