War’s Human Costs (So Rethink Iran)

“Rice Farmers March” (Vietnamese, hand embroidered on silk)

I have been flabbergasted at the eagerness to wage preemptive attacks again Iran that we witnessed from a range of politicians at last week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. Rick Santorum called for bombing its nuclear reactors, and he, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney all agreed that Israel rather than President Obama should be directing American foreign policy on the matter.  Rightwing pundit Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, has said that “Iran deserves to be annihilated” and that the United is “the only country” with the “moral authority” to carry out the task.

Put aside the facts that there are already stringent sanctions in place pressuring Iran and that most military experts believe that (1) bombing without follow-up ground troops probably won’t get the job done and (2) military action will just serve to unify the country, not undermine its leadership.  Let’s look instead at the cost to its people.  Anyone who is genuinely moral or religious or humane should be appalled at how easily people talk of war.

To counter the furor, I recommend turning to one of my favorite poems by Denise Levertov about a previous war where we claimed moral superiority.  Its quietness contrasts with the hysteria.

Think of “What Were They Like?” as a quiet meditative space you can visit to reflect upon the human cost, the shattering of innocence, that armed conflict entails. The last line brings to my mind the last line of what is for me the greatest anti-war poem, Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” (“Let us sleep now”). Like Owen’s poem, Levertov’s restores human perspective and helps one see clear:

What Were They Like?

By Denise Levertov

(1) Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
(2) Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
(3) Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
(4) Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
(5) Had they an epic poem?
(6) Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
It is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

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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.

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