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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  • farida

    This is the Wilfred Owen poem that I guess we all learned in school and these lines always move me. I wonder if they teach it on the American curriculum.

    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    Thank you for sharing the poems, Robin. Levertov’s poem beautifully illustrates how easily we forget that when you set out to decimate a nation (the so called “enemy”), in actual fact it is human beings you are decimating. Politicians speak of war as if they are fighting an entity that exists in some realm only defined as “not us”. And they seem to somehow disengage from the reality that they are declaring war on a people and not just their leaders. I don’t get it and I’ve stopped trying to understand it. Conversely, when they support dictatorial regimes (until such point when they become “the enemy”), they conveniently forget the oppressive and soul destroying existence of the people living under those regimes.

    Every time I hear American politicians speak of war I am reminded (although I may be wrong) how insular the mentality of so much of American society seems to be; and I sort of understand the hesitancy of the Russians and Chinese in relation to certain calls for war (albeit they are looking after their own interests). The creation of enemies may be a convenient construct for politicians(not just Americans), but it becomes a circle that just keeps turning on itself. As J.P. White writes in “Thinking about the Enemy” :

    “……………………………………………still they inch

    Back and taunt us with their persistence. We track them down
    To a quick end. More come. And the old memories grow new.
    The future seems already written with a pen of iron. The book
    Unreadable, immense. The enemy has become our masterpiece.”

    Before people set out for war, would that we should seriously ask “What are they like?” and engage our resources in understanding each other in the here and now.
    As Levertov writes in Making Peace:

    “A line of peace might appear
    if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
    revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
    questioned our needs, allowed
    long pauses. . . “

  • Robin Bates

    I’m always grateful for your deep wisdom, Farida. In a column on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish today, there were a couple of items about the danger of dehumanizing an entire people (and the use of such rhetorical tactics as a prelude to war). He quotes the following passage from a David Berreby article:

    [I]t’s not hard to see that we tend to see nations—especially far-off, unfamiliar nations—as unitary creatures, with feelings, thoughts and plans. It’s embedded in our language about states, which unthinkingly uses phrases like “France wants to get out of Afghanistan” or “China fears dissent,” assuming this is just a kind of metonymy (like saying “the White House reacted to the charges” to save time). This study suggests this mental habit isn’t just a bit of poetic license, but rather a dangerous penchant of the mind.

    So as the war drums beat around Iran, it might be worth trying to correct for your built-in bias to be harsh toward entities made of people. The next time someone explains why the West might need to attack, try substituting “Farhadi and his family” for “Iran” and see how that feels.

  • Sue

    I wonder, Robin, if countries that are born from revolution are ever able to get war out of their DNA. Since taking up arms was the way we won our independence, is taking up arms the way to keep it. I’ve often thought of the line “those who live by the sword, die by the sword” as it comes to American politics. When will we lay down the sword as an option? And pursue the harder and more frustrating work of peace-making?

    Farida,
    So great to have your comments. I always appreciate what you bring. These poems are wonderful. I like especially that last line of the Levertov – “allowed long pauses…” In our fast-paced American society, long pauses aren’t necessarily valued. Not to mention questioning our needs, which if they were simpler, would allow more for all of humanity.

  • Robin Bates

    I don’t know about the DNA part, Sue, but it’s true the United States has been engaged in fairly constant war since its founding if you count all the campaigns against Indians in the 19th century. Mark Twain was appalled by the Spanish American War, which saw us going in a new direction and directing our attention beyond the continental U.S. We’ve got to do everything we can to change this mentality. Poetry has a role to play.

  • Patrick Logan

    Many talk easily of bombing Iran. Any collateral damage will make headline news just briefly, but the horror of it all is overwhelming.
    My wife and I visited Angkor Wat a few years ago. Despite four years of a civil war that killed nearly two million people, followed by years of maiming by land mines, the people of Cambodia display a resilient optimism.
    For tourists, the delight in visiting the many temples can be marred by the ubiquitous touts selling silk textiles, coffee table books and post cards. Toward the end of one rather long day of sightseeing, I was becoming somewhat annoyed by the incessant exhortations to buy something. Taking the final steps down an ancient stone staircase at a remote temple, someone behind me said, “Mister! Mister! You buy picture book?” Without turning, I shouted, “No! I don’t want a book!” Reaching the ground level, I turned to see a boy perhaps ten years old. His left foot was shoeless. His right leg ended just below the knee and he was balancing himself on a homemade crutch.
    There are times when life offers an extraordinary lesson. I cannot remember the boy’s face or the name of the temple. However, that gap between the dirt and his rag-wrapped stump, that space was unforgettable. The inverted pyramid of grey bandage moved like a pendulum as he tried to steady himself. Is there some special scale that can measure the horror of that space? What burdens do I carry that I can use as even a partial counterweight to those few inches below his knee? I have nothing. Nothing at all.

  • Good Morning Mr. Bates,

    I love the poem by Denise Levertov, and these comment are powerful… Here’s my idea, I think Mrs. Clinton, needs to take Mr. Bates, and some of the finest spiriual-truth speaking poets over there, and show love, and find their Poets, and bring them here, all on film, all on the channels of tv that are free sort of speak… This stuff needs to stop, and Poets are the ones to do it…

    Good Day-


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