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Romancing The War

By Mustapha Marrouchi

07 April, 2008

“Good-bye,” says the dying man to the mirror they hold in front of him. “We won’t be seeing each other any more.”

Paul Valéry, L’idée fixe, 34.

At one moment in Samuel Beckett’s Rough for Theater, II a character stares out of a window and remarks: “And to think all that is nuclear combustion! All that faerie!” Beckett himself was against this, as he would be against the commentator on CBS who chanced five years after the invasion to say once more that Baghdad looked on the first night it was bombed in 2003 by the US army like a fireworks display on the fourth of July; a wicked remark to make while innocent Iraqis are dying every day as a result of occupation and sectarian violence–a remark that typifies the US government’s callousness.

The example from Beckett suggests something further lopsided in the Western media’s compliance with big government: Baghdad did look like that, just as nuclear combustion produces skies at once ravaged and ravishing, at least for those distorted minds who think war has its own aesthetics, forgetting that there is no courage in dropping bombs from 20,000 feet on innocent civilians. Otherwise, it might be a better world if moral or political wrongs were made visible at once by sheer ugliness (as if in a spy-movie Michael Caine crossed into East Berlin and moved from technicolor to black-and-white) but such an improved world is merely a fantasy, whereas Beckett’s character and his response to “faerie” are true to this world and to what its inhabitants are like.

That media-persons are responsible for aestheticizing the war is true and they should feel guilt and shame, but they are not the only people who do so. For consider Tolstoy describing the scene of the Battle of Borodino: “Over Borodino, a mist has spread, melting, parting, shimmering with light in the brilliant sunshine, magically coloring and outlining everything. The smoke of the guns mingled with this mist, and over the whole landscape sparkled the morning sun, gleaming on the water, on the dew, on the bayonets of the infantry. . . . These puffs of smoke and

the reports that accompanied them were, strange to say, what gave the chief beauty to the spectacle” (War and Peace, 123). “Strange,” indeed. For here Tolstoy does not just nonchalantly mention the sun’s equanimity, touching alike bayonets and dew, but conceives it with a feeling of relief, a relief that combatants might also feel when they see how, for a while, the light washes clean what their struggles had smirched; this is perhaps why he emphasizes that the puffs of smoke “gave the chief beauty” to the scene–even these signals of dire intent can be drawn up in lines of something other than belligerence.

Alas, these transformations are a reality of war, and need to be remembered. Such things as Tolstoy describes happen outside novels too. Wittgenstein wrote notes on aesthetics at the Hungarian Front in 1917; Wilfred Owen was reminded of a pet canary by the bullets whistling past him in his trench. And David Jones, who suffered in the First War, wrote during the Second: “The most convinced and clear-sighted pacifist, whether Christian or not, or the person suffering and outraged by one of the many contingencies of war, who takes up, and reads a description of brilliant strategy, or an account of the well-executed tactical movements, is compelled to experience a measure of delight whether he would or no. . . . We cannot deny, in as far as any art still resides in war, that the art of war is capable, at all events, of a form-creating quality.” No matter, war still upsets those of us who think that people ought to live in peace and harmony with one another.

Tolstoy, Owen, Jones, and many others may have an incredible imagination, but it is poorly served in the present instance. A brighter critic of the Left, William Hazlitt, explained one ground from being disturbed by that faculty: the “imagination, generally speaking, delights in power, in strong excitement, as well as in truth, in good, in right. . . . This general love or tendency to immediate excitement or theatrical effect gives a bias to the imagination often inconsistent with the greatest good.” Hazlitt could have recognized more explicitly that the “greatest good” itself mightily provokes feverish and incompatible imaginings. Having no imagination at all does not help cope with the ways people are tempted to identify their dreams with righteousness, as the intellectual impotence of the Arab world makes abundantly clear. I personally think something similar to John Keats’s reach of imagination toward minds different from his own would better serve both the purpose, and the cross-purposes, of decency: “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel. . . .” The same is not true of a quarrel in the sands, or in the skies over Baghdad.

The “energies,” the “fireworks,” and the “faerie” may have their appeal to Bush/Bin Laden Murder Inc. Why, you may ask, does any of this matter, now that Baghdad has been knocked into rubble? The answer to the question posed here may be hard to find, but one thing is certain: the killing in Iraq will stop when there is nobody left to kill. For now, we are reminded of Poets like Lord Alfred Tennyson, who with his “blood-red blossom of war” are as susceptible to its pull as politicians like Churchill, who invented the phrase “theater of war,” are. Human beings, it seems, un-realize the world around themselves very readily and, looking at what they have made of that world, it’s hard to blame them for doing so. Even so, you do not understand an enemy until you understand his poetry. After all, war is a creature of the imagination. And while it goes on ravaging everything and everyone in its path in Iraq, it is likely that any peace will be as frail as a daydream.

In the meantime, Baghdad, the city of Blue Mosques, is burning under the submissive gaze of the Arab world. Worse, Iraq is experiencing the largest forced migration in the region since the annexation of Palestine by Israel in 1948. About 2.2 million have already left their homeland. That they will be needed to rebuild their country, even if it exists in name only, is wishful thinking. The tragedy is that nobody outside of Iraq seems to care anymore. We have become numb to pain and violence and despair. Otherwise, how can we explain the sectarian cleansing that has taken hold of the country? The single bullets; the drops of blood; the severed chicken necks; the bodies that are thrown into the river Euphrates, each clearly a victim of torture; the children who play in soccer fields next to dead bodies; the village in which every Ali or Omar, depending on where you find yourself, is murdered; the girl from Kufa who was gang-raped by eight men who posted a notice of their act on the door of her high school; the teen-age boy who carried a grown man’s corpse to the police station because the police were afraid to do it themselves; the woman who could not stop vomiting because her five brothers were found in a garbage dump with their ears sliced off, their genitals stuffed inside their mouths, their hands bolted together in the position of prayer; the daughter whose father was shut in the back by American soldiers while taking his television to a repair shop; the widowed mother who must sell her body to feed her son; the young woman who left her home with nothing but the clothes she was wearing; the other young woman who was strangled by a family member in an “honor killing” for engaging in prostitution to support her family; the young girls who were sold as brides to rich men in the Gulf, and the list of horrors goes on. The upshot is that the war in Iraq is dirty, very dirty; even if Anglo-American torture practices employ “clean surgical operations” and techniques–the infliction of suffering by electricity, water, noise, and stress positions–which spill no bodily fluids that might provoke disgust. What the English and Americans do not explain is the relentless focus on spilling innocent blood in the fetishization of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the civic infrastructure destroyed and the puppet Vichy-like government no longer functioning, the threats grow increasingly personal, and for many it becomes clear that they cannot be safe anywhere in their own country. So, those who are able, leave in droves to Jordan, Syria, Egypt. The lucky ones and “happy few” make it to Europe and possibly the US, who resettled 1.4 million Southeast-Asian refugees within its borders after the Vietnam War, but refuses to even acknowledge the current crisis in the Middle East, a callous attitude, to say the least; when the situation in Iraq dwarfs even the 1948 dislocation of the Palestinians. This is where we are today. Iraq, the seat of the glorious Abbassid period (750-1258), which gave us the Golden Age of Islam, is a contaminated place, full of dust, blood, and stench.

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