Could verse change pathWritten by Barbara Goodman Shovers | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The headline made me do a double take: ”Poets Considered For Commanders After Abuse (Abu Ghraib) Case.”
I considered the possibilities. Maybe if officers were forced to read a couple anti-war verses of Rupert Brooks or W.H. Auden, they’d get a twinkling of the tragedy they’re involved in. Maybe a stanza of Wilfred Owen, a chapter of Vonnegut or a chorus of Dylan (either one) could start these guys thinking about the true meaning behind the hideous verbal construction ”collateral damage.”
Could it be that writing verse might mold men of action into men of feeling? Or at least channel some of their aggression into less destructive areas?
I warmed to the idea of military men mentored by language lovers. It’s a goofy idea, I thought, but it might just work.
Then my eyes refocused and I saw I’d misread the headline. Its first word was ”Posts,” not ”Poets” and the New York Times article was about Secretary of Defense Rumsfield considering a new-and-improved job for the commander who’d been in charge in Iraq when the prison scandal took place. Like most of the other top brass, three-star Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez has been cleared of wrongdoing and he’s now in-line for another five-pointed shoulder decoration. What a difference an ”s” makes.
But let’s pretend, for a couple paragraphs, that the ”e” stood.
It’s standard PSYOPs procedure to blast heavy metal (or bubble-pop) at insurgents and other undesirables. Desecrating art and icons has always been a top-notch way to demoralize populations. So why not turn the tables and use literature and art as a way to instill humanity in our conquering heroes?
If the government can embed journalists with troops, why not artists? A moral compass is as important to carry as GPS weaponry.
There are moments, of course, when brute force is necessary to subdue an enemy, but a poet or writer might be helpful in determining when ”brute” is the correct modifier and what other verbs might work in place of ”subdue.” Not to mention figuring out who the real enemy is, and seeing the conflict through his or her eyes.
Art and war have long been twinned. But at least historically the former was used to extol the latter. Homer’s ”Iliad” documents the glorious Peloponnesian battles. Napoleon took painters into battle to record his victories in oil.
It wasn’t until World War I that most narratives, visual and verbal, slid from heroic to tragic. As technology became fiercer and enemies less well defined, romanticism gave way to horror, fear and recognition of life’s crueler emotional states. It’s hard, for example to find Vietnam poetry that isn’t, at best, ambivalent.
Military training does not categorically ignore the arts. West Point cadets can take an English class that incorporates ”war poetry” and the Air Force Academy has a Web site for its journal ”War, Literature and the Arts.” Most Department of Defense types I’ve met are thoughtful, well-educated men. But War College prepares students for battle, not ballads. Which is as it should be: at critical moments, we need soldiers who are steely, not moony-eyed.
But we also need people who appreciate the importance and fragility of human life, advisors who see past the clear-cut adrenaline rush of war and self-righteousness. Had there been a poet at Abu Ghraib, maybe the abuse wouldn’t have happened. Maybe the soldiers who leashed, hooded and made human pyramids of their naked charges would have taken to heart Auden’s commandment that we love one another or die.
And what a difference it makes if we include ”them” in our ”we.”
So give General Sanchez his new posting – in Latin America. But make sure he takes an English major. Or at least a couple volumes of Whitman and Tennyson.
Barbara Goodman Shovers is a Contributing Editor for Toledo Free Press. She may be contacted at email@example.com.