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Surviving the Fourth of July
Posted on Jul 7, 2008
By Chris Hedges
There is a moment in “Henry IV, Part I,” when Falstaff leads his motley band of followers to the place where the army has assembled. Lined up behind him are cripples and beggars, all in rags, because those with influence and money, like George W. Bush, evade military service. Prince Hal looks askance at the pathetic collection before him, but Falstaff says, “Tut, tut, good enough to toss, food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.”
I have seen the pits in the torpid heat in El Salvador, the arid valleys in northern Iraq and the forested slopes in Bosnia. Falstaff is right. Despite the promises never to forget the sacrifices of the dead, of those crippled and maimed by war, the loss and suffering eventually become superfluous. The pain is relegated to the pages of dusty books, the corridors of poorly funded VA hospitals, and sustained by grieving families who still visit the headstone of a man or woman who died too young. This will be the fate of our dead and wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the fate of all those who go to war. We honor them only in the abstract. The causes that drove the nation to war, and for which they gave their lives, are soon forgotten, replaced by new ones that are equally absurd.
Stratis Myrivilis in his novel “Life in the Tomb” makes this point:
“A few years from now, I told him,” Myrvilis wrote nearly a century ago, “perhaps others would be killing each other for anti-nationalist ideals. Then they would laugh at our own killings just as we had laughed at those of the Byzantines. These others would indulge in mutual slaughter with the same enthusiasm, though their ideals were new. Warfare under the entirely fresh banners would be just as disgraceful as always. They might even rip out each other’s guts then with religious zeal, claiming that they were ‘fighting to end all fighting.’ But they too would be followed by still others who would laugh at them with the same gusto.”
Patriotic duty and the disease of nationalism lure us to deny our common humanity. Yet to pursue, in the broadest sense, what is human, what is moral, in the midst of conflict or under the heel of the totalitarian state is often a form of self-destruction. And while Shakespeare, Proust and Conrad meditate on success, they honor the nobility of failure, knowing that there is more to how a life is lived than what it achieves. Lear and Richard II gain knowledge only as they are pushed down the ladder, as they are stripped of power and the illusions which power makes possible.
Late one night, unable to sleep during the war in El Salvador, I picked up “Macbeth.” It was not a calculated decision. I had come that day from a village where about a dozen people had been murdered by the death squads, their thumbs tied behind their backs with wire and their throats slit.
I had read the play before as a student. Now it took on a new, electric force. A thirst for power at the cost of human life was no longer an abstraction. It had become part of my own experience.
I came upon Lady Macduff’s speech, made when the murderers, sent by Macbeth, arrive to kill her and her small children. “Whither should I fly?” she asks.
I have done no harm. But I remember now
Those words seized me like Furies and cried out for the dead I had seen lined up that day in a dusty market square, and the dead I would see later: the 3,000 children killed in Sarajevo, the dead in unmarked mass graves in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, El Salvador, the dead who are my own, who carried notebooks, cameras and a vanquished idealism into war and never returned. Of course resistance is usually folly, of course power exercised with ruthlessness will win, of course force easily snuffs out gentleness, compassion and decency. In the end, all we can cling to is each other.
Thucydides, knowing that Athens was doomed in the war with Sparta, consoled himself with the belief that his city’s artistic and intellectual achievements would in the coming centuries overshadow raw Spartan militarism. Beauty and knowledge could, ultimately, triumph over power. But we may not live to see such a triumph. And on this weekend of collective exaltation I did not attend fireworks or hang a flag outside my house. I did not participate in rituals designed to hide from ourselves who we have become. I read the “Eclogues” by Virgil. These poems were written during Rome’s brutal civil war. They consoled me in their wisdom and despair. Virgil understood that the words of a poet were no match for war. He understood that the chant of the crowd urges nearly all to collective madness, and yet he wrote with the hope that there were some among his readers who might continue, even when faced with defeat, to sing his hymns of compassion.
... sed carmina tantum
...but songs of ours
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