Voices in Wartime
Everyone is against war; why choose to intentionally kill thousands, millions of human beings when even the death of one is considered murder? And yet every country, every government, every political power on earth has declared war on another one, or even on its own people, at some time in its history. While we pay lip service to peace we seem genetically programmed to make war.
A small documentary has been making the rounds of art houses since April. It's called "Voices in Wartime," and it was made by an on-again-off-again director named Rick King, whose resumé consists mainly of low-budget crime and horror quickies. It contains within its 70-odd minutes perhaps the most powerful argument against war I can recall hearing, and I've heard them all. How does this little film carry so much weight? Because it is built on art - specifically on poetry, the one art, as someone in the film says, that presents the past, the present and the future simultaneously to us, so that we comprehend where we have been, where we are, and where we will go. And when we go to war, the poet is the artist who sets the barrier the warmakers must climb over before they can justify their acts.
The genesis of the film begins with, of all things, an invitation by Laura Bush to a symposium at the White House in February, 2003, on the work of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes. One of the poets invited was Sam Hamill, of Port Townsend, Washington, who was opposed to the Bush administration policy then leading us to war on Iraq. He contacted some other invitees and asked them to join him at the symposium with work that would speak against the war. The White House quickly cancelled the symposium, but Hamill and his colleagues went ahead with a program called 'Poets Against the War,' an event that was held at Lincoln Center on the date originally scheduled for the symposium. I was there, along with about two thousand others who had managed to make their way through drifts from a two-foot snowstorm that had hit New York earlier that day, and heard many of the poets read what they would have shared at the White House had they been given the chance.
The film itself, though, is much more than a document of those events. King has gone back to start with the Iliad for Homer's description of death in wartime, and worked forward by means of poetry, through the Civil War, World War I and II, Vietnam, and now the current Iraq war and occupation. Even the reclusive Dickinson turns out to have written about the unsought death of war. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are our lectors for the lessons of the first World War, and we meet a remarkable poet-veteran of Vietnam, who shares a poem in which he sees a spider just in front of his rifle, then twenty feet beyond a Vietnamese enemy, both slowly inching along; he waits until the spider has moved out of his line of fire before shooting the Vietnamese. Why, he asks, does he value the life of the spider over that of the enemy? There is no answer.
Equally powerful are the images of war and death that King and his crew have found in archives all over the world. As we watch them and listen to the poems, we are torn apart at the recognition of what we humans do to each other in the name of, well, of life - because surely there is no other rationale for killing. Apparently only human beings are capable of holding two such opposing concepts together in our brains. Let me end by printing this short poem by Cameron Penny, of Michigan, which is read in the film. Mr. Penny is twelve years old.
If you are lucky in this life
A window will appear on a battlefield between two armies.
And when the soldiers look into the window
They don't see their enemies
They see themselves as children.
And they stop fighting
And go home and go to sleep.
When they wake up, the land is well again.