Things seen, or unseen, from askance. Driving the dark roads heading into Chappaqua, in a clearing where the pines part along the reservoir, an oblique moon like a glint in someone’s night eye breaks into pieces upon the water; everything is shades of black and pearl. In the rearview mirror he notices that his hairline is receding to reveal his father’s forehead.
A brief summer shower has done little to dissuade the sun’s heat. As he walks the hot macadam road that winds between the two fields, steam is rising and shimmering off the pavement like apparitions, and the rising dust stings as he breathes in the dampness. Out of the corner of his eye he catches the tail of a snake as it slips into the tall grass. What must the hot, wet macadam have felt like upon the cool length of the sinuous body as it contracted in undulatory progression, momentarily exposed, toward its habitual world unseen?
As I wait, while my wife is at the stand buying hostas, phlox, asters, and hydrangeas, I tilt back the passenger’s seat and look into the sky, a ubiquity too often ignored. Huge clouds have hidden the angular light source of the sun, although patches of blue are visible, like fathomless lakes at the base of billowy mountains. The movement of the clouds is almost imperceptible. Above me, however, a lower strata of wispy mammoths move rapidly toward some unknown destination. At first they seem to gently grasp together and commingle. Then I see that they actually move through each other, perhaps leaving some part of them in the form through which each passes.
In the past few weeks, quotidian obligations have usurped my usual diurnal staring into the abyss of American and, by implication, global politics. The ubiquitous calumny and palaver became background noise, without the time to scrutinize the prevaricating paragraphs and to read the intolerant screeds, never mind taking the time to confront the actual words. Out of the corner of an eye I glanced at bylines about the tragic events at Haditha. A cursory scan of sites like Truthout.org and rawstory.com revealed the graphic photos of the horrific scene; a surreal familiarity of man’s inhumanity to man that in a split second scars indelibly and irrevocably. Then, the details of life that seem obscenely insignificant suddenly, intrude, require immediate attention, and I am left with just the visceral effect and lingering anomie; a malaise that must permeate the citizenry who, like me, can not stop to scream back into the void.
At the time I became ensconced in the wonted duties assigned to me, the President had put forth the very person who had overseen the contentious, presumed illegal, and apparently unconstitutional NSA wiretap (without a FISA Warrant) program as his nominee to head the CIA. Despite my incredulity at such a blatant eff-u to all concerned Americans who would rather have our most secretive agencies follow the rule of law while pursuing threatening or criminal patterns of behavior in our midst, I (again) was naïve enough to believe that Democrats would stand together to block such an outrageous candidate as Michael Hayden for the CIA position. With a sidelong glance I witnessed at least one Democrat in the Senate ask Hayden( in reference to the domestic spying program),
"Whatever was done, you did it unilaterally, and as far as I'm aware, 'we' as a country weren't part of any effort to set the standards in these [espionage] programs, and most of the members of this committee were kept in the dark ... So, general, who is the 'we' that you have been citing?" (Senator Ron Wyden, Oregon)
But, I was also hearing the compliant Senators on the Intelligence Committee falling into their usual lemming-like line of complacency. And, before I realized the implications, a glimpse of Hayden being sworn in by President Bush crashed my foolish boat upon the rocks of reality; how cynical is cynical enough? Exactly what manner of freedom are we trying to spread in the name of democracy around the Middle East and the world? The kind Stalin employed, or something more dystopian and Orwellian…?
It has been the images of war, though, that despite the obliquity, have haunted me with the feeling of despair and guilt; the guilt of the safe, while others are slaughtered in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Darfur. How apropos the words of Thucydides’ reflections on the consequences of the Peloponnesian wars seem:
Practically the whole of the Hellenic world was convulsed, with rival parties in every state – democratic leaders trying to bring in the Athenians, and oligarchs trying to bring in the Spartans.... To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.... As a result...there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The plain way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow.
In the Dentist’s office, a routine visit; next to me on a chair sits a Newsweek whose cover displays the wrapped, shrouded bodies of the Haditha victims two days after the November 19th, 2005 incident. I glance, but hesitate to pick it up. After I come out from my procedure, back into the waiting room, I see that my wife is reading the article. Her expression is one I have rarely seen, thankfully, and it conjures no words; only when our eyes meet do I glimpse something frightening and frightened. We don’t discuss it on the ride home, but its presence is felt like a passing brush of cold air or an astringent smell. Thirty thousand Iraqi civilians, a very conservative estimate, have died since the American Coalition forces began their tragic shock and awe campaign over three years ago. Haditha can barely gain hold on any front page of our largest newspapers.
In an interview with Bill Moyers in March of 2003, Chris Hedges, author of On War, talked of how he was seduced by the effects of war:
MOYERS: I read your book last night. One of the most chilling and haunting scenes in here is when, I think you were in El Salvador, and a young man was near you, calling out, "mama."
HEDGES: It's not uncommon when soldiers die that they call out for their mother. And that always seems to me to cut through the absurd posturing of soldiering.
MOYERS: Three times when you were in El Salvador you were threatened with death. You received death threats. The Embassy got you out.
HEDGES: That's right.
MOYERS: You went back.
HEDGES: Yes. Because I believe that it was better to live for one intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant my own death, rather than go back to the routine of life.
MOYERS: You're right, you know. War is an addiction, as you say. Let me read you this: "during a lull I dashed…" this is you.
MOYERS: Read this for me.
HEDGES: "During a lull I dashed across an empty square and found shelter behind a house. My heart was racing. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. I was safe. I made it back to the capital. And like most war correspondents, I soon considered the experience a great cosmic joke. I drank away the fear and excitement in a seedy bar in downtown San Salvador. Most people, after such an experience, would learn to stay away. I was hooked. "
Hedges began an essay on truthout.org, while reviewing other authors writing about the Iraqi war, with these paragraphs:
The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war. The vanquished know the essence of war-death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity. But the words of the vanquished come later, sometimes long after the war, when grown men and women unpack the suffering they endured as children, what it was like to see their mother or father killed or taken away, or what it was like to lose their homes, their community, their security, and be discarded as human refuse. But by then few listen. The truth about war comes out, but usually too late. We are assured by the war-makers that these stories have no bearing on the glorious violent enterprise the nation is about to inaugurate. And, lapping up the myth of war and its sense of empowerment, we prefer not to look.
With the inconceivable consequences of our foreign policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iran, and our practical ignorance of the entire continent of Africa, our failed policies toward North Korea and even Communist China, our own dead soldiers and the innumerable victims of this violence are usurped in today’s seat of our government, as the Senate holds hearings on and votes on a Constitutional Amendment to outlaw marriage between same-sex partners. Did I actually see that out of the corner of my eye? Is our own hypocrisy that great? What do we fear, if not the death of hundreds and hundreds of thousands, but rather the union of consenting adult individuals? Perhaps I should actually look at this closer.
As he continues to drive he notices that his hands and fingers on the steering wheel have become thick and rough as his father’s had been. He thinks of the night four years ago when, after visiting him in the hospital, the drive back to Providence from New Britain, Connecticut was nearly impossible in a torrential rainstorm that obliterated all vision, like a pounding world of water tearing through him. He thought that his father looked as though he were getting better. No sooner had he gotten in the house when the phone rang, however, and he was summoned back to Connecticut immediately. Now the slanting rain was a challenge, a force against which he must prevail. He was too late; upon his arrival in the basement ICU of the hospital he was met by the attending physician who told him that his father had died about a half an hour before. He was led to a room where his father lay, still with a length of breathing tube attached in his mouth. It struck him as odd. His father seemed to be snorkeling into oblivion.