catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 17 :: 2010.09.24 — 2010.10.07


Heavy artillery

Editor’s Note: This essay is a companion piece to the poem, “The Hard Way.”

Cornel West noted a seemingly obvious irony when President Obama accepted the Nobel back in the fall of 2009: “It’s gonna be hard to be a war president with a peace prize.” And this is no new political dilemma. We’ve seen plenty of public leaders, in our own lifetimes and throughout history, who make speeches about peace while heading up war efforts abroad. 

But ironic tensions between the ideal and the reality aren’t just a problem for heads of state. What West calls “the pressure of peace” weighs on all citizens whose job it is to keep their officials accountable “in a self-critical, not a self-righteous way.” Bearing this self-critical eye, anyone who has espoused a dream of peace is bound to run up against the perennial problem of moral culpability, or guilt by association — or, at any rate, you can be sure that their detractors will be quick to bring it up. Enter the pundits: Who do you think you are? What do you think protects your right to be an activist — the luxury of the First Amendment — in the first place? Or, on the other hand, a thoughtful Christian might still wonder, “Can the shoes of peace still fit a citizen of empire?”

With our country maintaining the largest military in history (in 2009, we spent almost as much as the rest of the world combined), we inherit a certain girth that marks our day-to-day activities. For one thing, U.S. military supremacy means that there are practical implications for how we live our lives, or vote, that effect the rest of the world. Some of us see this burden as a noble purpose, a view that bears some resemblance to the sort of burden Rudyard Kipling postulated: it’s our job to make things right, to take care of, in this case, the whole world. Others emphasize the dark heart of our own policies and history. But there also is an emotional dimension to life during wartime, which is what I want to consider.

I’ve done some personal reflection on the awareness of violence that I receive from the media. Whether cable TV, blogs and online commentary, or the tatters of print culture that occasionally arrive in my mailbox, there is a distinct vision of war that usually seems to be on offer. Regardless of the particular details this time around — which country, which glamorously-named tactical operation — several factors remain consistent in both the presentation of the facts and my reception of them at a gut level. As Marshall McLuhan taught everyone to say: the medium is the message.

Mostly I have noticed that the drone of headlines and ceaselessly breaking news contribute an indistinct sense of heaviness to my life. What am I to make of the horrors about which I am consistently updated, but that remain nonetheless impersonal, dramatized, like any good piece of after-dinner entertainment? How am I to shoulder the overload of information that brings only vague dread? The footage and first-hand accounts can have a paralyzing — or worse, chilling — effect on my conscience. The sheer adrenaline of the soundtrack pushes me to the edge of my seat, and keeps me there.

In his poem “The War Next Door,” James Tate describes this “hazy dream” of violence. The unnamed speaker of the poem finds that wounded soldiers from the last war (which all the news reports had said was over and done with) are marching, scattered, through his back yard. He recognizes one of them from the magazine he had been reading. “Why didn’t you fight with us?” they ask. The speaker is confused: “I didn’t know who the enemy was, honest, I didn’t,” and the soldiers, too, disagree with one another about who they were actually fighting. The speaker closes the door and returns to the living room, but the sounds of war still clamor just within earshot: “I heard a bugle in the distance, then the roar of a cannon. I still don’t know which side I was on.”

Many commentators have no problem telling us whose side we’re on. But that only does so much to calm one’s nerves, and the tone of news programming also makes a subtler contribution to the debate. For all its sophistication, the live stream of embedded journalists is clearly still cropped and scripted, just distant enough to reinforce the sensation of personal safety, to indulge my cravings for comfort and reassurance. Not only paralysis, then, but the instinct of recoil, of self-preservation, can threaten the ability of compassion to shape my response. Regardless of my handle on political issues or their ethical dimensions, there is this dimension of sentiment and gut reaction that has more of a hold on me that I often realize. Not quite like a punch in the stomach, the awareness of violence is something in the air, so to speak, that settles tight and heavy in my bowels and can make a lasting impression on my character. Clearly, I have yet to come to terms with the visceral and emotional facts of my citizenship’s weight.

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