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Reliving Langston Hughes' Horror

Air Raid: Waziristan

by JOHN GRONBECK-TEDESCO

In the early fall of 1937, African American poet, Langston Hughes, arrived in Barcelona in the aftermath of an air raid that killed several dozen people.  That summer, Hughes had joined a bevy of writers and artists from around the world who had convened in Spain to take part in the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture.  Like his fellow literati, Hughes was entranced by the civil war taking place in Spain, distraught over its broader implications for the slow withering of democracy and deepening racial injustice around the world.

In addition to reporting on the International Brigades fighting Franco and fascism, which included members of the Lincoln Brigades from the United States, Hughes was particularly focused on the volunteer Moors, those soldiers of color primarily from Morocco who signed up for both Republican and Nationalist causes.  He and Afro-Cuban poet, Nicolás Guillén, bussed through Barcelona admiring relics of its modernist antiquity while lamenting the visible destruction in the wake of war.  By day two of their trip, Hughes and Guillén witnessed an air raid for themselves, which rattled Hughes from his bed and sent him scurrying to his hotel lobby where he met Guillén.  Hughes was overwhelmed with the traumatizing scenes of death and inhumane violence to such a degree that he would record the event in several articles, essays, and poems.  Together, these macabre vignettes speak volumes about how the war impacted his political and artistic consciousness.  Not long after the experience in Barcelona, he penned these verses: 

Black smoke of sound

Curls against the midnight sky.

 

Deeper than a whistle,

Louder than a cry,

Worse than a scream

Tangled in the wail

Of a nightmare dream,

The siren

Of the air raid sounds.

“Air Raid: Barcelona” is a lyrical testimony to fascist bombing campaigns employed during the Spanish Civil War and a paean to its victims.  The short, staccato phrasing elicits confusion and anxiety, as if to place the reader in the center of the frightening chaos.  Hughes’s punctuated, march-like iambs slowly accelerate in anticipation of the bedlam to come:

Flames and bombs and

Death in the ear!

The siren announces

Planes drawing near.

Down from bedrooms

Stumble women in gowns.

Men, half-dressed,

Carrying children rush down.

Up in the sky-lanes

Against the stars

A flock of death birds

Whose wings are steel bars

Fill the sky with a low dull roar

Of a plane,

two planes,

three planes,

five planes,

or more.

The anti-aircraft guns bark into space.

The searchlights make wounds

On the night’s dark face.

The verses read like an image taken from a journalistic account that puts a print story in lyrical form.  “Air Raid: Barcelona” literally reads as a headline, making Hughes’s rendering of war a kind of textual documentary and therefore more immediate and sensorial to the reader.

We live in a time when Hughes’s horror may be relived in a different context, when leaders in Washington increasingly advocate the use of drones in the arsenal against terrorism.  In contrast to the high visibility of the German- and Italian-backed bombing campaigns in Spain, which proved to be a dress rehearsal for World War II, today we remain at a safe distance from the sequestered scenes of the “War on Terror.”  The strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia pose a different moral dilemma for western observers because there appear to be no witnesses and few “innocent” bystanders.  Civilian casualties are by and large disavowed in favor of an assertion that modern technology has cleaned up war, so that only the guilty are eradicated and the lawful safely preserved.  The use of drones reportedly maximizes security for the United States with minimal civilian casualties.  Local governments and international media outlets silence the voices of those impacted by surgical strikes.  Implemented with the consent (and even urging) of foreign governments, these clandestine operations seek to promote regional and international stability yet actually contribute to domestic inquietude, as leaders pay a price for allowing and encouraging U.S. actions.

In conventional war, the argument proffered by the administration is that the use of drones for surveillance and “signature attacks” is, in fact, in accordance with international law.  Most recently, John O. Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, defended the wide implementation of drones against terror suspects, saying they were “legal, ethical, and wise.”  But it is precisely their legality, ethicality, and wisdom that are in doubt.  In targeting non-state individuals, questions of human rights and rightful protections readily present themselves.  They center on uncovering the criteria that deem certain individuals “terrorist,” “militant,” or “insurgent.”  A select, multinational decision making network of high level intelligence officials act as judge and jury regarding who and what constitute global and local threats.  But in this process there are no democratic standards, no transparent forms of indictment, no outside accountability.  We do not always know the exact crimes suspects were meant to have committed.  In short, there is no definite way of pinpointing how guilt of an individual is assessed or the resulting consequences bore by families and communities that fall victim to unmanned war.

Consequently, omitted from much of the public record is exactly how many civilians have been killed in the 260 Predator and Reaper Drone attacks since President Obama took office.  According to the New American Foundation, out of the nearly 300 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, somewhere between 1,785 and 2,771 individuals have died, with a “non-military fatality rate” of roughly 17%.  With the expansive use of drones, estimates vary on the number of innocent people killed.  In Yemen, where strikes are on the rise, some 50 civilians have perished in over two dozen operations since 2009.  Numbers vary according to independent tabulators, but most point to several hundred as the total number of collateral damage to date, dozens of them children.

Hughes painted his bombing scene as indiscriminate, a slow crescendo and accelerando that peaks as the bombers arrive, which generates the gruesome frenzy of war:

The siren’s wild cry

Like a hollow scream

Echoes out of hell in a nightmare dream.

Then the BOMBS fall!

All other noises are nothing at all

When the first BOMBS fall.

All other noises are suddenly still

When the BOMBS fall.

All other noises are deathly still

As blood spatters the wall

And the whirling sound

Of the iron star of death

Comes hurtling down.

No other noises can be heard

As a child’s life goes up

In the night like a bird.

Swift pursuit planes

Dart over the town,

Steel bullets fly

Slitting the starry silk

Of the sky:

A bomber’s brought down

In flames orange and blue,

And the night’s all red

Like blood, too.

The last BOMB falls.

Today, bombing “militants” for national preservation and regional stabilization poses the additional problem of labeling.  How do we distinguish militant from civilian?  For targets also have families, friends, and communities.  Those killed are uncles, fathers, brothers, children, wives, and mothers.  Such actions increase the probability of fueling flames of anti-American discontent.  The matter is further complicated when U.S. citizens are added to the list of targets, as were Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both killed in Yemen for their suspected role in Al Qaida.  Critics question the elimination of due process that formally charges and sentences suspected criminals.

However, more human rights organizations are taking note.  The ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other agencies are crying foul at the Obama administration’s expansion of the drone program.  Recently, a “Drone Summit” was convened in Washington, D.C., by CODEPINK, Reprieve, and the Center for Constitutional Rights as an effort towards interrogating the legality and morality of state-sponsored bombing of individuals and their communities.  A multinational conglomeration, which included attendees from Pakistan, discussed the controversial deployment of drones and their wider social and political ramifications.

Hughes’s evocation of war was made more surreal with its reliance on naturalist metaphor to convey destruction wrought by technology.  He concluded his poem with the avian attackers retreating but leaving damage behind:

 

The death birds wheel East

To their lairs again

Leaving iron eggs

In the streets of Spain.

With wings like black cubes

Against the far dawn,

The stench of their passage

Remains when they’re gone.

In what was a courtyard

A child weeps alone.

 

Men uncover bodies

From ruins of stone.

 

 

One cannot help but ruefully ponder Hughes’s words when reading headlines about drone strikes seventy-five years later.  Further use of drones not only means the laying of more “iron eggs” but also increased surveillance of U.S. citizens in the effort to enhance border security.  Beyond surveillance is the human toll that such warfare inflicts anonymously, with little public record or scrutiny.  In wanting to install democracy in conflicted areas around the world, the U.S. loses credibility while undermining sovereignty abroad by resorting to an anti-democratic method of eliminating its enemies.  These developments should beckon America’s attention and spark urgency to seek information about conditions on the ground.  It is the public’s right to know whose lives are overturned and the degree to which such strikes actually produce a more peaceful world.

John Gronbeck-Tedesco is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey.