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War and the Power of Words

The remembrance of the sight remains fixed in my brain. Try as I might, my mind’s eye cannot stop seeing the second plane hit that tower. Nor can it erase the sight of that tower collapsing in on itself. Being no more than thirty blocks away that day, I remember the uncertainty I felt. I wasn’t afraid and was fortunate that no one I knew was killed or injured (although I didn’t find that out until evening). When I heard that an explosion had occurred at the Pentagon, my feelings were a bit different, yet I knew that even though it was a military target, mostly civilian personnel would suffer.

On the streets of New York, uncertainty was the tone of the day, even among those whose fear had turned to anger or overwrought blathering. Indeed, it seemed that the only thing certain among every person I talked with was that the White House would use this tragedy as an excuse to go to war. Five years later, the truth of that certainty is in the news daily.

Indeed, talk of spreading that war to Iran is beginning to reach a fever pitch as I write. It doesn’t take a genius to see the ducks being lined up–claims of a deadly enemy with WMD in the Middle East and a need to destroy them now. Regime change in Tehran and huzzahs from Tel Aviv. Stories planted real and false in the press concerning the internal situation in Washington’s next target. False dissension from Washington’s allies over the course of war. Words being wasted at the UN since Washington’s armies will do whatever they want, UN Security Council or not. Threats and ultimatums disguised as diplomacy from the State Department.

Into this scenario comes a book due to be released on September 11, 2006. That’s five years after the day described above. Not One More Death (Verso, 2006) is a small book. In fact, it is an oversized pamphlet. However, as any student struggling to write the required number of words to get full credit for a writing assignment knows, it isn’t the number of words that have been written, but the quality of the text that those words express. In other words, how well does the writer get their ideas across? How readable is is the text? And so on. Given these criteria, this collection of essays from musicians, writers and political commentators on the war in Iraq certainly passes muster.

The essays in the collection are brief. Although some of these essays have appeared elsewhere, they are worth reading again. The litany of terror, despair, bloodshed and sadness they tell is never diminished. Brian Eno’s observation in the opening piece that the problems of today’s world need vision and imagination–and that the war on Iraq represents the complete lack of both–is even more obvious in August 2006 as Iraq falls further apart and Israel wages an unmerciful war on Lebanon. Both of these realities are, of course, sanctioned and funded by Washington and London–the primary targets of this collection.

What is often most interesting about the spate of recent books on the war in Iraq is that no matter how gloomy the authors of these books predicted the situation would get in that country when they were doing the final edit (usually at least six months before the work’s publication), the situation has turned out to be considerably worse. In short, not only is the suffering of the people and the destruction of the country terrible, it’s even worse than we could have imagined. Yet, the tragedy does not stop. Even worse, the opposition to the war seems to be powerless if not completely irrelevant, in spite of its apparent majority in the court of public opinion.

Although this book does not address the apparent disjunction between the war’s growing unpopularity and its continuation despite that unpopularity, the publication of Not One More Death is a noble and intelligent effort to help mobilize that opinion. It is by no means an organizing pamphlet, however.

The words written in these pages can provide us with the reasons to oppose the war and its directors, but they can not stop it. Likewise, they can also provide antiwarriors with the conviction that they are correct. Unfortunately, as history has consistently proven, this means very little when it is the warriors that have the weaponry and the will to destroy.

Instead of words, we need action. However, the fact that this book bears the logo of the British antiwar group UK Stop the War is evidence that the authors and the publisher are more than just purveyors of words. Indeed, they are part of the international movement against Washington and London’s plans for world domination.

Not One More Death closes with a meditation on words by Michael Faber. It is a piece that could easily have begun the book. I recently finished another book that shared the theme of Faber’s essay: the power of words–their danger and potential beauty. That book is the novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Random House 2006). Nominally a work written for the young adult market, this work unveils the emotional horrors of war and oppression while simultaneously celebrating the everyday beauty found in human existence. It is the story of an eleven year old German girl who was made an orphan by the Nazis who disappeared her parents because of their communist beliefs.

The tale is narrated by Death. It is death gathering souls and taking them away. Death acknowledging that there are degrees of suffering, but that war is Death’s master. The story takes place in the Munich suburb where Dachau was located. This is where the protagonist has been placed with foster parents. Illiterate when she arrives, her foster father teaches her how to read and write. A Jewish man comes to hide in their basement. By the story’s second half, the Allied bombing of the village has begun. Like civilians in every modern war, the villagers bear the brunt of the attacks.

Meanwhile, the evil of Dachau continues. Death meditates on both the evil of the state that oppresses and murders its own and the evil of that state’s enemy that rains down death on the people in that land in the name of their freedom. The girl meditates on the nature of words. She thinks about their potential for brutality and oppression and wishes that she never learned to read. The she remembers their ability to describe and transmit beauty and hope. This thought causes her to recant her earlier desire.

Another theme these books have in common is their representation and concern for those who always suffer in modern war–the civilians. As the Israeli campaign against Lebanon makes abundantly clear once again, civilians are the true target of all modern wars. Like Not One More Death, The Book Thief is about the casualties that the masters of war ignore. The people that today’s generals and politicians call collateral damage, as if their deaths were mere circumstance when, in reality, they are part of the battle plan. Besides that, The Book Thief is one of those tales that seem so simple in its narrative, yet resounds with moral and thematic complexity. Despite its hopeful ending in which Death marvels at the resilience of the human soul, it is not a pretty tale.

Certainly a well-told one, but not pretty. Indeed, the wonderful writing that one finds in both of these texts only serves to highlight the dreadfulness it often describes.

This piece appears in the September 4, 2006 State of Nature in a slightly different form.

RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew, a history of the Weather Undergrouind. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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