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Even Picasso would have rather been spared the trouble

War Trash
Ashes to Art, Art to Dust

Besides the dead, the maimed, the fractured and the fractures they inflict on the countries that fight them, wars produce two by-products as inevitably as the body’s production of refuse and dead skin: war art (books, music, visual works) and war memorials. The comparison to waste is, I think, appropriate despite the resulting work: That war art can be beautiful and sometimes sublime (Beethoven’s Seventh, All Quiet on the Western Front, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C.) can’t diminish the fact that we’d have been better off without any of it. Who would rather not do without Picasso’s “Guernica” or Slaughterhouse Five or John Hersey’s Hiroshima if it’d have meant no Spanish Civil War, no aerial bombings, no Dresdens, no nuked cities? We ought to be better off because of these works’ existence. We ought to know through them that war is ultimately nothing more heroic or Homeric than murder-suicide on a massive scale. As the English poet Edmund Blunden wrote of war, “I still regard murder as murder no matter how boldly hidden up in steel helmets and rolls of honour.” Or Ernie Pyle, in a column that didn’t have time to run before his brain was blown out by a sniper: “Dead men by mass production--in one country after another--month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.”

But we don’t know. Nor are we compelled to know, if we look at the other mass of artistic production out of war, the glorifying kind, Homer’s and Hemingway’s and Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” among it — glory enough to script any army recruitment’s jingles. In the war between those who think wars give us meaning and those who think wars just give us hell on Earth, the best we can hope for is stalemate. Wars go on. So does art about war, although American art since the end of World War II has been, for all its visual and literary peaks, surprisingly less war-addled than you’d expect from a country that hasn’t managed to go more than a few years without provoking or getting involved in wars. Outsourcing wars to distant locations has something to do with it. So does material prosperity, and since 1973, the end of the draft: Three ways for consumers to soldier on, spend and breathe suburban contentment while others subsidize what is, after all, the world’s most alternative, most disconnected lifestyle, with blood.

Vietnam produced a few literary gems, most of them non-fiction. Perhaps Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H aside, the Korean War hasn’t, to my knowledge, produced an American novel more powerful than Ha Jin’s “War Trash,” the fictional memoir of a Chinese prisoner of war held by Americans. (Ha Jin is a Chinese-born American). A taste of Jin: “As for myself, I disliked MacArthur, who often smiled complacently in the photos and obviously enjoyed the war, in which he seemed quite at home and comfortable—as if he were sitting in a stadium watching a game. Dressed in civvies, he looked like a non-participant in any battle, like someone who sat high above his men, reluctant to get his hands soiled.” The best out of Gulf War I is so far Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, a memoir that should have been warning enough not to get enmeshed over there again (“If colonialism weren’t out of style,” Swofford wrote toward the end of the book, “I’m sure we’d take over the entire Middle East, not only safeguard the oil reserves, but take the oil reserves: We are here to announce that you no longer own your country, thank you for your cooperation, more details will follow.” He only got the thing about colonialism wrong, and the details have, obviously, followed.)

It’s a matter of time before the Iraq war produces a mild flood of books and art. Some of the work is bound to be compelling. The war has lasted too long (longer than America’s involvement in World War II) and involved too many soldiers, not to mention an entire country’s population (I’m not referring to the United States), not to yield its artistic refuse and dead skin in hard covers. But I venture to predict that, from American writers and artists, the work’s depth will be limited to the American experience, an experience segregated by nature from the Arab experience it upended. That wasn’t true of World War I or II, at least in the European theaters, where Americans’ experiences weren’t that foreign from the Europeans’. There was a cultural understanding across trenches and front lines that transcended enmity. The understanding enabled the rapid mending of war wounds and the reconfiguration of western Europe as a subsidiary of American power in a matter of short years.

That understanding is non-existent in Iraq. So what artistic work will be produced by veterans of Iraq cannot possibly be about Iraq and Iraqis except in the Orientalist sense of Edward Saïd — as a projection of what it ought to be, rather than a reflection of what it really was. It’ll be about a version of an Iraq already distorted by the deception that got Americans into Iraq in the first place, leaving the authentically Iraqi story of the Iraqi experience under American occupation up to Iraqis to produce, should they ever have that freedom. In that sense, the art and literature yet to bleed out of Iraq can’t be significantly different from the art that bled out of Vietnam, a country that few Americans connected with from within, beginning with its language. There as in Iraq, alienation was the founding chasm of the occupation. Self-reflection is not empathy, and without empathy the kind of understanding that may prevent another war is non-existent. Self-referential art is no substitute.

“Who can bear the weight of war?” Ha Jin writes in “War Trash.” “To witness is to make the truth known, but we must remember that most victims have no voice of their own, and that in bearing witness to their stories we must not appropriate them.” When all is said and bombed in Iraq, it could well be that we will have managed, as an occupation force, to witness nothing of the victimization of Iraq except the reflection of our own limitations, that Iraqis won’t have the means or the conduits to bear witness to themselves, let alone appropriate the stories they should. And isn’t that how wars are lost all over again, in a dimension less physically catastrophic but equally so in human terms — when even memory is denied, letting war’s perpetrators get away with their crime.

This is the first of two parts on the effluents of war. The second part is here.

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