When active hostilities broke out this spring in Iraq, I began writing numerous, often very short war pieces. Confronted with daily images of bombings, death statistics, etc., I simultaneously revisited and reshaped older pieces on similar themes, and began noticing in them certain progressions toward the present. Either waywhether working with fictional or real historical eventsthe current war created a perceptible shift in how I imagined and/or constructed both sets. Originally written in free verse, the older works became prose when a kind of journalistic mentality took over. Even if trying to relate my own experiences in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., or imagining the fear of Civil War soldiers on a march of invasion, I wanted the individual pieces to be straightforward collections of images, with not a lot of desire to create a ‘bigger picture.’
Then, whether I wanted it or not, a strange sense of order began to impose itself, with the backdrop of Iraq informing and adding a framework to the images. Quotes from newspapers, magazines, or whatever books I was reading started to attach themselves to the individual works. Obscenity-laced paradoxes from Vietnam seemed to remark on occupations both past and present, unknown soldiers haunted the scenes with their presence (or lack thereof), while the last, cancer-ridden works of Abba Kovnerpoet and Jewish resistance fighter during the Second World Waradded a starkly eloquent epitaph to my own attempt at summation. Without my actively realizing it, I was writing about the current strife as well as past conflicts, with the ongoing war actually reshaping the material. Such, I suppose, is the invisible fist of war, exerting pressures that we accept as ‘routine’ all too quickly, almost forgetting when such influences weren’t at work. The fact that much of our world has been at war for much of our existence, and that it is truly rare for a people not to be gripped by that fist, is merely a variation on the same theme. That I was ever able to write from the comfort of a nation not at war was the true break from routine, not vice versa.
I am staring at a sunlit picture of Hell.
–Siegfried Sassoon, from an observation post above the Somme battlefield
1. The Exhibit
Torment, baseness, and grandeur. Does anyone think these attributes died in Poland?
–Isaac Bashevis Singer
Touring the Holocaust Museum, you are herded through a swastika of hallways. In the angles of the crooked cross, there are exhibits.
A gypsy cart in a black-walled grotto sits alone under a spotlight, a violin resting against the seat.
Upon your entrance, you are given a passport: the life and identity, sometimes a photograph, of a dead person. Later you walk a plank through a cattle car. The wood smells only of must.
Ingrained in the museum’s theme is the implicit question of accomplice and victim. It is not uncommon in the bathrooms to see people with embarrassed smiles as they splash water across their faces.
There is a wall around the exhibit of S.S. medical experiments. Throngs press over the wall to view, throngs walk past refusing to look. There is no wall high or low enough for either crowd.
The last room allows breathing space, where the swastika opens into a Star of David, and candles line the walls. At crenellated windows, one man stands apart from his family, looking out. He calls them over and says, ‘You should see this.’
The whole room moves tentatively toward the windows, bodies and heads turning sharply to view whatever the last exhibit could be:
The winter sunset is scarlet, distant yet vivid above the other museums of the complex.
2. The Sunken Road
In 1973, legislation was passed to add the remains of an unidentified soldier from the war in Vietnam to the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. It wasn’t until 1984, however, that a body meeting that description was found.
Oliver Wendell Holmes stalked the Antietam battlefield, searching for his missing son’s face among the photographs of the corpses. Mathew Brady and his studio assistants took the pictures and exposed them over the hours that the gravediggers first plundered and then dug. Holmes stared at the prints, gaping mouth as open as those of the open-mouthed dead. In one image, an ashen road faded into the distance, where a single horseman aimed his low-slung gun toward the camera and the corpses captured within. With every passing print, Holmes exhausted his breath, viewing all of death’s flat circumstances, no one, nothing, recognized.
3. The Surveillance Trade
There is no doubt that he did not expect to explode at the place where he blew himself up.
–Israeli police commander Yitzhak Borovsky, commenting on a suicide bomber, Jerusalem, December 9, 2001
Alongside the paranoia, the knowledge that it’s not paranoia alone. Watchers, bugs, microfilm, cameras, paper trailsthere is the desire to say simply, I am only drinking coffee here at this shop on this day at this time with this friend, who I am forced to inform, ‘You are being watched because you are with me.’
This is tedious. Yes, I have a persistent cough; yes, I wore this same shirt yesterday; yes, waiters make me nervous; yes, I lie to my lover; this is all incidental to the fact I intend to commit high crimes against humanity the first chance I get.
Trust me, you’ll be the first to know far too late.
4. Babylon, Revisited
(before the conquest of Baghdad)
And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment
We’ll always have Babylon in our minds, songs, psalms, spirituals, and sleep. Creepers will still creep from hanging gardens cool with icy mountain aqueducts, the vizier will always inscribe his sign on the bricks of the outer walls, the cud under mad Nebuchadnezzar’s tongue will always remain rancid. Children will always be sacrificed to the fiery ovens of Baal, kilns will continue to bake mindless icons of hunger and rage, and slaves will always raise solemn, bestial monoliths above the cold desert floor. When all is said and done, dancing Babylon will dance on, her naked shadows flung like seven veils among the ruins.
5. The Chain Bridge
We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them.
–Colonel Lewis B. ‘Chesty’ Puller, during Chosin Reservoir campaign, Korea, November 1950
Private James Doane of the 307th New York broke camp in July 1862, leaving the outer defense works of the District of Columbia for Confederate Virginia. He wrote to his father:
‘We crossed the Chain Bridge this morning, and the sensation of departing for an unknown world seemed to infect the men. Our minds felt the heat more than our bodies, and the air of Virginia seemed close and terrifying. The road is strewn with discarded clothes, blankets, and haversacks. No rebels sighted anywhere.
‘We are green, and jumpy. Eyes widen and jaws clench of what we think is the sound of guns down Manassas way. The officers curse us for idiots, ask if we were born yesterday and tell us it’s distant thunder. One fellow, a weasely man, a shirker, and some say a thief from back in Utica, claims the officers always tell the men this, that the rebels are massed just out of sight, that Bobby Lee and Stonewall are no fools and that they are waiting for us. The men hiss the thief down, but we cannot help but believe him too. The songs have stopped, the heat weighs on our shoulders, and we hold pebbles under our tongues to fight the thirst. The only thing to do is keep up with the company, good boys most all of them. Whether we march, our mouths full of stone, into cannon or storm cloud, only God can tell. Either way, I know that I am already within the eye of my enemy.’
6. After the Occupation
If it ain’t the fucking incoming, it’s the fucking outgoing.
–Medical corpsman in Vietnam, from Michael Herr’s memoir, Dispatches
Newly established tribunals clear their throats, magnanimously accepting cash bribes across hastily cleared desks.
Philosophers return from Switzerland, abandoning apple-cheeked mistresses to resume their chairs at university, lecturing with further elaborations on ethics and rhetoric.
Cells of insurgents reopen family bakeries, wrapping coarse bread loaves in mimeographed demands for democracy and partisan insurrection.
A universal amnesty is proclaimed in all the jails, as no one can remember whose prisoners are whose anymore, or what presently constitutes a crime.
Artificial limbs arrive at the rail station but there are never enough glass eyes to go around, and all the legs are left-footed.
Blind leading the crippled, the crowds lurch through the sign-less streets, guided homeward by the wail of sirens sounding the all clear.
7. The Spire of St. Pierre
If only you had been one of the philosophers!
Giving a flavor of meaning
to ruined buildings, to acts
of heroism, to our fate.
–Abba Kovner, ‘Detached Verses’
During World War II, the spire of the Church of St. Pierre in the city of Caen was unintentionally destroyed by a single artillery round. Fired by Allied naval forces during the battle of Normandy, the shot could not have been more perfect even had the Channel guns been aiming. Witnesses described how the spire literally vanished in the blast. The French citizens of Caen, besieged within the ruins along with their German occupiers, and shelled daily by their future liberators, were deeply saddened regarding the loss. Named for the patron against frenzy, St. Pierre’s spire was a marvel of its time and often held up as a classic example of Gothic Revival.
Another incident during the Allied siege was the accidental reduction of the convent of le Bon Sauveur, a hospital for mentally insane women. Unlike the imbalanced in other Nazi-occupied areas, the madwomen of Caen were neither executed on the spot nor sent to concentration camps. Only during the ferocious Allied bombardment was the hospital finally leveled. Forbidden to shelter along with the sane in nearby caves, the Mother Superior led her wards into no man’s land. Unofficial armistices were declared by both German and Allied forces in order to allow the gibbering column safe passage. The women eventually found asylum in another convent far west of the battlefield.
Besides happening in the same place during the same point in history, both these events seem connected in my mind. Though I have looked, I’ve never found any photographs of the bombing of the spire, or of the insane refugees. I am left with a movie reel image of my own making, of the tower one moment standing amidst the dust and smoke of the shelling, the next becoming dust and smoke itself. In the foreground are the women, wearing rags and kerchiefs on their shaved heads, guided by nuns in black robes through the ruins, between the battle lines, out into the Norman countryside. The insane think they are on holiday and hope to enjoy a picnic under the sepia sun. The sisters spur them on, past the exhausted, desperate Germans. Tanks burn all around, and wounded congest hedgerows cultivated from the time of William the Conqueror. Somehow, always in the backdrop, the spire of St. Pierre, protector from frenzy, is blown to dust over and over again.
[several of the above pieces have appeared, in altered forms, at The Adirondack Review, M.A.G., Stirring, and Word Riot]