Whenever great and tragic events overtake the world--and how often it has happened in one lifetime--keeping an eye on the frolics of entertainment and the earnest pursuits of art feels, at least for a moment, quite beside the point.
In such circumstances I have turned before, and turned again as the first bombs fell on Baghdad, to a passage by E. B. White in his foreword to the 1942 edition of “One Man’s Meat,” a collection of columns he was writing on a farm in Maine in the shadow of another war.
“One thing about the war,” White said, “it gives a man a feeling of guilt every time he finds himself doing some habitual or comfortable thing, like eating a good meal or getting a book out in springtime. He feels he ought to be discovered in some more pertinent attitude--establishing a beachhead or applying a tourniquet to a general’s thigh.”
The book’s jacket, White added, ought to carry a blurb saying: “There isn’t time to read this book. Put it in your pocket and when the moment arrives, throw it straight and hard.”
Yet the point is that White’s essays, read and loved and almost continuously in print for nearly a half-century now, have outlived their war and several subsequent conflagrations of various sizes and--barring lethal accident to civilization as a whole--should outlive this war as well.
It struck me at a recent awards luncheon, even before the bombs fell, that from the dawn of writing and painting, art has outlasted long wars and short spacings of peace, and lent perspective to both.
Particularly at the present moment, the specifics of the conflict are toned by anger--shared equally, I think, by those who support the action and those who don’t--an anger born of a presumption that war by common consent had been ruled out as an instrument of international policy, condemned by its own futility.
For a sobering perspective on that, I turn (as I also often have, in succession to E. B. White) to the closing quatrain of a poem called “Short Ode” by Stephen Vincent Benet, written in 1936, when World War I was still a fresh memory and World War II already an inevitability.
They were shot and rotted, they fell
Burning, on flimsy wings.
And yet it was their thought that they did well,
And yet there are still the tyrants and the kings. It was our thought that we had about got the tyrants under control, but it was again not so, and the millennium has once more had to be postponed for want of a quorum.
Wars are not as clear-cut as they used to be, and it is possible to envy White the serenity of a war whose issues were never in doubt. If our economic status relative to our former enemies is rich with irony five decades later, there is something to be said for enemies having been converted to friends, however edgily.
If war creates heroes it also creates artists, or identifies them. Matthew Brady has let us all see the Civil War as we might not otherwise have been able to experience it. Turner gave us powerful impressions of the hazy confusion of sea battles in an earlier time, and courageous television cameramen and reporters are bringing us the Middle East with an immediacy, thanks to the satellites, that even the epochal coverage of Vietnam did not have.
There will in time be the poets, novelists and historians to see these days with a soul-deep urgency that only words, not electronics, can convey, and to place them in perspective within the longer arc of all time.
Although the world seems more cynical and sophisticated than once it was, the Iraq conflict may find a poet of the patriotic fervor of Rupert Brooke (who fought briefly in 1914, but died of a fever on a Greek island in 1915):
If I should die, think only this of me,
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
Poets, above all, will speak of brave men as did the English poets killed in what the British call The ’14-18 War. Isaac Rosenberg, only 28 when he was killed but recognized posthumously as the great poet he was, looked at a gathering station for the English dead and left this unforgettable image:
The grass and colored clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.
We may find a poet of the compassion of Walt Whitman, visiting the battlegrounds near Washington and, like Rosenberg, seeing some American dead. Whitman ended a poem written in the 1860s called “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”:
Young man I think I know you -- I think this is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
The war poem I knew best as I took infantry basic training in 1944 was Alan Seeger’s “I have a rendezvous with death / At some disputed barricade.” Seeger, an American, kept his rendezvous, killed in France in 1916. But his romantic fatalism was a bit misleading to the young GI.
There wasn’t much romantic glory in the war, but there was a great deal of personal pride. And there was then and still is gratitude for the entertainments and the art that both diverted you from the anxieties of the moment and gave you a renewed sense of the civilization and the values for which you were fighting.
On line in Germany during the last months of the European war, I found a worn Armed Forces paperback edition of Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” Once I got into it, it turned out not to be about being in the Army at all. No matter, it helped me understand why I was where I was, and the varieties of free human experience that were worth preserving, painful as they might be.