war


Risky strategy is something that Ed Burns and David Simon, the creators of The Wire, know all about. They are the kind of dramatists who let a story build, rather than straining for the cheap thrills of televisual shock and awe. But in the space of the seven episodes making up Generation Kill, the risk doesn’t quite pay off. This is a slow, laboured war story about blunders and military stupidity rather than heroism. The problem is that it only manages to take off in the last two installments, and whilst you can afford to do this with a project like The Wire which consisted of five series of thirteen episodes each, a seven-parter like this needs to get going much earlier than episode six.

There is fine acting here; it’s wonderful to see the very talented James Ransone at work again (he plays Ray in Generation Kill; he was the contemptibly rat-like but compelling Ziggy Sobotka in series 2 of The Wire). However, unlike the brilliantly complex ghetto characters in The Wire, the Iraqis in Generation Kill are not given a voice or an identity, and the marines themselves, based on real-life characters, never really come to life. This is probably a result of the fact that the series is an adaptation of Evan Wright ‘s book-length account of his encounters with 1st Recon. In other words, Burns and Simon are hampered by taking on someone else’s research, and they don’t have the freedom to be truly creative in devising their drama. They would have been better off writing their own composite characters: in The Wire,  Bunk, Omar, Ziggy and the rest are all powerful because they are composite creations based on local Baltimore inhabitants, not dutifully represented cut-outs from ‘real life.’  With such stylized creations, perhaps, the series might have been a truly great and angry indictment against an illegal war. As it is, all Burns and Simon manage is to make a handful of points about Operation Iraqi Freedom that have been made just as well by a good number of other journalists. After the adrenaline rush of The Wire’s intricate and passionate social commentary, this war yarn looks like merely competent drama. Generation Kill sinks a few punches but never manages to land a knockout blow.

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It’s almost biblical isn’t it? 42 days is now, as of today, the amount of time H.M. Government can detain us British citizens without charge. 42. For 40 days and nights Christ hung around in the desert having hallucinations about Satan, and in general, 40 days is around the time ancient wisdom suggests is enough to test one’s sanity to destruction. This, presumably, is what the entirely arbitrary figure of 42 days is all about. Like all forms of torture (and make no mistake, imprisonment without trial is psychological torture, on a par with electrodes on the genitals or ‘waterboarding’) it’s about theatre, it’s symbolic. And this figure, ’42,’ tells us of the Godlike powers of our masters. As I remember my RE teacher at school saying, ’40 days’ stood for a long, unmeasured, indeterminate stretch of time, just short of ‘forever’ in its power to terrify and subdue the devil, the adversary, the alien amongst us.

But what can we do to protest? I have a suggestion. I propose 42 days of mourning, biblical style: sackcloth and ashes, beating the breast, howling and sobbing in public. For all people of good will should mourn the events of today, for they amount to the passing of democracy, the extraordinary rendition of decency. Our British humanity has been whisked away before most of us even noticed and now begins its indefinite term in some nameless, stateless oubliette.

So, on day one of my 42, I will howl with the rest and keep on howling: ‘Down with Bush, down with Brown…’ and how very apt the rhyme is, as if our PM’s very name was destined for execration on the placard. Bring on the teargas, bring on the barricade. That is, if we’re not too Bush-whacked, B-liar-ed and cowed. Please note, George W. makes his valedictory visit to the UK in a few days, in time for Brown to deliver him a final gift: forty-two days, courtesy of a few Unionist desperadoes and two Tory/UKIP nutters. Plus that core of spineless Labour MPs whipped into submission. It isn’t only Brown who has let us all down.

lowelldd1.jpgWho reads Lowell these days? I pondered this question as I thought about my next wordpress essay, wondering if there was actually any point in writing about him. Googling him is quite a dispiriting process (no heavyweight fanclubs leap out at me from the search results); facebook yields no groups dedicated to his writing, not even any American ones. Byron has his ‘ardent admirers’ on facebook, Elizabeth Bishop has a tiny group of fans on there, but Robert Traill Spence Lowell? Nothing, as yet. This slightly melancholy fact could be down to Lowell’s rather tarnished reputation in recent years. You only need to glance at his biography to see that his treatment of the various women in his life seems to have been less than ideal (read about it, if you must, in the obits of his most long-suffering wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, who died recently). Reason enough, in the view of many readers, to let him slip off into literary oblivion (Lowell, along with that other poet with a lurid reputation for mistreating women, Ted Hughes, graces the front cover of Ian Hamilton’s excellent book Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth Century Poets, as if Hamilton were suggesting that oblivion is exactly where such poets are heading without some kind of critical resuscitation).

But Hamilton’s shade might be relieved to hear I don’t want to let Lowell languish in that kind of hideous poetic limbo of the unread. Lowell’s biography is complex, his behaviour, or at least what one reads of his behaviour, frequently repellent. But his poems! Obscure, clotted, difficult as they often are, Lowell’s verse is a Leviathan, an alliterative, sonorous beast also capable of dextrous tenderness. Milton twists through his ‘brilliant bad enjambment,’ Hopkins too, and Donne the preacher. But there is also the counterpoint of Bishop there, plus Herbert, urging gentleness and restraint.

‘A Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’ is a great example of the two voices at work.  The opening lines explode like a shell:

‘A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket, —

The sea was still breaking violently and night

Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,

When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light’

I’ve deliberately broken off here because I wanted to show the onward momentum of the enjambment, the unstoppable force gushing through the poem. This is damnation. This is hell, and the light we see is diabolical; the light of suffering and death. But always, when I remember this poem, I hear, too, the quieter reaches of it: ‘Our Lady, too small for her canopy, sits near the altar…/Non est species, neque decor/expressionless, expresses God.’ As a war poem, there’s little finer, even if the syntax is a doubling, looping twisting thing. The music here is enough, more than enough.

And yet it is not enough for many to surrender to poetry like Lowell’s, without what Keats would call ‘an irritable reaching after fact and reason.’To feel a poem’s rhythm without chasing out the meaning is hardly a fashionable pursuit these days. But if you haven’t tried it, I recommend it. It’s where reading becomes a state of being, stimulant not sedative. You don’t think your way into the poem, the poem’s music instead releases thoughts. Or rather, it liberates a deeper thinking: something synthesized, something luminous, something resembling a secular prayer.