I am an enemy combatant

It’s a scene straight out of The Gulag Archipelago:

Some of the poems written by inmates were first scrawled in toothpaste on Styrofoam cups or etched into the cups with small stones, since in their first year of captivity the prisoners were not allowed to use pen and paper.

Any poem found by prison guards was confiscated and usually destroyed, the former prisoners say. …

Authorities explained why the military has been slow to declassify the poems … arguing that inmates could use the works to pass coded messages to other militants outside. …

Hundreds of poems remain suppressed by the military … [which] believes that their original Arabic or Pashto versions represent an enhanced security risk.

[A military spokesman said] they have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas … [He] had not, at the time, read the poems.

The prisoners remain entirely cut off from the world: military censors excise all references to current events from the occasional letters allowed from family members, and lawyers may not tell prisoners any personal or general news unless it directly relates to their cases. Indeed, dozens of prisoners have attempted suicide by hanging, by hoarding medicine and then overdosing, or by slashing their wrists.

The military, in typical Orwellian fashion, has described these suicide attempts as incidents of “manipulative self-injurious behavior.”

This is, however, not Soviet Russia, or China, or North Korea. It’s the limbo known as Guantanamo Bay.

We truly are a nation of chickenshits. Like Jon Stewart, I was baffled by the apoplectic reaction of members of Congress to the idea that men accused of terrorism be housed in maximum security prisons “on American soil,” as the inevitable expression has it. But I guess most politicians from both parties recognized a golden opportunity to grandstand and play on their constituents’ xenophobia without running the risk of being accused of racism.

We are afraid of scary foreign invaders, perhaps because most of us are ourselves the descendents of scary foreign invaders, armed with what they took for God’s blessing on their project of theft, slavery, and genocide.

We are afraid of foreign languages and the people who speak them. What are they saying about us? Are they chanting spells to turn the cows’ milk sour and make the crops wither? Though many minority communities have preserved their languages for generations without ill effect, and evidence abounds that bilingual people are, if anything, more adaptable and imaginative than monolingual people, we continue to see linguistic diversity as a threat.

We are afraid of poetry, and suspicious of the people who write it. Why do they have to write in code? Why can’t they just come out and say what they mean? If they’re men, why can’t they engage in more manly pursuits, like playing with their firearms or watching professional wrestling?

We are afraid of ideas, and suspicious of the people who enjoy engaging with them. We seem to agree with Big Brother in 1984 that Ignorance is Strength.

We are afraid of true freedom and what it might lead to. We excel in the building of prisons and the construction of tortured logic to support our continued exploitation of global resources, natural and human. We are — as the amateur Yemeni poet in the article says — artists of insults and humiliation. We falsely conflate freedom with ownership, which is to say, slavery.

We are, above all, afraid of the truth. Even more so than most other peoples, Americans enjoy being lied to, as evidenced by our insatiable appetite for advertising and spin. The rare politician who dares to point out certain obvious truths, such as the fact that we can’t have our cake and eat it too, is quickly out of a job. The current president got the position mainly because of his ability to sound sincere while delivering vacuous, feel-good platitudes… and because he hugely outspent his opponent on advertising. And despite promising to close Guantanamo Bay, our Liar-in-Chief now himself endorses indefinite detention. A trial might reveal too many dangerous or uncomfortable truths.

I say “we” and “our,” but of course I am not really one of us, but one of them. Like the Guantanomo prisoners, I too weave coded messages into my poems, layers of meaning without which they would cease to be poems — or indeed to convey anything of the truth, which is usually complex, often paradoxical, and always inimical to the interests of the powerful. Though I don’t often mention it, figuring that surreptitious campaigns have a greater chance of success than open ones, I am engaged in a battle of ideas with those who believe that War is (or can ever lead to) Peace and the rest of it. Like the indefinite detainees, I resort to poetry because without it I believe I would go mad or commit suicide. I am an enemy combatant.

26 Replies to “I am an enemy combatant”

    1. Thanks, suzanne! I had to look up “ruth” to remind myself of its meaning. The American Heritage Dictionary says,

      1. Compassion or pity for another.
      2. Sorrow or misery about one’s own misdeeds or flaws.

      So “speaking ruth to power” might become my new favorite expression!

  1. An interesting subject you bring to light, Dave. It does seem that politics and poetry inherently clash. Poetry often has a coded truth woven into its subsurface, while politics often encode lies into its insidiousness. How is it that lies continually overpower truth? Fear-factors are forced out when political and poetical square off in the ring. Penchants of politicos leaving me cold, I thought my choice could not be sold. If the blues were a country, I’d be President there.

    1. Welcome, Renny. Thanks for commenting. Are politics inherently deceitful? I’m not sure. The problem with conceding that is that it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and only scoundrels run for office.

      In the country of the blues, the one-eyed man sits at the feet of the blind king.

      1. Ahh, a fellow fan of the blues. That and humor help keep me grounded. Politicians, hopefully are not in the business to be deceitful, but it certainly seems to hold true that…either power corrupts, or in it long enough, they become corruptable. Even after Oliver Stone’s self-fulfilling “Wall Street” (“greed is good”) we see post election officials squander their pre-election, high-minded ideals. At least this Pres. likes poetry and the blues, so there’s still some hope.

        1. Yes, you’re right — I want so much to like this President because of his good taste in poetry and music! We shall see. As for me, yeah, I’ve been a big fan of the blues for more twenty years, and blues lyrics have influenced how I put poems together, too, I think.

  2. Well, me too, except that I’m not very brave and I don’t want anyone to get hurt, which makes me pretty useless as any kind of combatant, foreign or domestic :-)

    1. Ha! Yes. Those of us who hate confrontation and violence really have no business trying to appropriate the language of warfare, do we?

  3. Dave, this post felt good to read tonight. The paragraph beginning “We are afraid of poetry” felt the most true to me in this moment. I have been struggling of late with the idea of a poem, and this paragraph/post helped in some way I do not yet understand.

    “Why do they have to write in code? Why can’t they just come out and say what they mean?” My initial response, a work in progress: truth & reality are slippery enough as it is, using merely “regular” language; the encoding, if nothing else, adds perspective(s). Obfuscation as a fire to burn away the chaff, perhaps.


    1. Hi Matthew. I’m honored that this intemperately written post helped clarify your own thinking. To me, a poem is often if not primarily an attempt to say the unsayable — Merwin said this much more eloquently in a recent conversation with Bill Moyers. A good poem can’t be put into simpler language without destroying it; just this morning, I read a humorous take-down of an attempt to create a prose version of Paradise Lost: On Milton and the Nipple Nazi of Northampton.

  4. Kia ora Dave,
    Too right! Rave on! This hit me deeply, particularly considering the recent death of R. Mc Namara, and the recent revelations of Cheyney’s true knowledge. They lurk out there.

    1. Hi Robb – Glad you liked. I guess nothing would surprise me about Cheney. He and Rumsfeld were villains straight out central casting. In a way, though, that made it easier — we knew who our enemies were. Obama and many of his minions, by contrast, seem very likeable and well-intentioned, which makes their transgressions against reason and ethics much harder to swallow. On conservation issues, for example, I had hoped the Obama regime would be at least as O.K. as the Clinton regime, but it isn’t shaping up that way. I had had fairly low expectations, I thought, but they still turned out to be too high.

  5. I only agree with you politically about 50%, but your list of things we’re afraid of is right-on. The human race cannot bear too much reality, as Eliot said. In the past generation or two we’ve turned fleeing reality into a life’s work.

    1. If someone told me they agreed with me more than, say, 80%, I’d be frightened. Even I don’t agree with myself that much.

      Did Eliot say that? I’d forgotten. Good quote.

  6. really terrific post. The children, the poets and the wise fools (i.e. jon stewart) have always carried the job of telling the ruth when no one else can.

    1. Thanks. I am flattered you group me with Jon Stewart! My mother and I watch the Daily Show together on the computer every evening after supper (the previous night’s show). It’s become a ritual, with much cathartic laughter.

  7. What a time we live in when we must turn to a comedy show to get the truest news. Or maybe that’s ruest. Rue the day.

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