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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Epitaph on a Tyrant

"Nobody sees war. Editors back in London or Paris or New York don't let anyone see war because it's so horrible. How can you run a video clip of a mother dying, watching blood spurt out of her arteries? How can you do it? No one ever sees war except people who are there."

-- Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges was a subject of a book I read recently on war reporters as well as on C-SPAN talking about the topic, so when Paul Krugman referenced his name in a column, I was familiar with him. I don't know if I ever read any of his dispatches, since I really don't pay attention to bylines. It is only right though, if Sherman was right that war is hell, that a reporter with divinity training guides the way. How he did so while retaining his sanity is another story.

Hedges discusses the horrors and lies of war, but also suggests that war is dangerous in large part because it supplies a sick form of meaning to our lives. It is not love necessarily, but death at times serves as a replacement. He reminds us the importance of basic humanity and love, even in cruel times, though their opposites quite often win in the end.*

[The below discussion was written by Michael Parker, but fits my thoughts rather well.]

Epitaph on a Tyrant

When Chris Hedges, author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, was held captive in somewhere sixty miles north of Basra, his captors stopped to fill their canteens in some muddy puddles. Hedges explained that he knew that the water purification plants had been destroyed. He knew, because of this, the effect that water would have on their bodies, and those of the women and children who were also seeking water. It was at this time that Hedges remembered Auden's "Epitaph on a Tyrant," a poem he had memorized back in his youth.

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

-- W. H. Auden

As I searched the web today for the entirety of the poem, which, to my surprise is complete as shown above, I found this highly thoughtful and noteworthy commentary by Aseem Kaul. Kaul writes:

Perfection is the word. In six simple lines, Auden paints a portrait of a tyrant that is both human and absolute. Auden's tyrant is not a political machine - no mention is made of his military aspirations or his place in history. Instead we have a tyrant who is frightening precisely because he is so ordinary - he laughs, he cries, he seeks perfection, indulges his interests. He is not even the motive force behind the destruction he causes - he means no harm to the children, it's just that the momentum of his tears causes them to be destroyed.

What makes tyranny so terrifying is the idea that the fate of an entire country and all its people is governed by the magnified yet frail ego of a single individual. And that's exactly what this poem captures.

As I read Auden I think of the concept of awareness, how many people simply have no notion of how their actions or words effect those around them. It's nearly cliche to say that the single beating of a butterfly's wings creates a whirlwind on the other side of the world. But the concept is totally figurative. Our deeds, whether positive or negative, set in motion a chain of events that are likewise positive or negative in motion. This poem was a wonderful find today.


*Hedges quotes Macbeth to make this point:

LADY MACDUFF: Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world; where to do harm
Is often laudable; to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly: why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defence,
To say I have done no harm? - What are these faces?