In early 2003, poet Sam Hamill, founder of Cooper Canyon Press, which under his leadership became one of the top literary publishers in the country, called for poets across the nation to stage readings to protest the impending invasion of Iraq. He called for the protests to take place on the evening of February 13, 2003 to coincide with a White House celebration of the arts hosted by Laura Bush to which Hamill had been somewhat naively invited.
In Minnesota, I organized a reading for that evening at the Black Dog Café in St. Paul and issued an open invitation to local writers to participate. In all, more than 20 poets – some of them well-known figures in the Minnesota literary scene, others little known but just as committed to opposing a war of aggression, gathered at the café to recite to an audience estimated at more than 170 people – a capacity crowd packed in so tight that when one listener fainted from the crush of bodies that same crush of bodies prevented her from falling to the floor – an incident that symbolized the very solidarity we sought to generate that cold night in St. Paul.
On this, the 10th anniversary of the the U.S. invasion of Iraq, at the end of a decade that has seen the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, some 4,000 American troops, and tens of thousands of American veterans returning home wounded in both body and soul, I thought it timely to present here the remarks I made to open the Black Dog reading, an event that was mirrored by similar events in more than 100 cities and colleges across the country as well as in Europe and Asia. Some, though hardly all, of the architects of this criminal war have expressed measured regret about what they said and did to justify and implement the invasion. Unlike them, I stand by the words I spoke that night. Not a syllable, I am proud and anguished to be able to say, need be altered.
Friends: I come before you tonight to report that the State of the Union is not good.
We all know why. George Bush is acting like a man who, having been stung by a hornet, seeks to protect himself from further attacks by climbing to the top of a rickety ladder and whacking the hornet’s nest with a two-by-four. Such a yawning gap between stated ends and chosen methods has led people around this country — and around the world –to question whether Mr. Bush is lying about the need to go to war with Iraq, or perhaps insane. Given his administration’s shameful record of twisting and distorting the truth, and not just on this issue but on a broad range of policies affecting taxes, the economy, homeland security, civil rights, and the environment, we must, alas, assume that he is lying.
Gandhi once said “All the Gods are dead, except the God of war.” To people in the ancient world the gods were a personification of elemental forces or energies that we humans may invoke, but not control. I’m afraid that the simplest, most logical explanation of why we have arrived at this dark moment in our nation’s history is that the President and his Administration are in the grip of just such an elemental force. In the grip of the God of War.
What does that mean for us who seek to avoid war with Iraq? It means we must recognize that members of the Bush Administration — including Colin Powell, the Albert Speer of this White House — are not interested in reason, not engaged in a search for truth, have no wish to participate in dialogue, don’t care how many of their misstatements are pointed out. Possessed by this demonic force, they cannot be reached by appeals to logic or compassion. No. They intend to do what they want to do and if they resort to words at all it is to create a pretext for their crimes. After all, even Hitler felt he needed an excuse for starting World War II. If, therefore, we are to succeed in confronting and confounding the God of War unleashed by this administration, it is not going to be as isolated members of a polite debating society, but as a community, rising up, as we are tonight, to form a human levee designed to divert the coming flood of violence away from homes and cities and out into the floodplains where it can do less damage.
In this task, I believe poets have a special responsibility. As a rule, we are deeply suspicious of the kind of neo-fundamentalist, black-and-white thinking that this President has told us we must all adopt in the name of “moral clarity,” knowing that such thinking is the death of the imagination. Our work comes from a place that recognizes and celebrates the irreducible and irreplaceable uniqueness of each individual consciousness. The songs we sing are not about empire and conquest but about the unity and sacredness of creation. Poets possess the capacity John Keats described when he said he could not watch a sparrow fly away from the windowsill without flying with it. For myself, I know that when I look at my six year old son and my fifteen year-old daughter, I see them not just through my own eyes but through the eyes of an Iraqi father looking at his children and asking himself, Will it be tonight? Tomorrow? Next week? When will the cruise missiles come? The B-52’s? How shall I live in this world if I cannot protect my own children? And seeing the world this way, I, and my fellow poets, and I know all of us in this room tonight, feel compelled to raise our voices in unison to declare, “No! Not in our names! Not in our names!”
There are two other tasks we must also shoulder, neither of them easy.
First, we must not despair, no matter how dark things might appear. Our despair will be the bridge the warmongers will cross to victory. And in truth, we have no cause for despair. Even now, as I speak, events just like this one are taking place in more than 125 cities and college campuses across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. This weekend, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Americans will take to the streets to protest — even before an all-out war erupts. Proud to be an American? Yes, I am — as we all should be; for what we are doing tonight is not anti-American. It is pro-American, in the great tradition of the Abolitionists, the Civil Rights marchers, the anti-war movement of the Sixties, and we must not concede the high holy ground of love of country and true patriotism to those who would exploit these noble sentiments for their ignoble ends.
Most difficult of all, in confronting the God of War we must guard against the fact that violence in the physical world originates in the spiritual and emotional violence we harbor in ourselves. This reading tonight is not about George Bush or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or Condaleeza Rice. If we try to counter their threats of physical violence by indulging in outbursts of emotional violence, if, in other words, we try to fight fire with fire, we will not only alienate the great mass of ordinary decent Americans who share our misgivings; we will merely succeed in creating an even larger conflagration, a blaze that will consume us all. We must, as George Fox enjoined the early Quakers, speak to ‘that of God’ in everyone in this dispute, even those who oppose us, even those who oppress us.
I want to close now with the words of the figure President Bush claims is his political mentor. These words are from the New Testament — the unabridged version, which apparently has not found its way into this White House. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” “[T]o him who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other also.”
President Bush, in the name of the poets of Minnesota, in the name of the people of Minnesota, in the name of the people of the entire world, we call upon you tonight — repent your ways. To lead a nation into any war, but especially an unprovoked war of aggression, without first exhausting all other avenues of resolving conflicts, to murder thousands of innocent human beings, to turn our sons and daughters into killers in the name of ego, empire, and resource exploitation — surely there is no greater sin any man or woman can commit. To borrow your words, Mr. President, “If this isn’t evil, then we don’t know what is.”
But we also wish to remind you tonight that no one, not even you and your associates, is beyond redemption. From the depth of our hearts, Mr. President, from the depths of our anguish, we beseech you to turn away tonight, right now, from the God you currently serve and turn back to the God you say you worship. Turn away, Mr. President, from the God of War, turn back to the God of Peace and Love, of Compassion and Justice. Turn away from the God of War, turn back to the God who hates war and who, those here tonight believe, loves poetry and song as much as we do.