Los Angeles Times - Shaw


January 30, 2005

David Shaw:
Media Matters

The power of words: listening during wartime


Plato wanted to banish all poets from his ideal Republic, and having just watched an advance copy of a new documentary film, "Voices in Wartime," I suspect that President Bush would also like to ban poets from his less-than-ideal republic.

"Voices in Wartime," scheduled for nationwide theatrical release in March, examines the pain of war through the words of poets since 2300 BC, often set against archival footage of men and nations at war. Ultimately, the film is as much a paean to the power of poetry as it is an exploration (and condemnation) of the futility of war.

Indeed, Lt. Gen. William Lenox, superintendent of West Point, speaks on camera about how poetry expresses better than any other medium the full range of emotions that soldiers experience in combat. 

"Joy, elation, horror, fear …. What literary genre allows you to portray that better than poetry?" he asks at one point.

Later, the general says, "Poetry provides us a great vehicle to teach … cadets, as much as anyone can, what combat is like."

Although it is stridently opposed to the war in Iraq, "Voices in Wartime" is at its most compelling not when it's taking a political position (or quoting poets) on this particular war but when it's talking more generally about poetry and war, often against a visual backdrop of bombs falling, helicopters hovering, missiles flying and men dying. It is a strong, riveting film, but insofar as an antiwar film with a lot of combat footage can avoid blood and gore, it does so. It's not the D-day landing in "Saving Private Ryan."

While writer-director Rick King's stated objective — "The movie aims to change the way people look at the impact of war" — is probably unrealistic, he has made a powerful film that repeatedly demonstrates and examines that impact.

The first lady's invitation

The starting point for the film — and the reason it will not be an Oval Office favorite during this administration — was the invitation that Laura Bush extended to a few poets last year to come to the White House for a poetry symposium that would pay tribute to Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes.

The first lady — a former librarian, long active in various literacy efforts — may have envisioned a Kennedyesque celebration of literature and culture in the United States. But when poet Sam Hamill received his invitation, he says he was "overcome with a kind of nausea."

"Only the day before," he said at the time, "I had read a lengthy report on George Bush's proposed 'shock and awe' attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing that would be like the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, killing countless innocent civilians. I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam." 

Hamill called on poets to "Fill the air with poems so thick even bombs can't fall through." The poems, he said, would be compiled in an anthology and presented to the White House on the day of the poetry symposium. He also invited 50 other poets to join him in turning the symposium and tribute into a protest against the then-about-to-begin war in Iraq.

Hamill says in the movie that the president's wife was "stupid, naive, virtually illiterate" if she thought she could honor such "profoundly political" poets as Whitman, Hughes and Dickinson without triggering a political protest over the war.

Moments later, the film quotes from a poem by Hughes:

We will take you and kill you, expendable
We will fill you full of lead, expendable
And when you're dead, in the nice, cold ground,
We'll put a name above your head
If your head can be found

As the protest movement grew — Hamill says he received 1,500 antiwar poems in 36 hours, and the sheer volume crashed his e-mail site — Laura Bush decided to cancel the tribute.

In response, poets conducted hundreds of readings around the world to protest the war.

The filmmakers, led by executive producer Andrew Himes, a Microsoft web veteran, initially wanted to make a short film about these antiwar poets but then decided that the larger "dynamic relationship between poetry and war" was a more compelling story.

A passage from "The Iliad," the earliest graphic, comprehensive account of battle, is read in a voice-over as battle unfolds on the screen. The 73-minute film offers similar juxtapositions with brief excerpts from speeches by President Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War.

Other speakers talk about war as "a glorification of death," about "the collective euphoria or madness when a country goes to war" and about how, in time of war, "We lose sight of our humanity, our limitations, our poverty, and believe that we are able to know the over-arching truth. We lose something fundamental."

More than 30 poets appear, are quoted or cited in the film — among them not only Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes and Homer but Tennyson ("Into the valley of death rode the 600 …") and such contemporary figures as Chris Abani of Nigeria, Sinan Antoon of Iraq, Rachel Bentham from England, Sampurna Chattarji from India and Americans Randall Jarrell, David Connolly and Marie Howe. 

From Jarrell's "Losses":

We read our mail and counted up our missions — 
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school — 
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen

A real eye-opener

The role of poetry, the film says, is "to serve as a brief on behalf of the living" and "to remind us of our humanity. Poetry takes us back to the center of who we are as human beings." Or as Hamill says, "Poets see things from angles that others don't pause long enough to look at."

One poet in "Voices of War" speaks movingly of her father and his war wounds. Another of the recurring nightmares he's suffered since watching two buddies die in Vietnam. "Poetry," he says, "is how I try to stay sane, to make sense of things."

For me, the most moving section of the film deals with World War I poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon — their military service, their poetry and their friendship. Sassoon wrote poems and letters protesting that the "war of defense" he had enlisted in at 28 as a cavalry trooper had become "a war of aggression and conquest."

Although there are hints in the movie that there were legitimate reasons to fight World Wars I and II, the writers argue that such legitimacy no longer obtains, and that since World War II, civilians, rather than soldiers, have been "the primary victims of war."

The film suggests that the United States is a major contributor to this sad fact. The U.S., it says, "exports more arms than the rest of the world combined" and is thus responsible for much of the violence and unrest in the world today.

However true this is, it comes across on film as more political polemic than antiwar poetry, and — for me — it served to undercut the otherwise clearheaded if inevitably poignant message of the rest of the film. 


David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read his previous "Media Matters" columns, please go to www.latimes.com/shaw-media.