Last night I was privy to a rare moment of magnificence and nobility while watching tv. Robert Bly was reading to Bill Moyers from his translation of a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi. The two older men look almost freakishly alike, both with radiant faces framed by glasses and white hair. Bly read these lines:
"Just sit down and be quiet.
And this is the edge of the roof."
Then he repeated them a second time, and commented "This would be a good thing to say to George Bush, don't you think?"
Meanwhile, I'd been planning a long post all week on James Hillman's book, "A Terrible Love of War," but encountered a series of roadblocks in my life that set me back a bit and threw me down a black hole for a while. I felt deleted, defeated, and drained. I couldn't write or even finish reading the book or make notes. But I'm feeling better this morning, so let me start with some of the spectacular formulations Hillman makes at the very beginning of his descent into the fiery rites of war.
The book starts with a killer chapter entitled "War Is Normal," immediately backed up by the following eye-opening paragraph:
"One sentence in one scene from one film, 'Patton,' sums up what this book tries to understand. The general walks the field after a battle. Churned earth, burnt tanks, dead men. He He takes up a dying officer, kisses him, surveys the havoc, and says: 'I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life." Thus are we launched, rocket-style, into Hillman's primary thesis: the coupling of love and war, Venus and Mars. Unless we are able to move our imaginations into the martial state of soul, we will never comprehend war's pull. To do this, he says, we have to set aside our civilian disdain and pacifist horror and understand war as the primary human condition. We will never understand war by simply explaining its causes. Pacifism is for those of us watching on the sidelines. "Men who survive battle come back and say it was the most meaningful time of their lives, transcendent to all other meanings."
I am reminded here of a dramatic essay I read a couple of years ago in the News York Times magazine about war casualties--amputees shipped back from Iraq--whose stories underline the truth of these comments. The following is from notes I made at the time:
A Sergeant, age 26, while he was on patrol in Baghdad, had his body ripped apart in an antitank explosion when his humvee rolled over in a mine. Both legs and his right arm were blown off. His fiancee wanted to marry him despite the tragic circumstances, and now, strong and motivated, he makes slow progress, adjusting to multiple prostheses. There are pins and plates in all three of his stumps. Plus an elevated risk of arthritis, and back and heart problems. However improbably, this soldier is holding his own, grateful to still be alive, not resigned to a life totally out of his control. Even knowing that he would have to lose three limbs, he says that he would sign up all over again.
You hear him say it, and you have to wince. Even with most of his limbs missing, the soldier evidently has full faith in Bush’s Iraq policies. Are those pearls that were his eyes? Does he have some unfathomable insight the rest of us don’t yet have? At least, that's what I thought about all this then. Now I might wonder more about his "terrible love of war."
What's there to love about the nightmare of war? Surely it's not the fiendish suffering and the killing fields. But perhaps it's the indisputable fact that somewhere within that most nightmarish of scenarios is lodged a trigger for the highest and finest passions humans can know: courage, altruism, and the mystical sernse of belonging to something larger than ourselves. Hillman refers to it as a "transhuman force that shows up in the frenzy of combat." I begin to understand now how this is the magnet that draws soldiers back, even after suffering terrible wounds. It's not the lust to kill. And it's certainly not a love of Bush's disastrous foreign policies--about which I agree with Bly. We should all make our mantra about Iraq known to the president right now:
Just sit down and be quiet.
And this is the edge of the roof.