Sunday, April 25, 2004

Kasey's posted Richard Brautigan's poem "'Star-Spangled' Nails," alongside a photograph of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. In Kasey's comment box, Henry Gould responded: "Don't forget that in order to promote your political sentiment (regarding this juxtaposition of images), you have to deny, belittle or negate the beliefs & commitments of those actually in the coffins."

I posted a long response in Kasey's comment box, which I'm reproducing below.

On the contrary, Henry. I hear Brautigan's tone as one of profound sympathy, not for any particular ideology but with the individual soldier, from whom "they" demand service, but whose only reward is death. Surely this is tragic, whatever the justice of the cause.

Medals, memorials, and speeches offer "them" comfort and justification (and this is a "them" in which we are deeply implicated); but from the (unthinkable) perspective of the soldier in the coffin (the perspective Brautigan tries to imagine) there is only the stark fact of death. The nails in the coffin are a material reminder much like the image of the flags being placed around the caskets. For Henry's reading to prevail we would have to understand the image of "star-spangled nails" as merely contemptuous, but what predominates is Brautigan's address to the soldier as "kid" and "son," which I think can only be heard as compassionate and sad. I take Kasey's declining to offer a gloss of his juxtaposition as a similar gesture--one of respect, not of mockery.

In fact, the "political sentiment" here is generated not by Brautigan's poem, the photograph, or even by Kasey's juxtaposition; I very much doubt that the woman who took the photograph* did so with the intention of rousing the forces of opposition to the war. Instead, the photograph has been politicized by a government's desire to suppress it, which tells us that the only absolute truth about war--people die--is itself a threat to the ideology that promotes war. This is the same government that has no qualms about using 9/11's images of death to trumpet its own achievements. Kasey's juxtaposition could be seen, in fact, as a response to such politicizations--an attempt to rehumanize, and make material, the rhetoric of the war.

There's no need to see these images as asserting that these soldiers were merely victims or dupes; nowhere is the claim "They died in vain" made. One can certainly draw that conclusion if one wishes, just as one could see the photograph as an image of noble, patriotic sacrifice. But what is really being asserted here is existential: the fact of death, and our own implication in it. Henry presumes to know what the "beliefs & commitments" of those people in the coffins were (e.g. that they would absolutely disagree with a position that might see the war as wrong, or that they would trust the government without question); this strikes me as an arrogance far greater than anything Richard Brautigan or Kasey are claiming. I read the lists of casualties in the paper every day, and even that little information suggests that people's reasons for choosing to serve in the armed forces are remarkably varied. Time and time again I see family members remarking that a soldier joined up in order to "do something" in the wake of 9/11--a motive for which I can have nothing but respect and sympathy, even as it only increases my disgust at a government willing to exploit such motives (and lives) for its own ends.

Brautigan was, after all (as has been pointed out) writing about a different war. What we're being asked to do here is simply look directly at death, and to accept responsibility for it--to realize the real consequences, for others, of the decisions we make and the commitments we hold. Surely this is a task just as necessary for the most passionate supporter of the war as for its most fervent opponent.


*In my initial response, I assumed that the image Kasey was using was the one taken by Tami Sicilio, the Kuwait-based contract worker who was fired after the Seattle Times published her photograph of flag-draped coffins; while the image is similar to Sicilio's photograph, it's not in fact the same. A legal challenge has led to the release of several hundred photographs of remains of U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base, many of which are now posted at The Memory Hole.

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