David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Midnight in the Century


It was the Hamlet on the Hudson, the late Mario Cuomo, who famously said, “you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.” When he said poetry, I’m sure he was being figurative and simply meant “inspiring rhetoric” and not actual poetry. But poetry is the word he used and I want to take him at his word. So if you believe Gov. Cuomo’s point about campaigning in poetry then you know this year’s GOP White House hopefuls are fantasy poets all right, and their most recent poems are fairy tales meant to whitewash the reasons the United States declared war on Iraq in 2003.

To be sure, one difference between power politics and powerful poetry is that poets are interested in writing from a moral framework and then rewriting their emotional understanding of our existence in time and history in order to explore the human psyche and human experience. Not so politicians—and here I’m thinking exclusively of the 2016 GOP circus—who simply rewrite history to conform to their political ambitions.

No doubt you’ve been as dumbfounded as I’ve been at the sight of these umpteen candidates reinventing—if not out and out lying about—how America went to war in 2003. So I’ve been thinking, if you were to put their latest campaign poems about Iraq into a single anthology, you’d have to call it Aw, Shucks, The Stupid Intelligence: How America Just Got Fooled By Golly.

If only it were true—and that’s where the GOP campaign poetry falls apart.

Remember, the Iraq invasion caused an American death toll of more than 4,400 and a U.S. price tag of at least $1.7 trillion—that was on top of the Associated Press’ estimated 110,600 Iraqi violent deaths from 2003-2009. I don’t have space in this column to detail the disastrous consequences of the invasion. Now in its 12th year the war goes on with violent sectarian chaos, a dangerous realignment of regional powers, and new terrorist threats against the safety and security of innocent civilians and ancient treasures.

Still, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida now says the 2003 invasion was the right decision because President George W. Bush had intelligence findings (albeit incorrect ones, or cooked, take your pick) indicating that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Bush “made the right decision,” Rubio said the other day in his existential eight-line campaign poem that has become the anthemic verse for the GOP’s retooled position on the causes for the war. Marco Rubio’s poem might be called “The Right Decision” and goes:

Based on the information
he had at that time

Based on the information
he had at that time

Based on the information
he had at that time

Based on the information
he had at that time

Rubio’s couplets echo the opening of Allen Ginsberg’s “Hum Bomb,” and try to make the case that the sound of language alone is all the meaning you need with some poems:

Whom bomb?
We bomb them!
Whom bomb?
We bomb them!
Whom bomb?
We bomb them!
Whom bomb?
We bomb them!

Ginsberg’s repetitions approximate hysteria, but Rubio’s insist that the Bush administration had evenly weighed the so-called evidence for weapons of mass destruction. The truth that Rubio’s poetry hides is this: the Bush administration was hell-bent to go to war against Saddam Hussein in the first place. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Phase II” report on prewar Iraq intelligence, released in 2008, officially accused the administration of misleading the public: “the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent.” Former Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who chaired the committee at the time, offered this verdict: “There is no question we all relied on flawed intelligence. But, there is a fundamental difference between relying on incorrect intelligence and deliberately painting a picture to the American people that you know is not fully accurate.”

But still Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker agrees with Rubio. Walker’s prose poem about the invasion is a brief, single sentence:

I think any president, regardless of party, probably would have made a similar decision to what President Bush did at the time with the information that he had available.

I give Walker points for brevity because a second sentence would have had to address the question of whether if “any president, regardless of party,” knew as a matter of fact and not speculation that a country was building or hiding WMD, would that “president, regardless of party”—would Walker? would Rubio?—be obligated to invade that country as we mistakenly did in Iraq? “If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions,” hypothetical presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says in his poem called “Hypothetical Brother,” then—

Knowing what
we know now
I would have
not engaged
I would not have
gone into Iraq

Leave it to Gov. Bush to approximate a shiny, Go, Dog. Go! style for his campaign verse—”I would have not… / I would have not” is a delightful echo of P. D. Eastman’s “Do you like my hat? I do not.”—even as his poem runs counter to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s hostile trope on the endless American war. Paul, whose campaign poetry strikes me as “obscene odes on the windows of the skull” is an isolationist outlier among the Grand Old Party’s poets. Paul says that invading Iraq—even if posed as “just hypothetical”—was “a mistake.” I admit that’s refreshing to hear from a Republican candidate. So I want to believe that Sen. Paul agrees with poet and Iraq veteran Brian Turner’s closing lines to the “The Hurt Locker” that read:

Open the hurt locker
and see what there is of knives
and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn
how rough men come hunting for souls.

Actual soul-searching does not come easy to our GOP versifiers however. Sen. Ted Cruz’s poem, “Predicated,” is the opposite of hyperbole. Cruz instead goes in for meiosis sprinkled with adynation and aporia:

Knowing what we know now, of course
we wouldn’t go into Iraq

At the time, the intelligence reports
indicated that Iraq was developing weapons

of mass destruction that posed a significant
national security threat

We now know in hindsight
those intelligence reports were false

Now? I think not. Many of us knew something was fishy back then too, especially chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix who asserted repeatedly that the US and British governments were overly dramatizing the threat of WMD in Iraq in order to start a war.

Now, surely, one wants to ask these GOP poets for president not would you have gone to war knowing what you now but given what you know now and assuming too that you would have taken the United States unprovoked to war if Iraq in fact possessed WMD, then would you now go to war against, say, North Korea or Iran or some other country—Canada? Argentina?—should they factually acquire WMD? The implication of the intelligence failure defense is yes, you would go to war, that the United States is obligated to go to war, right?

“I’ve been asked that question a hundred times,” says former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s in his latest campaign verse, “Everybody Accepts That Now.” Back when he was a member of Congress in 2003, Santorum voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. Now he responds to the question with an answer that doesn’t really matter:

The answer is pretty clear
The information was not correct

and while there were some
things that were true

I don’t think nearly the weight
to require us to go to war

GOP poets are practitioners of the art of negation, that’s for sure, because nothing required the US to go to war. Many of us said so in 2002. In the run up to he war many people believed that the war was a mistake, people who were not misled by the intelligence community, people who understood objectively that the Bush administration wanted to use Iraq as an American political, if not military, base in the Middle East. Millions of war skeptics throughout the United States and the world opposed the administration’s promotion of the invasion based on conflicting, shifting, and false intelligence that was concocted to create the political will and popular support for the invasion. We understood then as we understand now, not that the Bush administration was misled, but that the Bush administration demanded intelligence to support the premise to invade Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11.

We know too from declassified documents that days after the attacks against New York and Washington, DC, then secretary of defense and one-time poet Donald Rumsfeld pushed his staff to plot the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and to start a war in order to achieve it. In 2013 MSNBC reported that “just hours after the 9/11 attacks…Donald Rumsfeld met in the Pentagon with Air Force General Richard Myers, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top aides. Notes taken by Rumsfeld aide Steve Cambone (and referred to pages 334 and 335 of the 9/11 Commission Report) show the secretary asked for the “best info fast..judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time—not only UBL [Osama bin Laden].” Rumsfeld also tasked Jim Haynes, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, “to talk w/ PW [Paul Wolfowitz] for additional support [for the] connection w/ UBL.” Other comments from the notes: “Need to move swiftly…go massive–sweep it all up things related and not.”

David Corn of Mother Jones recently revisited this historical fact that the Bush administration was “not misled by lousy intelligence; [but instead] they used lousy intelligence to mislead the public.” Some people inside the administration as well, moreover, including anti-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, argued that the intelligence on WMD and any links between Saddam and al Qaeda was unreliable. But hours after the 9/11 attacks, reports James Fallows in the Atlantic, the rush to war with Iraq was underway:

I was in Washington on the morning of September 11, 2001…[I immediately called] a friend who was working inside the Pentagon when it was hit, and had already been mobilized into a team planning the U.S.-strategic response. “We don’t know exactly where the attack came from,” he told me that afternoon. “But I can tell you where the response will be: in Iraq.” …[H]e made clear that even if he personally had felt otherwise, Iraq was where things were already headed.

Four days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush held a meeting of his advisors at Camp David. Soon after that meeting, rumors emerged of what is by now settled historical fact: that Paul Wolfowitz, with the apparent backing of Donald Rumsfeld, spoke strongly for invading Iraq along with, or instead of, fighting in Afghanistan…The principals voted against moving against Iraq immediately…

Anyone who was paying attention to military or political trends knew for certain by the end of 2001 that the administration and the military were gearing up to invade Iraq. If you want a timeline, again I refer you to my book—or to this review of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, which describes Bush’s meetings with General Tommy Franks in December, 2001, to draw up invasion plans. By late 2001 forces, weapons, and emphasis were already being diverted from Afghanistan in preparation for the Iraq war, even though there had not yet been any national “debate” over launching that war…

All this was a year before the invasion, seven months before Condoleezza Rice’s scare interview (“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”), also seven months before Rumsfeld’s “trained ape” quote (“There’s no debate in the world as to whether they have these weapons. We all know that. A trained ape knows that”), and six months before Dick Cheney’s big VFW scare speech (“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”). It was long before the United States supposedly “decided” to go to war.

In the late summer of 2002, the public began hearing about the mounting WMD menace as the reason we had to invade Iraq. But that was not the reason. Plans for the invasion had already been underway for months. The war was already coming; the “reason” for war just had to catch up.

Despite what we understand to be the facts, today’s poetry apologists for the Iraq war just keep repeating their intelligence error odes. Wouldn’t it be better, however, if they would address the horror of the failed effort in Iraq, both the moral and the military horror, as you see dished up in the opening lines of Dunya Mikhail’s “The War Works Hard”:

How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places,
swings corpses through the air,
rolls stretchers to the wounded,
summons rain
from the eyes of mothers,
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins

So if the GOP contenders aren’t reinterpreting the past, they’re surely exonerating it. That’s not typically the work of poets. No, it’s usually the job of amoral party apparatchiks. It’s worth remembering, on the other hand, that some politicians campaigned in poetry just fine before the war started. One Illinois state senator, for instance, understood that the country was being misled into war as far back as October 2, 2002. Here are passages from his campaign poem, “Dumb War,” composed in nearly-strict AAB rhymes:

What I am opposed to is a dumb war
What I am opposed to is a rash war
What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt

by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz
and other armchair weekend warriors
to shove their own ideological agendas

down our throats
irrespective of the costs in lives lost
and in hardships borne

That’s what I’m opposed to
A dumb war
A rash war

A war based not on reason
but on passion
not on principle but on politics

I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein
He is a brutal man a ruthless man

A man who butchers his own people
to secure his own power
He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions

thwarted UN inspection teams
developed chemical and biological weapons
and coveted nuclear capacity

The world and the Iraqi people
would be better off without him

But I also know that Saddam poses no
imminent and direct threat to
the United States or to his neighbors

that the Iraqi economy is in shambles
that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength

he can be contained until
in the way of all petty dictators he falls
away into the dustbin of history

I know that even a successful war
against Iraq will require
a U.S. occupation

of undetermined length
at undetermined cost with
undetermined consequences

I know that an invasion of Iraq

will only fan the flames of the Middle East
and encourage the worst
rather than best impulses

of the Arab world
and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida
I am not opposed to all wars

I’m opposed to dumb wars

This poet, of course, is Barack Obama. Perhaps GOP candidates should give up on campaigning in poetry and instead listen to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milsoz speaking in prose. In Milosz’s December 8, 1980 Nobel lecture, he laments the ongoing midnight in the century that our collective “refusal to remember” continuously brings upon us. That phrase—”midnight in the century”—was favored by opponents on the left between the 20th century’s two world wars to define the nightmare years in Europe that culminated in the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact and was also the name of Victor Serge’s novel about revolutionaries living in the shadow of Joseph Stalin’s betrayal of the Russian revolution. Milosz cautions—as I would caution today’s GOP poetry circus—not to blur what is obvious about history:

Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember. Certainly, the illiterates of past centuries, then an enormous majority of mankind, knew little of the history of their respective countries and of their civilization. In the minds of modern illiterates, however, who know how to read and write and even teach in schools and at universities, history is present but blurred, in a state of strange confusion; Molière becomes a contemporary of Napoleon, Voltaire, a contemporary of Lenin. Also, events of the last decades, of such primary importance that knowledge or ignorance of them will be decisive for the future of mankind, move away, grow pale, lose all consistency as if Frederic Nietzsche’s prediction of European nihilism found a literal fulfillment. ‘The eye of a nihilist’—he wrote in 1887—’is unfaithful to his memories: it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves;… And what he does not do for himself, he also does not do for the whole past of mankind: he lets it drop.’ We are surrounded today by fictions about the past, contrary to common sense and to an elementary perception of good and evil. As “The Los Angeles Times” recently stated, the number of books in various languages which deny that the Holocaust ever took place, that it was invented by Jewish propaganda, has exceeded one hundred. If such an insanity is possible, is a complete loss of memory as a permanent state of mind improbable? And would it not present a danger more grave than genetic engineering or poisoning of the natural environment?

Or perhaps it’s wisest for the GOP presidential poetry candidates merely to remember W. H. Auden’s brief rhyme, “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” and then leave the poetry to the poets. In six devastating lines Auden reminds us that “human folly” is heartbreaking. But then the human folly goes on and on and we find ourselves feeling outraged when “respectable senators”—and governors and presidents and candidates for public office—continue the folly into the future:

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.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →