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LAMENT FOR THE
TRAGEDY OF WAR

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LAMENT FOR THE TRAGEDY OF WAR
©Anne Baring

Although written in 1999, this poem is unfortunately relevant for our times (2017) and is dedicated to all those who are suffering in the ongoing conflicts that are disturbing the life of the planet: to the refugees fleeing their countries and their devastated homes and living in camps; to the desperate men and women risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean from Libya and Turkey into Europe; to the Yazidi women who are enduring the agony of rape and slavery; to the thousands of young men whose precious lives are so brutally cut short; to the children who are the traumatised witnesses of the atrocities of war.

 

EASTER 1999

 

Listen to the Good News, they said...

Then, over the mountain pass,
deep in snow, we watched
those who had lost all
except life stumble towards hope,
carrying infants, dragging children,
old people wrapped in plastic
like loaves of bread,
so they could be pulled more easily
over the icy surface.
A woman tall and cragged as an oak
leads a line of survivors.
Some can walk no further
in the heavy snow and die where they fall.
A young girl holds her mother in her arms
as life ebbs from her body.

This time we saw the face of barbarism.
This time we saw them: people like us,
in clothes like ours, arriving in shock,
avoiding the mined land, trudging the last miles
along the rail track to the frontier;
faces contorted with grief.
Women, men, children weeping uncontrollably,
having lost everything save each other.

Day after day we saw a human flood
pouring across frontiers:
lines of wagons, carts, tractors, trailers,
a horse, a donkey; the old in wheelbarrows,
and people walking, walking, soaked in icy rain
through days and nights of anguish,
carrying the old and young so dear to them.

We saw bewildered people forced onto trains
trying to hold families together;
women giving birth alone,
driven trembling with their new-born
into the maw of that suffocating mass.

Helplessly we wept with them,
seared by their suffering, longing to help,
to put our arms around them, comfort, warm them;
but we could only send money, food, love
and hope that they would reach shelter
from that relentless rain.

There was no time to gather children
gone to play with friends, no time to warn others,
no time to feed the animals, milk the cows,
or say goodbye to the dear land,
home for centuries.
There was no time to gather provisions for the journey: milk for babies, food for toddlers,
shoes, nappies, warm clothing.
Women made knife-sharp choices
- what to carry, what to leave -
choices to make the difference between
life and death for those too young
to know what was happening.

Women who had seen husbands, sons, fathers
shot before their eyes,
kneeling, hands clasped behind heads,
knowing they had only seconds
to remember everything they loved,
to treasure the precious blood
that would soon, so soon seep into the ground.

Listen to the Good News, they said…
Can this be happening still?

This time we saw the face of barbarism.
Men obeying orders.
They took the young girls away
out of the cars, out of the trailers.
Everyone knew what would happen.
Girls too young to imagine
the coming thrusts tearing their soft skin,
the rank smell of masked men
crazed with blood lust,
and hatred for the innocent girl,
mother of tomorrow's enemy.
Some they shot, some returned to the convoy
hours or days after the rape.
How could they hope to find their families,
comfort for soul and body
in that mêlée of desperate humanity?
What solace could they find among people
for whom rape is defilement,
a shame to be hidden?
How could this further pain be endured
by those who had already known annihilation?

If I had seen my daughter taken,
her still fragile body shrinking with fear,
her eyes pleading for help I could not give,
my heart flayed by feeling,
my scream would sound through centuries.
Even now I hear it torn from my gut
for those young lives blighted
by the encounter with beasts.

Century by century men have tracked each other
through greening forests blessed with birdsong.
Intent on killing.
Could they see or hear the marvel?
Could they stop in wonder at the sound?

How does a man become a predator,
able to kill, rape, mutilate?
Surely it is time to ask.
Surely it is time to enquire.
Surely it is time to search for answers.
All this has happened so many times before,
and will happen again.
Is it the old herd instinct
that binds together the men of a tribe?
Is it the territorial instinct
that attacks the stranger?
Is it the memory of the primordial clan
bonded together in the hunt?

Is it the warrior ethos passed from father to son?
Or the secret vengeance of mothers
who have lost their sons?
Is it the brutality endured by children
who grow up to brutalise others,
avenging impotence with omnipotence?
Or is it the hatred nurtured by priests who,
century by century, have called in God's
name for the extermination
of those they demonized, anathematized,
banished from the circle of God's love?

'Malignant Aggression' Fromm called it.
Malignant is a strong word, an appropriate word
for the kind of barbarism we have seen and heard.
Men are trained to obey orders reflexively,
without thinking.
Obedience to tribal leaders, military leaders,
religious leaders, has conditioned them
to obey the call to kill, fearing shame, rejection;
numbed to the pain of the other.

'To be a man I have to kill.
To be a patriot I have to kill.
I wear a mask to inspire terror
I wear a mask to hide from myself.
I do not know that I am mad.
My orders are to kill, rape, destroy:
My orders are to kill because
the others are a different race.
My orders are to kill because
the others profess a different belief.
My orders are to kill because the others
are the ancient enemy.
Killing is easy -
as easy as saying 'Good Morning'.'

What does it feel like to be this man?
Does he ever ask the question:
'What am I doing as I raise my gun
to murder my brother?
'What am I doing as I mutilate his body?
'What am I doing as I force my body
into the violently trembling body of his wife
or his daughter?
'What am I doing as I kick
the head of a decapitated man
around the yard of his home
while his children vomit?
'What am I doing as I shoot the young child
at his grandfather's knee?
'What am I doing as I slowly sever
the ear of my brother
and throw it to a dog to eat?
'What am I doing as I destroy his home?
'What am I doing as I rob him of all he has left?
'What am I doing as I tear him from all he holds dear?
'What am I doing as I allow hatred
to corrode my soul?'

'I cannot escape the guilt of what I have done.
I have obeyed orders: I have lost my soul.'

And what of the men who shrink from barbarity
yet must kill or be killed
for that is the law of the tribe?
And what of the conscripts,
who cannot endure the killing?
Deserters on trial for their lives,
they cannot forget the eyes
of those they murdered, pleading for life;
the rigid bodies of girls taken away
to be raped;
homes burnt to bone, orphaned children
screaming for fathers, mothers;
the eyes of the dying, the eyes of those
who, like themselves, knew fear for the first time.

And what of the mothers who see the life
they have loved and nourished and
cherished through hours, days,
years of growth destroyed in a second
by a bullet, a knife, a bomb? For nothing.

Can this be happening still?

And in the camps thousands crowd together
in the mud, the faecal stench, struggling for
a patch of earth, a tent, water,
blankets to survive the freezing night.
Mothers searching, searching for a child
lost on the journey who sobs somewhere, alone.

Some children cannot speak
of what they have witnessed.
They draw pictures to tell the story of what
they have learned from us
who, despite saviours, religions,
belief in redemption, higher standards of living,
endlessly re-enact the habits of the past.
We have taught them hatred, cruelty, fear.

A father asks his son
what he will do when he meets the enemy.
The boy, loving his father,
hesitates, uncertain...
He cannot imagine the answer expected.
"You will kill him."
That is the legacy of father to son
in a warrior culture:
the soul's innocence and trust
raped by indoctrination.

All this has happened so many times before.
Why is it happening still?

And the bombs rained down
night after night upon the 'enemy':
the 'intelligent' missiles
aimed to destroy the infrastructure
of the military machine, hurled from planes
painted with images of scythe-wielding death
and the word 'Apocalypse'.
How appropriate that word.
Missiles tipped with depleted uranium,
radioactive ceramic
designed to bring slow death years later;
Missiles targeting oil refineries
bridges, communications.
"You cannot have war without casualties."
Immaculate; objective; words
remote from the experience
of being in the path of a missile:
a lion leaping upon you, no time to prepare
for extinction.

We cannot yet see our shadow.
We cannot yet see that the continued invention
of ever more terrible weapons
perpetuates war.
We cannot yet see
that the proliferation of demonic
agents of death ultimately invites
our own destruction.

The people of the world ache for deliverance
from belligerent, psychopathic leaders,
from servitude to the ancient belief
that there are only two alternatives:
power or powerlessness, victory, defeat.

And what of the dead?
Prisoners between dimensions
the dead ache for release
from the cycle of vengeance
so they do not have to return
to ancestral soil to repeat
the bloody pattern of sacrifice,
the hatred between peoples who,
could have been reconciled centuries ago,
but for their leaders, but for their priests,
but for their inability to renounce the evil
of killing the other who is also the brother.

Listen to the Good News, they said…

How foolish we are to believe
that we are redeemed.
Surely we must accomplish
our own redemption by renouncing the illusion
that some of us are closer to God than others.
Surely we must redeem Christ
from the crucifixion continually re-enacted
in the rape of our sister, the murder of our brother
before we speak of Redemption,
before we speak of the Good News,
before we, the dead, can hope for Resurrection.



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