I’ve been frittering away my time finding creative ways to do nothing the last few days; I don’t know– it seems a suitable way to wind an old year down. Frustrating though because I really wanted to write this blog a day or two ago. Actually the day Harold Pinter died. His death reminded me of a speech Gunter Grass made in Berlin at the PEN International Congress there in May 2006.
It was a mere few weeks before the World Cup was to begin in Berlin when I had the good fortune to be sent to that city with Niki Johnson to represent Jamaica in its bid for membership of this august body. The keynote address was by the celebrated German author and Berlin resident, Gunter Grass. In keeping with the theme of the Congress Grass called his talk “Writing in an unpeaceful World.” Grass’s speech was an eloquent disquisition on war and the lack of peace through the centuries; he quoted Pinter’s scathing critique of the United States only recently delivered during his Nobel address the previous year. Pinter’s sentiments were so strongly expressed, so uncompromisingly critical that the American and British media had panned it and if Grass had not lingered on his words i would have been unaware that the Nobel Laureate had been so outspoken.
The Israeli strike on Gaza today makes it a particularly apt occasion to recall Grass’s heartfelt rumination on war and the role of writers in times of war. His speech pointed the finger at the United States and the unjust and protracted war it was conducting in Iraq. Within the year Grass found himself accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. Coincidence? Who knows?
While Grass did not explicitly mention bloggers (perhaps in 2006 they were not as omnipresent as they are today) everything he had to say about the responsibility of writers can and should be applied to us. Here are some excerpts from what he said:
There has always been war. And even peace agreements, intentionally or unintentionally, contained the germs of future wars, whether the treaty was concluded in Münster in Westphalia, or in Versailles. Furthermore, preparations for war do not solely depend on weapon systems that have to be continually modernized and replaced: making people dependent and acquiescent by controlled shortages has been a proven method, from biblical times to the globalised present. In his inaugural speech at the United Nations Willy Brandt referred to it in no uncertain terms: ‘Hunger is also war!’ he shouted more than three decades ago, at the time of the Cold War. Patterns of mortality as well as hunger statistics confirm his dictum to this day. Those who are in control of the market for basic foodstuffs and therefore able to manipulate surpluses as well as shortages by price policies have no need to fight conventional wars.
But what about writing in a world permanently without peace? The literati, i.e. all those scribblers and wordsmiths and sound acrobats and tracers of suppressed screams, the poets constraining themselves by rhymes and those using free verse, all of them, the men and women of verbal activity, they carried on, from Troy to Baghdad: lamenting in metre, soberly reporting, pleading for peace here, greedy for heroism there. The platitude ‘Where weapons speak, the muses remain silent’ is easily disproved.
. . . Today we find ourselves at the mercy of the hubris of only one superpower – a fact that has not proved beneficial – whose search for a new enemy has been successful. Armed force is used by this superpower to defeat the terrorism which, as it helped – take Bin Laden – to bring it forth, it is responsible for. Yet the war deliberately started in blatant disdain of the laws of civilized societies produces still more terror and will not end.
This is not only true of the war in Iraq, now in its third year. Dictatorships – and there are plenty to choose from – are referred to, in turn or simultaneously, as rogue states and threatened vociferously with military strikes, the only effect being to stabilize the fundamentalist power systems in those countries. Whether or not the term ‘Axis of Evil’ is used to refer to Iran or North Korea or Syria, the politics could not be more stupid and hence more dangerous. Even the repeat of a war crime, the deployment of nuclear weapons, is threatened.
Meanwhile the world is watching and pretending to be powerless. At most, participation in foreseeable new wars is refused. Three years ago the French and the German governments took an exemplary stand and said ‘No’, and later the Spanish government joined them when they withdrew from their complicity with the United States and engagement in the inevitably criminal activities of the superpower. yet despite lies having been exposed and the disgrace of torture being all-apparent, the British government continues to feign deafness and to act as if the tradition of the British Empire, the merciless colonial rule, has to be adhered to – even under the leadership of a Labour government.
Such submissive loyalty cannot but provoke dissent: in December of last year Harold Pinter’s speech as Nobel Laureate was published. In his admirably straightforward text the dramatist spoke first as a writer, then as a British citizen. When his bitter speech, sparing no one and exposing all our failures and our considerate hushing-up, was made available it gave rise to vehement attacks, originating in this country even in the arts section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Mr Stadelmaier, a renowned theatre critic, tried to ridicule and dismiss Pinter as an old leftie whose plays were a thing of the past. The disclosure of truths that had lain hidden behind mollifications and a web of lies caused serious resentment. Someone, a writer, one of us, had made use, in our unpeaceful world, of the right to accuse.
I quote from Harold Pinter’s speech:
“The United States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.
“Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.
“It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. you have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”
In the course of his speech Pinter poses the question: ‘How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?’ This question cannot easily be dismissed as merely rhetorical, for it aims at the West’s established practice and hypocritical method of counting, the body count. Although we meticulously keep count of the victims of terror attacks – terrible though their number is – nobody bothers to count the dead caused by American bomb or rocket attacks. Whether the second or the third Gulf War – the first one was fought by Saddam Hussein with support from the United States against Iran – rough estimates put the figure at hundreds of thousands.
Clearly every single one of the carefully accounted-for 2,400 soldiers killed so far in the present Iraq war is one too many, but this list of casualties cannot serve as the retrospective reason for a war that was started illegally and is fought by criminal means, nor can it offset the untold number of women and children killed and maimed, whose deaths are trivialized from a Western perspective as ‘collateral damage’. In Western evaluation there are first-, second- or third-class citizens not only among the living, but also among the dead, and yet they are all of them victims of the mutual terrorism.
Today the United States has a second chance with its new President, Barack Obama, to turn away from war and steer the world toward some kind of peace. I’m not taking bets on whether war or peace will prevail although Barack is the one holding out hope as a very slim lifeline. Let’s see what 2009 brings.