Wordsmith Wednesday: Kurt Vonnegut “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”

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Our words this week come from Kurt Vonnegut’s essay “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” from his posthumous collection, Armageddon in Retrospect.

The excerpt reads:

“The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all cliches, ‘fortunes of war,’ and another, ‘They asked for it. All they understand is force.’ Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalize the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.”

A veteran of WWII taken as a POW during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut’s writings on war and the institutional machineries that create it have informed my perspective on pacifism and patriotism since adolescence, specifically in thinking about the human costs for soldiers and civilians. Vonnegut spent the first part of his career writing directly or indirectly about the sickening inhumanity and personal trauma of the American firebombing of Dresden, a mission that killed tens of thousands of innocent people, including women and children. He’d spent the days during the bombing hiding in a slaughterhouse and the days after working alongside Germans to search for survivors while stacking burnt bodies for mass cremation. The American media hardly spared a headline for victims and vets alike, the government sparing even less. I can only imagine Vonnegut’s anger and despair at this, a young man recovering from the suicide of his mother. His humor, calm criticism, and emotional generosity in the face of trauma taught me a ton on how to navigate heaviness and injustice, how to use art and voice to make something half a century ago halfway around the world feel present and vital and human.

Despite the art of people like Vonnegut and idea that we are the most advanced civilization in the history of our planet, the United States has been at war in one capacity or another for well over half of my life. Recently we elected to give an unstable old man access to the largest nuclear arsenal in history, a cyberbully with the foreign relations tact of an aggressive fifth grader in the schoolyard and the empathetic capacity of a rock. The fear of the Cold War is creeping back into the collective psyche through the language of politicians and the media. So, as the flag waving of Veterans’ Day fades until next year’s brief show of nationalist pride and social media posts, I suggest we build a statue of PFC Vonnegut holding a basket of burnt babies in front of the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Pentagon with a plaque simply saying “The Fortunes of War.” Just as a friendly reminder.

– NR

kvonne

Wordsmith Wednesday: Rage Against The Machine “Bulls On Parade”

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Our words this week come from Rage Against The Machine‘s song “Bulls on Parade” off their 1996 album Evil Empire.

The words are:

“Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes
not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk from corner to the rubble that used to be a library
line up to the mind cemetery now”

As a kid, Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics on the radio were my first unconcious introduction to anything resembling radical American political thought, planting seeds about corrupt government (“Testify”), brutality by racist police (“Killing In The Name”), and exploitation for greed (“Sleep Now In The Fire”) in my head that would germinate into adolescent opinions during the Bush Era. Rage Against The Machine and The Battle Of Los Angeles both served as catalysts to the development of my personal politics and interest in alternative histories before an introduction to Howard Zinn at sixteen gave some structure and solid argument to de la Rocha’s anger. However, it was always these lines that stuck out to me as a boy growing up in the shadow of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically the imagery of a destroyed library. The juxtaposition of war and ignorance against learning and care is a relationship that has only become stronger and clearer as I’ve grown up in a world where the United States has been at constant, endless, expensive war without any clear objective or exit strategy. For over half my life now, we have had troops on the ground in Afghanistan fighting, and dying, in a war on terrorist organizations that essentially fuels itself by providing propaganda for these organizations with U.S. military presence. Just this week there has been a presidential call for an increase in troops. Eisenhower is ignored, Halliburton is forgotten, and the military-industrial complex chugs on. This cycle is pushed forward by politicians and pundits championing American safety, strength, and prosperity while children in parts of this country go hungry, homeless, and hopeless. Unfortunately for those kids, feeding, clothing, and empowering the poor has little of the perceived or real political and economic benefits that war can provide to the powerful elite, so they just keep rallying around the family with a pocket full of shells.

– NR

rage