Hope betrayed, arrays herself in bombs

Dec 20, 2023
Typewriter and the letters that fly like birds Image: iStock/Muhamad Agil

While the speechless unite, in a silent accord. Australia’s Geopolitical Present and Future: Bethlehem through Poetry and Literature.

An incomplete – very incomplete – snapshot of the current season of Advent: Internally the US is divided and its global leadership is crumbling; the Middle East, and Ukraine play insolent, obscene court jesters to kings, nobles, and governments; Israel is deaf to feeble US pleas to moderate its violence in Gaza. The Global South now more than ever, understands its allocated role in relations between the powers: collateral damage. Impassioned outrage and a turning away from the US are the common – indeed, dominant dispositions among the members of the United Nations General Assembly but they do not, it seems, find expression in Australia.

To answer a prior question to those asked below: why poetry and literature?

Answer: Poets and writers of literature frequently express things not only better, but also in such a way that those of us who, lacking their talent, but read them, are moved to transgress against the analytical modes of international relations and strategic analysis by introducing them into the discourse in a special way: while we may claim to know more about the subject matter, they excel in seeing its essence clearer and more poignantly. And we should take note.

Of the many questions that arise two deserve immediate attention. The first is whether the overall situation is significantly different to the daily throb of global politics. The second is why, independent of the answer to the first, Australia has not initiated attempts to ameliorate the conditions outlined. This would include answering the implied question as to whether Australia might actually be a contributing cause to those conditions.

As to the first, it is apparent to anyone paying close attention to the United States, and the politics its touches, that what Yeats wrote in 1921, in “The Second Coming,” is unnervingly relevant to the here and now:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. . .

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. . .

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The question is, of course, rhetorical. Whereas in previous states of turmoil or acute crisis – those of the Cold War come to mind – there was a sense that all parties were existentially deterred from total recklessness – that there existed, albeit poorly defined, a position of ne plus ultra. But no more.

Ukraine and Gaza present different aspects of the transformation. The popular, mainstream narratives of guilt and responsibility on both are truncated, partial and, ultimately, infantile morality fables. Moreover, what they hide is an Aztec-like enthusiasm for sacrificing the blood of others in the name of imaginary entities.

As regards the former, notwithstanding that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a war crime, Washington’s role has been that of an accessory before, during, and after it – a contributing spectator to a war in which the US will not fight but will cheer from the sidelines.

Ukraine is far from a just belligerent within the Just War tradition. Yes – it has the right to sovereignty, self-determination, and self-defence. But its self-determination is circumscribed. Geography and history have imposed upon Ukraine certain obligations which it must accommodate to. In particular, it must accommodate to Russia’s demand that it not act in any way that could be construed as an existential threat, one component of which would be membership of NATO. Outside of such strictures Ukraine can exercise considerable freedom of action in its foreign and defence policies.

This is not a perfect arrangement, but it is no different to the situation many nation states find themselves in and accommodate to on the grounds that it is a beneficial compromise. Moreover, to maintain that Ukraine has the right to NATO and EU membership flies in the face of strategic sense and the rights of the individual memberships of NATO and the EU.

For the US to encourage Ukraine’s baiting of Russia with regard to NATO and the EU was, and remains, irresponsible. It becomes criminal when official documents and statements reveal that Ukraine’s right to self-defence has been not only co-opted but speedily corrupted by the US and its alliance partners by a perceived opportunity to overextend and weaken Russia.

The ethics and morals of the situation have been hijacked – overborne by the assertion that Russia deserves this fate.

Ukraine, though? It will suffer further death and destruction not least by being encouraged by the US and its allies to continue the fight as though it has been given the prerogative to prosecute its case according to the Latin legal phrase, fiat justitia ruat caelum (‘let justice be done though the heavens fall’).

Yet there is no sense of responsibility let alone intimation of that special form of guilt which Albert Camus was alive to at the time of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 when he wrote:

I am not one of those who wish to see the people of Hungary take up arms again in a rising certain to be crushed, under the eyes of the nations of the world, who would spare them neither applause nor pious tears, but who would go back at once to their slippers by the fireside like a football crowd on a Sunday evening after a cup final.

There are already too many dead in the stadium, and we cannot be generous with any but our own blood.

Gaza is a variation on the same theme. The same recklessness which encourages Ukraine to national sacrifice is found in an inversion: the US backing provided to Israel in order that disproportionate vengeance be meted out for Hamas’ attacks of 7 October 2023. While there are legal arguments over whether Israel’s responses constitute genocide, the prima facie basis for war extensive crimes is beyond doubt.

The US response, however, has been feeble, reluctant, and entirely incommensurable with the scale of gratuitous retribution, much of it comparable with the bombing of Dresden in 1945.

Listening to President Biden and his heralds – experiences which are increasingly disconcerting – there is no better capture of it all than this extract from one of Camus’ Notebooks:

Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people’s anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble – yes, gamble – with a whole part of their life and their so called ‘vital interests.’

What is so striking is that what is missing is any sense that something is missing. Gaza’s current significance arises from the fact that Israel’s declared strategy of exterminating Hamas has become acutely embarrassing to the US; the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination which are integral to the war in the first place are deferred, as they have been for over 75 years, to some indefinite time in the future.

And Gaza is but one of many places awaiting, but not really expecting justice. Such places become geopolitical minefields. The Global South, now more united than ever over global warming and climate change, is a proliferation nightmare of the ensuing anger and frustration.

Its patience, tolerance, and forbearance are not infinite and the reckoning – long overdue – is under way. In Pink Floyd’s anthem, The Turning Away:

On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite in a silent accord

Using words, you will find, are strange
Mesmerised as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night

That’s the polite version, anyway. In the days before self-regarding ethics committees in the universities held sway over what could be studied, and how, my terrorism research took me to the Université de Provence and there, in a graffito was a stark alternative:

“L’espoir deçu s’habille en bombes” (‘Hope betrayed arrays herself in bombs’).

The Second Coming? What is it? Advent, understood liturgically, is a time of hope and joy; understood politically in the here and now, it is the opposite. In terms of US domestic politics it is a return – almost inevitably – to Biden or Trump.

Regardless, if nothing else, it is to be a time of rebellion, and thus of rebels. It will bring forth those who say “No!” Those who, as Camus writes of them in The Rebel, have not only established limits to their servitude but are intent on acting because they are “confusedly convinced that [their] position is justified.”

Only a peddler of dreams and apparitions would accuse Australia’s governments of understanding this at any level beyond the superficial, and even that might be an imaginative leap too far. And because of that, it is a betrayal of all that could be, and should be.

Perhaps, then, Canberra should read, and listen to America’s poets in general, and one – Robinson Jeffers – in particular. Their knowledge is intimate, their skills forensic. And given the Americanisation of Australia, would it not be appropriate to ask if Jeffers is talking only of America?

Unhappy country, what wings you have! . . .

Unhappy, eagle wings and beak, chicken brain,
Weep (it is frequent in human affairs), weep for the terrible
magnificence of the means.
The ridiculous incompetence of the reasons, the bloody and shabby
Pathos of the result.

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