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Forgetfulness is a Chemical Weapon

September 9, 2013 9:45 am 2 comments

"On the Beach," Stanley Kramer, 1959

Something fails to fire. Across the synaptic gap, neurotransmission falls short. For only a moment or forever, we cease to remember –

— “as if,” Billy Collins writes, in his 1990 poem “Forgetfulness,” about the fading recollections of advancing years,

… one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Or there is one phone, in an old inn, and you reach somebody there, the keeper, who was a once a Captain in the British Navy, though he’s old and fuzzy now, and while you keep raising your voice as if louder means clearer, he persists in bellowing, “Hello? Hello?”

There are many agents of forgetfulness. They abound. They are in the water, in the air, in the waves of the air, in the words we read and hear. And they are invisible, like all the silent killers, not just of people, but of memory. To survive them is an act of will and determined focus, for to know one thing, one must remember many, and the agents never cease their attack. They work together, too, in admixtures, compounds, concentrates aiming to wreak havoc on our limbic systems.

About Syria, one agent group has told us all this before, and before, and before, that our decency depends upon it, that good men and women, Syrian Tom Paines all, are just waiting for us – our so little to give all that they need to prevail, storified in paeans to freedom and dignity. They are destined to prevail (the force is with them), yet, oddly, if we do not make their cause our cause, all will be lost, for now it will be our cause, and our failure if it is lost. Come, join in. We must engage them to win their hearts, for Tom Paines are fickle and Iraq was Iraq, Afghanistan Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia so twentieth century, what have you done for us lately, oh, you torpid and craven.

Forget Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the renowned Madisons and Monroes of Vietnam, forget the Sunni-Shia divide, the Alawite hatred, the streams of Kurdish aspiration seeking to conjoin across national borders, the scores of contending forces, the maniacally Muslim among them, and Hezbollah, and crumpled Lebanon, Turkey’s increasingly illiberal leanings, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and, oh, yes. Iran. Forget.

Fouad Ajami, he of the gravelly-wise empathetic voice, white beard and wild brows, beautifully unattractive like an old blind seer, he should play Homer – sing-o-muse – will wax again America toward war, uttering to Anderson Cooper the most foolish professional advice ever uttered by expert lips, that we, America “have to have faith in the Syrian people.”

Bring your American goodness – forged from American degeneracy if you don’t.

But memory is worn away in many directions. Ajami has his responders. We see them every time, they return every time, the End and Stop the War Coalitions that only work to end and stop the wars that the United States, the United Kingdom, or Israel thinks about entering, otherwise not so much the banners and the burning outrage. War is cruel, but any war that America might join is most cruel, and it doesn’t matter what a president, or a secretary-of, might say, what party from, what history of belief and profession – the exercise of American power is at issue so everything everyone says is now a lie, a conspiracy, and a murderous plan to make a buck. “International law” floats in the air a utopian god-head, until it is a law of war over which the United States might flex a muscle, and then it is time for the hems and the haws, the  hundred indecisions, the visions and revisions, though the world might be more lawless after. They would have you forget that whatever the world’s corruptions and ills, not one pillar of the palace of human safety wrested from the jungle of human horrors was greased with their blood or erected by them.

It is time, instead, for, as Katrina Vanden Heuvel, put it “tough diplomacy,” which is diplomacy with a scrunched up face and a stern reproach. Alternatively, a U.N. Security Council resolution can be sought, and if Syria ignores it, well, we don’t actually enforce international laws, though we righteously regret their violation.

Even the sense of violation can be forgotten. There are agents for that, too. They say that to die is to die. The agony of shrapnel in the stomach no less than the eruptions of the organs and the asphyxiated lungs. They offer arguments like this:

It’s not obvious that high explosives are inherently less evil than chemical weapons. People vividly recall the horrifying gassing of soldiers in the trenches of World War I. But it was artillery shelling that killed in hugely greater numbers.

Strip away the moralistic opposition to chemical weapons and you often find strategic self-interest lying underneath. Powerful countries like the United States cultivate a taboo against using WMD partly because they have a vast advantage in conventional arms. We want to draw stark lines around acceptable and unacceptable kinds of warfare because the terrain that we carve out is strategically favorable. Washington can defeat most enemy states in a few days-unless the adversary uses WMD to level the playing field.

“It was artillery shelling that killed in hugely greater numbers.” Apparently Dominic Tierney forgets that artillery shelling was used in hugely greater numbers. Yet it was chemical weapons that the perpetrators and victims of chemical warfare during World War I acted to ban. Tierney forgets that the original, 1925 Geneva Convention ban on chemical weapons was sought after the war not when today’s powerful nations might be seeking to enforce a tactical advantage, but when those nations who had used and suffered sought to limit themselves. Because they had the memories. They had not yet forgotten.

What greater crime of international, of institutional memory can there be than to dismiss the experience of those no longer living as unreal, to wave our hands in ideological reconstruction of their experience and cry it was not true. They did what they could. They left us this record of their reasons and their wrongs. And now, to excuse a score of other motives, we will say that the remnant of their wrongs, the extract of our lessons from them is nothing?

Those who forget the reality of chemical weapons are those who only see things in themselves. To reverse Plato, they see only things and not the shadows of things, the extra life of the world. The extra evil of the chemical weapon, like the biological weapon is that it is more than what it is. In the symbolic world, a thing is not only itself, but something else. It represents. What does the chemical weapon represent? Maybe if we remember another weapon.

Remember the neutron bomb? Few will. They were abandoned. It shocked not the conscience, but the imagination, that pathway to the symbolic world. Samuel T. Cohen, the physicist who invented the neutron bomb, insisted all his life that he had invented a saner and more moral weapon – a weapon that limited physical destruction and only killed people.

But many military planners scoffed at the idea of a nuclear bomb that limited killing and destruction, and insisted that deployment would escalate the arms race and make nuclear war more likely. The device was anathema to military contractors and armed services with vested interests in nuclear arsenals. Even peace activists denounced it as “a capitalist weapon” because it killed people but spared the real estate.

We are not just dreams and thoughts, but flesh, too. We live a life of the body. We live in the physical world, in relation to it. To destroy any of it is an abomination, yet what does it mean to separate ourselves in destruction from our worldly shell? Does it raise no specter? Why might it seem, saner, more moral, cleanereasier to kill only ourselves and spare the world? We are disappearing all the time – this person, here, there, those people, everywhere, always. The life of the world is the loss of people from it. But the world is still there, right? And there are always more people.

Gas the people of Ghouta. People die in war all the time. But Ghouta still stands, and people will return. We will hardly know what was done.

The tragic, melancholy final shots of On the Beach, Stanley Kramer’s film version of the Nevil Shute novel, draw their bottomless sorrow from a single vision: the world still standing and the people gone. The nuclear war had physically destroyed very little, but the radiation – in the manner of the neutron bomb –  had wafted over atmospheric currents to kill all still living, finally those in Australia. What a loss. What a symbol of loss. If the world was not created in itself mechanistically for sentient beings, does anyone have the least notion what value there is in all that there is without sentient beings to know it, be in it and of it?

Shot from close of "On the Beach"

from "On the Beach"

The physical world is destroyed every moment in natural decay: the world was born to end. That we were born to end in it, to end ourselves in it, must seem less natural. Streets without people, an empty city, a vacant world should always appear the essential crime.

Chemical weapons, we are told, we can see, produce agony. They encourage use directed at civilians, to clear populations, to terrify in their silence and their stealth, the invisible attack, which was the special horror of Ghouta. They are not weapons of war, they are weapons of inhumanity. Those who used and suffered them before, those who banned them, knew that. To fail to see that is our own inhumanity. To fail to act in response, a crime past forgetting.


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