Originally published March 19, 2003
Over 15 years ago, in March 2003 as Iraq War II was cranking up, Justin wrote a column so crystalline and poignant in its cry of the heart – and mind – entitled “Shine, Perishing Republic” that we are running it again today. It is chilling to read and a bit heart-wrenching. Justin saw so clearly what the war on terror, war(s) in Iraq, and other future conflicts would inevitably portend. Sadly, America had fully morphed from Republic to monstrous Empire.
Justin is still with us but it is tough going. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.
As the sand in the hourglass runs down, and the Grim Reaper gets ready for harvest time in Iraq, I think of the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, and of the poet himself: a difficult man, serenely alienated from the world of his time, whose poems echo down through the years like the voice of some forgotten prophet who got it all right. Too right. Bitterly opposed to World War II – in describing his President, he wrote of "the cripple’s power need of Roosevelt" – Jeffers’ bitterness was turned into a thing of beauty when he put pen to paper:
- "While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire
- And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens…"
That’s from "Shine, Perishing Republic," which we posted in its entirety yesterday because its author seems to have captured this moment in history as if in a dream. Our old Republic, once the enemy of kings and contemptuous of empires, is now donning the imperial purple, and soon the accolades for Caesar will fill the air, drowning out all protests in a roar of approval. Americans and Iraqis both will line the bombed out boulevards of Baghdad, shouting "Hail Caesar!"
The America we loved is lost, perhaps forever. That is the meaning of this war. The republic that bound its rulers with the chains of the Constitution and freed the rest of us to live in peace is no more. In its place arises … what? For answers I turn to books: Jeffers and Garet Garrett, to start with, the poet and the polemicist. Each were a bit of both, and it was the latter who predicted this day, this hour, half a century ago:
"We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night; the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: ‘You now are entering Imperium.’ Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: ‘Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.’ And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: ‘No U-turns.’"
Garrett thought we had crossed the Rubicon back in 1950, when Truman went to war without the consent of Congress, setting a precedent that would strip the peoples’ representatives of their constitutional prerogative. But the precise moment did not come for another fifty-three years, when day turned to night and the bombs fell on Baghdad. That moment, as I write, is a matter of hours in the future, and I am glad for Garrett that he did not live to see it, for I find that its arrival does matter a great deal, like the arrival of an arrow in one’s breast. But I shall try to take the Olympian attitude of Jeffers –
- "I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
- Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother."
– although I can hardly hope to attain the heights of his unique detachment, or the clarity of the poetic vision that let him look down on what was happening to his country:
- "…life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
- A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic"
This is what hurts: that the republic shines even as it murders, even as it morphs into a grossly misshapen parody of itself. So that its rulers can speak half-credibly of "liberation" when they mean conquest; can say "freedom" to signify subjugation, can commit war crimes and still call for the prosecution of war criminals, can do the Devil’s work and still invoke almighty God. I turn to Garrett, again, for an explanation, some clue to the mystery of schizoid America:
- "How, now, thou American, frustrated crusader, do you know where you are?
- "Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world.
- "To thine own self a liberator, to the world an alarming portent, do you know where you are going from here?"
That’s from The American Story, Garrett’s last volume, published in 1955, and it might almost be mistaken for poetry. His warning is a kind of incantation, meant to ward off, even if only temporarily, the incubus of Empire. His phrases leap off the musty pages of old books, challenging our would-be Caesars and the citizens of a New Rome:
There is no security at the top of the world.
That, the real lesson of 9/11, was prefigured in Garrett’s evocative prose, written at the rosy dawn of the American Century. An ancient message in a bottle washed up on the shore, and read by an astonished beachcomber with complete understanding. What was cryptic, in 1955, is brutally clear in 2003, as the government announces that we have gone on "High Alert," or "code orange" in the color-scale of terror.
- "To thine own self a liberator, to the world an alarming portent…."
George W. Bush and the neoconservative cabal that has manipulated, bullied, and finally inspired him into war, invoke the ideals of the American Revolution even as they betray and corrupt the vision of the Founders. The Devil is known to invoke scripture, but this particular demonic clique has made a fetish out of it: they invoke "Americanism" to implement the most anti-American agenda imaginable. Only too glad to claim the mantle of "idealism" as against the dire realism of their own intelligence agencies, they seek to "export" democracy to the four corners of the globe, at gunpoint, starting with the most intractable region, the Islamic world. If only we could make The American Story required reading for our civilian chickenhawks, so they could at least calculate the costs of their sinister "idealism":
"The American revolution was a pilot flame that leaped the Atlantic and lighted holocaust in the Old World. But its character was misunderstood and could not have been reproduced by any other people. It was a revolution exemplary."
Can "democracy" take root in the arid soil of the Middle East, forcibly implanted and fertilized with plenty of U.S. tax dollars? To the social engineers of the neoconservative persuasion, who see the world as their laboratory, it is an experiment worth conducting. The threat of terrorism, they maintain, cannot be defeated unless we go in and yank it out by its roots – and plant something else to take its place. Like the Soviets, and all modern tyrants, they are contemptuous of tradition, of the accumulated knowledge and cultural heritage handed down over millennia. They see themselves as revolutionaries, and that they are. But their revolution is not directed primarily against foreign tyrants: for even as they put on a great show of "liberating" foreign peoples, they are in the process of enslaving the American people, and destroying the remnants of the Constitution. They are worse than mere hypocrites: they are defilers, who pray loudly even as they desecrate the gravestones of their ancestors.
The era of the American Republic is over, and age of Empire is begun. Where the US once fought wars in self-defense, it now wages wars of outright conquest. Where once we fought to preserve our constitutional form of government, today we must fight to restore it. The difference is that now we are fighting a rearguard action. The enemy is not only within the gates: he has seized our main headquarters, and is now conducting mop-up operations against such pockets of resistance as still persist. The citadel is taken.
The war on Iraq is going to be short, but the occupation will a task without end, a heavy burden that will be more than just punishment for our vainglorious "victory." As the self-elected arbiter of every ethnic dispute that arises among the quarrelsome peoples of the Middle East, we are walking into a snake-pit, I fear, without thought of the consequences. A future of endless conflicts, perpetual war for perpetual peace, and color-coded terror unto infinity – that is what we have to look forward to.
In despair, I turn to the forgotten prophets of the Old Right, and, in the end, to the poet Jeffers, who offers not consolation but only a merciless clarity:
- “So long having foreseen these convulsions, forecast the hemorrhagic
- Fevers of civilization past prime striving to die, and having through verse, image and fable
- For more than twenty years tried to condition the mind to This bloody climate: – do you like it,
- Justified prophet?
- I would rather have died twenty years ago.
- “‘Sad sons of the stormy fall,’
- You said, ‘no escape, you have to inflict and endure …
- And the world is like a flight of swans.’
- I said, ‘No escape.’
- “You knew also that your own country, though ocean-guarded, nothing to gain, by its destined fools
- Would be lugged in.
- I said, ‘No escape.’
- “If you had not been beaten beforehand, hopelessly fatalist,
- You might have spoken louder and perhaps been heard, and prevented something.
- I? Have you never heard that who’d lead must not see?
- “You saw it, you despaired of preventing it, you share the blood-guilt.