Essay: In a Time of War

November 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: The Scottish-English poet Edwin Muir wrote something useful for a time of war — any time, in fact. In his celebrated autobiography, he told of undergoing psychoanalysis, at first reluctantly. Then he discovered the thing that made it all worthwhile.

“I saw that my lot was the human lot, that when I faced my own unvarnished likeness, I was one among all men and women, all of whom had the same desires and thoughts, the same failures and frustrations, the same unacknowledged hatred of themselves and others, the same hidden shames and griefs.”

Such a frank acknowledgement helps in any situation, but especially at a time when the mind is gearing up for battle.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: If the United Nations will not deal with Saddam Hussein, the United States and our friends will.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: A time of war, by necessity, establishes the “us” and the “them.” If it did not do so, if it encouraged our seeing everyone as part of the same “human lot,” it would make us soft, vulnerable, vague, when we need to be hard, aggressive, and direct.

When the enemy comes over the hill, we shoot — or we go to the enemy’s hill: Bunker Hill. Pork Chop Hill. In any case, we do not think of ourselves as “one among all men and women”– not as long as the heart needs to harden.

The trouble with hardening one’s heart, however, as God discovered when he did that to pharaoh, is not that the heart turns to stone, but that stone endures. When one’s life or the life of one’s people is at stake, there is no way out of stony thinking.

But one ought not to confuse the wartime mind with a permanent condition. No one is more antiwar than a soldier. If one needs a reason to be antiwar in general, the poet Muir suggests a good one. War, so often called “reality,” is the antithesis of reality. One is not really human in a war– that is, if we define being human as those complex sharings of failures and frustrations, the same hidden shames and griefs. The “self” and “other” are seen as separate entities, antagonistic poles, rather than as polar elements within the same creature, the same poor slobs, ourselves.

In short, war not only kills, it twists us out of shape. Nothing is as complicated as it ordinarily is, our mind included. People get sore at some intellectuals who oppose war on principle: Bertrand Russell, Robert Lowell… that sort.

And in fact, in the heat of battle against foes that need removing, like Hitler and al-Qaida, the conscientious objectors seem more objectionable that conscientious. Some call them traitors, which is sometimes technically true. But they are not traitors to a vision of life that sees the mind as troubled and unsure of itself, the mind as it is.

One reason al-Qaida makes such a despicable enemy is that it is labored to make the mind inhuman, hard as a rock, by creating and advancing false certainties. When one goes to war, then, I think it helps to concede, in the very act of going to war, that war makes us not ourselves, so that we may return to our human lot when the war is over. I think it helps to concede that we have suspended the human lot for a time, and that that concession only makes the human lot more precious, more worth defending.

Muir writes of confronting our mixed natures as liberating. And the best part of liberation, the freedom to be oneself, entails the knowledge that we are alike, all men and women. Even now, there are places in the hardened heart where gentleness might grow. We might remember the location of such places in a time like this, and hold on to them for dear life.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.