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Preamble: Aesthetics and the military


Poetic Engagement with Afghanistan, Caucasus and Iran (Part #2)


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It is not widely recognized in the cultures beyond the direct influence of Islam the extent to which aesthetics is valued there, whether in the form of poetry or song. The "clash of civilizations" is readily framed by the West as implying a direct physical threat between cultures. Aside from conventional diplomatic dialogue, no other vehicle is considered appropriate to the engagement between worldviews so framed. It is of course the case that there is a long history of such physical conflict between such cultures.

Michael Bibby (Hearts and Minds: poetry and resistance in the Vietnam Era, 1996) introduces his compilation of poetry of resistance to the Vietnam war within the USA with the comment:

On May 4, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson told a meeting of the Texas Electric Cooperatives, Inc.: "We must be ready to fight in Vietnam, but the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live there." Coming on the heels of the first mass deployment of U.S. troops to Vietnam, this speech marks one of the earliest uses of the phrase "hearts and minds" in relation to the Vietnam War.... The U.S. policy of "pacification" was often referred to as "winning hearts and minds," which meant that it sought to win the emotional and political support of the rural South Vietnamese...

In his extensive discussion of the phrase and its subsequent significance, Bibby notes that more poetry was published in the USA after 1960 than in any previous historical period. However, he notes much of this anti-war, activist poetry vanished without trace in the following twenty years. The topic is also discussed by Lorrie Goldensohn (Dismantling Glory: twentieth-century soldier poetry, 2003).

Eleanor Wilner (Poetry and the Pentagon: Unholy Alliance? Poetry Magazine, October 2004) describes an initiative of the US National Endowment for the Arts, in collaboration with the US Department of Defense, named Operation Homecoming: Writing the War Experience. Launched in April 2004, it was designed as a project to help soldiers write about their experiences in war, notably by bringing writers to military bases to conduct workshops for soldiers returning from combat. It would seem to have been both an effort to pre-empt the problematic soldier poetry of the Vietnam era as well as to provide a form of therapy for potentially traumatized combatants. The first product contained a mix of writings, including some poetry (Andrew Carroll, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, 2006).

With respect to the Vietnam war, there is also little trace of any strategic importance attached to understanding the poetry that sustained the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese. Its importance is indicated by the remarks of Fred Marchant (War Poets From Viet Nam. Humanities, 1998):

There is a Vietnamese legend that in times of distress the nation will be blessed with the arrival of a child poet. During the years of the American war, in what Americans then called North Viet Nam, there was such a young poet. His name was Tran Dang Khoa.... When Khoa brought me... to Nguyen Trai's mountain hermitage, I think he was ... tacitly claiming his poetic lineage, and teaching us how poetry had always been inherently important to the Vietnamese people. Any schoolchild might know a score of poems by heart, and ordinary adults who had nothing to do with writing or publishing poems, would at least remember a few and could recite them.

Literacy had been an essential virtue of the centuries' long anticolonial struggle. ... As with Nguyen Trai, it was not at all uncommon for leaders of the anticolonial struggle to be themselves accomplished literary people. Reading, writing, recitation, and performance had for centuries been one of the ways to forge a national identity.... As I said good-bye to Khoa and other writers I realized that I had just spent a week in a society where poetry and poets were considered national treasures. In the twentieth century, certainly the poet who drew directly on the model provided by Nguyen Trai was Nguyen Ai Quoc, more commonly known as Ho Chi Minh.

However, it would appear that the strategists of current conflicts have learnt nothing from poet-strategists such as Nguyen Trai and Ho Chi Minh. In addition to Operation Homecoming, the Pentagon has tended to frame its use of aesthetics in the tradition of direct support to military engagement, whether in providing supportive music to its soldiers, enabling them to listen to music whilst operating combat vehicles on search and destroy missions, or as an adjunct to interrogation (notably through sleep deprivation). An exception of relevance to this exploration is the mnemonic value in the US military of rhythmically chanting, or even singing, roll calls or preflight checklists (Bradd Shore, Culture in Mind: cognition, culture, and the problem of meaning, 1996).

It is far less clear to what extent such aesthetics have been used to engage opponents -- on terms meaningful to them -- in any effort to win "hearts and minds". This is very curious given the deliberate effort by Elizabeth Samet to teach poetry to military cadets, as described by Marjorie Kehe ('Soldier's Heart': why we ask West Point cadets to wrestle with poetry, 2007) and through an interview.

By contrast, the Communication Initiative Network reproduces a report for the UK government on a region of Afghanistan by Gordon Adam (Winning Hearts and Minds in Helmand, 2008). This notes the critical need for an emphasis on participation -- not propaganda. In that respect it notes how little Pashto language media was reaching rural Afghans in the conflict areas. It recommended a professional news service closely attuned to local events, and entertainment in the form of music, local poetry, and literature and drama. By contrast, as reported by the International Crisis Group in 2008, the Islamist militia was making making a violent comeback, particularly in that area -- making sophisticated use of media with many messages coming as songs, religious chants and poetry (Herbert A. Friedman, Psychological Operations in Afghanistan, 2008).

There would appear to be no trace of any attempt at strategic engagement through poetry with cultures that value that medium -- even, notably, as a function of PSYOPS (Psychological Operations). Ironically the US Defense Secretary responsible for the initiation of intervention in the Middle East was a known source of "poetry" in that period (Slate, Rummy's Ruminations: the collected poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, 2006) of which one such poem has continued to be of strategic significance (Unknown Undoing: challenge of incomprehensibility of systemic neglect, 2008).

The danger of such aesthetic negligence in any "hearts and minds" exercise can perhaps be succinctly stated in the form of a well-known question relating to World War II, namely why it was that the Germans "had the best tunes", and why that conclusion was associated with their demonization.

The challenge would appear to be to understand why poetry is valued in cultures with which effective engagement has been frustrated over many years and to determine what are the fruitful rules of engagement within that framework. No attention would seem to have been given to this possibility. However the possibility should not be treated simplistically, as helpfully concluded by Ramsey Nasr (Poetry and Engagement, 2004):

To avert a misunderstanding: I'm not saying that poets should get on the first flight to Iraq or Afghanistan. Let them stay indoors. Pamphlets are not what we need, not for "the cause", or anything.... What to do with living people in a nonsensical world? Is it possible to allow engagement in poetry without corroding that very poetry? I'm convinced it is as long as you're talented enough and steer clear of ready solutions.... Engagement is not about choosing for or against a party, engagement in simply about life, taking part in it. If need be, only through words; through language.

However missing from this comment is the strategic challenge of how one engages with another through poetry -- where the aesthetic values may be radically different. What then are the rules of engagement? The challenge may be highlighted by the following juxtaposed images

Images indicative of the paradoxes of contrasting aesthetic worldviews
the image on the left might be understood as how "Islamic terrorists" are perceived by those holding the "civilized worldview" on the right; however the image on the left could also be understood as how the "hedonistic West" is understood from within the aesthetic purity of Islam, suggested by the image on the right
Eurovision Song Contest Winner (Athens, 2006) EU anthem (Beethoven's Ode to Joy)
Harmonising governancne through demonic music: Lordi 2006 Harmonising governance through a European Anthem
If aesthetic harmony (notably musical lyrics) offers a way forward, possibilities might include:
A Singable Earth Charter, EU Constitution or Global Ethic?
All Blacks of Davos vs All Greens of Porto Alegre: reframing global strategic discord through polyphony?
Reframing the EU Reform Process -- through Song: responding to the Irish challenge to the Lisbon Treaty
Poetic Engagement with Afghanistan, Caucasus and Iran: an unexplored strategic opportunity?

Aside from insights from the reference above to the relevance of haiku to military strategy (Ensuring Strategic Resilience through Haiku Patterns, 2006), it is appropriate to note that Morihei Ueshiba, the Japanese founder of a more recent martial art, aikido, articulated insights relevant to its practice in poetic form (Doka: The Poems of Ueshiba Morihei -- Insights for a Modern Way of Life. Furyu: The Budo Journal, Winter 1996). Five of the principles articulated have been incorporated into regular training by Seidokan Aikido. It remains unclear whether such insights could be used in poetic engagement with a potentially hostile opponent. Nevertheless some have argued that aikido is poetry.


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