A confession, first: back in the sixties I wrote off James Dickey for "The Firebombing," just as some of the progressive literary establishment did at the time. That was moralism disguised as criticism, and, even worse, wrongly applied. Dickey, as it turns out, was no mindless hawk: he worked quietly on the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, and provided ideas for McCarthy's anti-war speeches. Not that it matters.
On re-reading the poem, or reading it--I was willing to take a lot on trust in those days, and perhaps satisfied myself with Robert Bly's misreading in 1967--I can find only ambiguity and paradox. The narrator wonders at his memories of an anti-civilian napalm bombing raid he conducted two decades earlier. His act and its images are indigestible. He is at once riven by feelings and the inability to feel; he feels guilty for not feeling guilty. His detachment from what he did remains. Although he stands in the pantry of his comfortable home in the suburbs, he is still in the air over Japan:
All this, and I am still hungry,
Still twenty years overweight, still unable
To get down there or see
What really happened.
But it may be that I could not,
If I tried, say to any
Who lived there, deep in my flames: say, in cold
Grinning sweat, as to another
As these homeowners who are always curving
Near me down the different-grassed street: say
As though to the neighbor
I borrowed the hedge-clippers from
On the darker-grassed side of the two,
Come in, my house is yours, come in
If you can, if you
Can pass this unfired door. It is that I can imagine
At the threshold nothing
With its ears crackling off
Like powdery leaves,
Nothing with children of ashes, nothing not
Amiable, gentle, well-meaning,
A little nervous for no
Reason a little worried a little too loud
Or too easygoing nothing I haven’t lived with
For twenty years, still nothing not as
American as I am, and proud of it.
Absolution? Sentence? No matter;
The thing itself is in that.
Such ambiguities are irresolvable. We just don't have the tools. Dickey imagines what ordinary people experience, not only when caught up in the everyday monstrosities of war, but for the rest of their lives.
Then there are some with no imagination at all.
No moral or emotional ambiguity here: instead, the cheap patter of mouthy adolescents in a video arcade. A whole generation or two seem to be permanently detached from the ground where families burn. Computer screens "link" us but in fact reduce us to personae and avatars. We are encouraged to live our lives in a virtual world where "friends" are a click away on Facebook, fake on-line "communities" thrive, second lives are first lives, and, if we must venture outside, we can and do cut ourselves off from others with iPods and cell phones jammed in our ears.
Marshall McLuhan is overdue for a comeback:
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence....Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.
McLuhan was deeply pessimistic, but not pessimistic enough. He saw the dangers of the new linkages, but failed to predict the radical alienation that anaesthetizes violence, a post-modern world in which, for example, Jean Baudrillard can argue (with some justification) that the Gulf War didn't happen.
The US is obviously not the only country afflicted by these new junctures and pathways that at once link us and alienate us from each other. But it sets a kind of benchmark. Shrill, panicked denunciation is now the preferred political discourse: cheap, theatrical, blood-stirring stuff, caricatures shrieking at other caricatures. Civility, its opposite along one axis--the "good manners" that some of us were brought up to observe as a preferred state of being-with-others--is now itself noisily condemned by near-psychopathic political cult figures. Ordinary Americans with deadened sensibilities, addicted to the Oxycontin of far-right talk shows with their ceaseless eliminationist din, move like somnabulists down Washington streets, denouncing health care, screaming threats, dreaming aloud of demons.
How much of this current numbness and dumbness is due to, or enhanced by, our no-longer-new interconnectivity? Recall past discussions, even heated ones, in your real-life communities, and compare them, anytime, with what goes on in Usenet and the blogosphere, not to mention in the "gaming community" with its matter-of-fact bloody forms of engagement. There is no community of "we," just a vast, mature-rated computer game to which almost anyone has ready access.
The WikiLeaks video? It's a clinical observation. It's a snapshot of America today, in its permanent fantasy-state of war. And it's a prediction.
Welcome to the Global Village of the new millennium. In the wrong neighbourhood? Bored? Afraid? In the mood for adventure? Want some action? You're just a click away from your next near-life experience. Sleep tight.