Someone Else's War

[Originally published on Quiet Little Lies, 1/11/2003]

I know, before I even start to write, that I'm making enemies. After all, we're at war now, and careless talk costs lives. So the last thing I should be doing is shooting my mouth off on some earnest little webzine; I should be digging for victory, letting my bri-nylon smile shine out as I make spam fritters, or whatever the 21st century equivalent is, for the valiant rescue workers.

This is the first war of the 21st century. I know, because the papers told me so. I also know that it's a "crusade" — which, as my trusty dictionary informs me, is a military expedition undertaken by European Christians to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims. But the only holy land that we observe now is New York's Golgotha, the place of the (thousands of) skulls. A war, a crusade, the Last Battle against terrorism: whatever you want to call it, it ain't no gameshow. If you phone a friend there's only one valid topic of conversation; if you ask the audience there's only one answer you're going to get, and you're better off not knowing what the prize might be.

It's easy to heckle from this distance. It's easy to mock the latest Bushism, to sneer at Michael Jackson and Hear'say (or is it N'Sync? Or some other apostrophised teen idols?) as they light a well-meant Candle in the Wind for the first civilian casualties of the war. Will they still be lighting candles six months down the line? Or will they be pouring petroleum on the towering pyres, grim-faced at the harsh reality of their Crusade? We're past the age of martyrs; now when people die they don't ascend in glory, they fall in flames.

To talk from this distance is heartless. We're meant to be in the thick of it; and if we're not there, we're at least meant to speculate as to all the people we've ever known who could have been, might have been anywhere near the U. S. of A. in the last year. And if we had the fortune not to know anybody who was caught up in it, what then? If we are not cursed with pathological empathy, if we do not feel ourselves, our loved ones, in every screaming face and every dismembered corpse, what then? Should we torture ourselves with imagination, cram the thoughts of all our nearest and dearest into the memory of those collapsing towers, try to imagine what it must be like? Surely this is the truly sick response, this futile self-flagellation; we cannot imagine, we must not pretend that we can. What would you say if you had four minutes to phone your wife before the building you were in collapsed? Only the situation itself can push you to that knowledge; pray that you never need to know. And nobody could imagine the harsh truth: that people miss calls, that sometimes your last words are commended into the hands of an answerphone. God can't hear you right now; but if you leave your name and final resting place, he'll get right back to you.

I am at the funeral of people I did not know: seeming, not feeling; my inky cloak ill-fitting. What do I feel at these strangers' deaths? A little less than kin, and more than kind. Not the refusal to mourn, but the inability to mourn the loss of something that was not mine. Thwarted by the specific, I try to mourn in a more general sense: the death of Fellow Human Beings, the death of peace, the death (or at least serious illness) of democracy, civilisation, the American Dream. And yet none of these things were mine: how can we call what went before 'peace' just because it was not our own country, or our rich neighbour's country, which was torn by random acts of senseless violence? We call for globalisation and unity, but we only move when we have solid flags and figures, a tally of dead Britons by which to measure our anger.

And yet I cannot condemn people's response to the tragedy. I cannot deny them their orchestrated grief, their endless Adagio for Heartstrings. I would not want to. "We are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid." And while I may despise the cult of the Minute's Silence, the guilty prayers to an absent god, the two cents of time dropped into the collection bowl, it is only because I am outside it, wanting to be on the inside, wanting to feel as though I belong in this mourning community. It's not the sick fantasy of the child who thinks that a dead parent would buy him a reprieve from exams; it's more like Jude (and how we need his namesake — namesaint — now, in this time of lost causes) staring at the gates of the colleges which are forever closed to him. Only this time I'm inside, in the warm, wishing I could share in the dark night outside, hating myself for wishing it, wanting to be glad of the warmth, wanting to offer light and heat, but knowing that my fan heater would be a mockery of a night that requires candles, flickering symbolism, trembling hands. And yes, I hate myself for deconstructing their grief, always finding the symbol underneath the sorrow, like the Princess (of hearts) and the pea. My heart would go out to them, wants to go out to them; but it's trapped in my body, beating an endless litany of the living self.

And what it all comes down to is this: I want to be part of the war effort, but I can't shake the feeling that it's someone else's war. I know that cynicism and detachment aren't bullet-proof; I don't expect them to save me. If I could, I'd tear them up and pulp them to produce paper for the propaganda machine, or bullets for our boys, or hard-wearing Levis for the new generation of war babies; but I don't know how, and I don't know what I'd put in their place. So I'll light a candle to the unknown emotion of collective grief. I'll wear my best crying-shoulders for my friends, if they can't find a better comforter — but only for my friends; I don't have enough heart in me to feed a million strangers who are baying for blood. I'll carry on doing my useless job (which doesn't take me anywhere near the City), and tuning in to CNN for the latest bulletins.

So if I hang up my blackout curtains against the blinding, raw emotions that you all seem able to feel, it's not because I don't care. It's because we are at war, and there's precious little time for the individual in a war. The actress may not have learned the lines you'd like to hear; but she's content with a walk-on part, given the alternative.

Even before I started to write, I knew that I was making enemies. Now I've burnt my bridges and my soapbox in one towering inferno, and the only things they will recover from the ashes are futility, and words signifying nothing.

Janet McKnight
Last modified: Mon Nov 4 17:16:20 GMT 2013