Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Emily Dickinson and War, in Seven Words

I do some research and writing on the American Civil War, and a couple years ago in my reading I came across a reference to a quote attributed to the poet Emily Dickinson...something about immortality or death "striking sharp and early."
Ms. Dickinson lived during and after the time of that war. Turns out the quote in question was, surprisingly, not in a poem, but rather in one of her letters to a literary friend, Thomas Higginson, who was then serving in the Union army.  With the country waking up to the dawning realization that the American Civil War was an event of catastrophic proportions, Ms. Dickinson was concerned for her friend.  In an 1862 letter, she writes:
Perhaps death gave me awe for friends, striking sharp and early, for I held them since in a brittle love, of more alarm than peace. I trust you may pass the limit of war; and though not reared to prayer, when service is had in church for our arms, I include yourself.

And then this gem, in the same letter, which in seven words may come closer to the meaning of war than any other words in the English language:
War feels to me an oblique place.
Ms. Dickinson's short sentence seems to imply a number of thoughts: dismay, helplessness, quiet anger, unfamiliarity or indirectness.  I sense she felt a lack of understanding of the forces that could bring otherwise sentient human beings to that dark place.

Fast forward some 150 years.  So now death has struck, sharp and early, in that oblique place, for some 4,423 U.S. personnel in Iraq, and for some 2,285--and counting--U.S. personnel in Afghanistan (DOD official casualty data, here).

And even as the conflict in Afghanistan chugs on, seemingly undirected and self-propelled, winding down yet suspiciously permanent, the saber-rattling continues for military intervention in Iran...from many of the same Very Serious People who were responsible for the wars of the 2000s.  Far from being shamed and discredited, they continue, inexplicably, to hold court and are still looked to as elder statesmen. 

They should heed the uneasy words of Ms. Dickinson.

War feels to me an oblique place.

A place to which we must not venture.

1 comment:

  1. One needs to have a conscience of other people to heed Emily's words. The very serious people have no time or space in their lives for such a conscience.