This is the first of a series of what will be four posts under the same title. All four derive from the manuscript I wrote this summer for an eventually cancelled conference.
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Having already by then been invited to a conference, originally set to take place in Poland at the end of October this year, on the topic of poetry (literature) and the remembrance of the Holocaust, ideas for my talks on that topic were already germinating in my mind when I read Roy Scranton’s New York Times column on the 2003 war in Iraq (see my preceding post) over the 2016 July 4th weekend. Reading that piece helped begin bringing my thoughts on the topic of the conference to fruition.
Then, just a few more days after that weekend, I read another column by a different author, but with the same historical focus as the one by Scranton: the United States invasion of Iraq early in this century. This second column was called “A Misguided War, The Untold Dead” (New York Times, July 7, 2016), and was occasioned by the release just the day before of the so-called “Chilcot report,” the long-delayed official report from the British government on Britain’s involvement in the war the Bush administration unleashed against Iraq in 2003. The author of the column was Carne Ross, a British diplomat who was the Iraq expert in Britain’s delegation to the United Nations from 1997-2002. Here are the closing lines of his column:
[. . .] I’ve come to believe that government’s failed attempts to impose order by force are themselves the source of disorder. Many Iraqis would doubtless agree
The Chilcot report reveals much about government and its failure but largely ignores the greatest issue. The enormous suffering and losses of the Iraqi people are scarcely mentioned; there is no attempt to count the dead.
There is also no recommendation of making reparation to the Iraqi people, let alone an apology. For me, this should be the ultimate significance of a report like this: that it speaks for those whose lives were needlessly wasted. It is their fate, not those of us and our politicians, that should preoccupy us. Only then can we begin to grasp the magnitude of what was done in our name.
It was actually Ross’s article that finally suggested to me the title for the presentation I was preparing for presentation at the eventually cancelled conference in Poland to which I had been invited. As I wrote in an email to my contact at the Institute sponsoring the conference a few days after reading Ross’s column:
Since I received your initial invitation, the basic concept of the conference has been on my mind. One idea that I find germinating in my own thoughts is that I might do something under some title such as ” ‘Forgetting Ourselves’: Poetry and the Obligation of Remembrance.” In that context, one thing I would want to do is to play upon the ambiguity of the American expression, “forgetting oneself,” which can have both a negative and a positive connotation. In the former sense, saying something, for example, in which old prejudices one has tried to keep buried resurface would be “forgetting oneself”–that is, lapsing back into old, undesirable behaviors. But in the positive sense, we say that we “forget ourselves” when we rush to help someone in need, even if that may prove dangerous to our own physical safety. There, to “forget oneself” means to let go of self-centered attachment and concern, in order to help others.
Here’s what I had already written in my own notes after reading Ross’s column on the Chilcot report:
It occurred to me that I might call my upcoming talks in Poland “Forgetting Ourselves,” which I’d use in the double sense of (1) dropping self-concern to let the suffering of others be “remembered” (and there, not only Ross in this piece but also Viet Thanh Nguyen on Bob Kerry and the concern with PTSD among Vietnam war-crimes perpetrators are highly relevant [see below]) and (2) lapsing forgetfully into old behavior patterns we’d like to claim we’ve outgrown (“forgetting ourselves” when, for instance, we lapse back into racist or sexist language or response when stressed or “provoked” [as we self-servingly like to put it].
To explain the two references I make in the first parenthetical remark in that passage: Those references pertain to two other, earlier newspaper articles I’d recently read, both addressing, not the United States’ war in Iraq begun in 2003, but the United States’ war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The first of the two articles at issue was the opinion piece entitled “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam” (NY Times, July 20, 2016), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which I discuss in my post before last. The second article pertains to my parenthetical remark in my journal passage above about “concern with PTSD among Vietnam war-crimes perpetrators.” I’d read it a few weeks before Viet Thanh Nguyen’s column appeared. It was a news-article in the same earlier issue of The New York Times, in fact, that contained the column about the Chilcot report.
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To be continued.