Saturday, October 5, 2013

What We Owe Each Other: A Review of They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)

What We Owe Each Other: A Review of They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013) 

Flipping channels the other day, I was thinking again about the strangely narrow window of representations offered by television.  We are awash in reality stars, sundry undead, goofy ensembles of the bourgeoisie, drug-addled gangsters, pathological murderers, and quirky detectives.  Not only on TV, but in all the popular and literary arts, it is almost unheard-of to see a thoughtful, rounded representation of a self-described progressive political activist, someone who devotes their labor to societal change.  Even rarer is the sight of someone working to oppose war.

One can go back, of course, to The Iliad’s hump-backed Thersites—whose complaint against Agamemnon’s war brings derision and a swift beating—to note a long history of depicting anti-war voices as unwell, ugly, and deranged.  A contemporary analogue was sent to me by a Facebook friend when I asked for nuanced depictions of anti-war protesters: Rob Riggle’s Daily Show send-up of hippies and Code Pink in “Marines in Berkeley.”

Modern literature and film has brought us its share of anti-heroes and the occasional activist, but few anti-war activists or peace workers.  In literature, a few key non-fictional works have explored the inner and outer lives of the anti-war movement.  Among the most remarkable, William Stafford’s Down in My Heart (1947), Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night (1967), Daniel Berrigan’s Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1970) stand out as thoughtful depictions of the lives and psychologies of people drawn to resist war.  There have been some intriguing novels as well, including John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind (2006), Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006), and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (2006), but they are rather exceptional.  

By focusing entirely on the voices of these activists—something I’ve seen nowhere else—Hilary Plum’s They Dragged Them Through The Streets (FC2, 2013) is a revelation.  Avoiding both caricature and heroizing, Plum creates an intimate and ruminative portrait of five friends whose activism against the Iraq War, spurred by the suicide of one of the friends’ brother, turns to acts of violent sabotage.

The book begins with a news report of the death of activist Zechariah Berkman from a bomb blast in his basement.  The aptly-named Berkman (echoing the well-known anarchist Alexander Berkman) remains the silence around which the story turns.  Has he died by accident, or was his death a suicide?

Through first person narration, the four surviving characters—A, Ford, Sara, and Vivienne—look back on what drew them together, how they came to take their actions to a level of violence, and what tore them apart.  In deft fragments laid out in a non-linear pattern, each character recounts their early passions, their isolation, their growing disillusionment, and their eventual breakup.  The novel is a postmortem in multiple senses: it occurs after the death of Z, after the breakup of the group, and amid the wider losses of the war.

The young activists, in their occupations and preoccupations, demonstrate a surprising range of gifts, sensibilities, and worldviews.  A has aspirations to journalism, Ford is a scientist, Sara is a nurse, Vivienne is a writer, and Zechariah is a political junkie.  Plum captures the sense of meta-excitement of being involved in a cause, as if they were characters caught up in a larger drama:

our sense of ourselves as protagonists: Ford stretched out on the couch, announcing his every idea; Vivienne in a chair in the corner, her quick replies; Sara arguing on the floor where she sat like a martyr she insisted on being—no, that was unkind; she stroked the dog’s head and he loved her. And Zechariah on the wooden chair pulled close to Vivienne, when he was not on the phone pacing the kitchen, his crisp speech floating out to us. (3-4)

Even A’s revision enacts that sense of complexity of character—that Sara may have occasionally had a martyr complex (as do some activists), but she was also loving.

Such diversity of character and talent reminds me of activists with whom I’ve worked, in Bloomington, Indiana, and Cleveland, Ohio, people who came together to oppose imperial interventions.  I think of Maria Smith, a lawyer, whose work in Nicaragua with Witness for Peace crystallized her lifelong commitment to nonviolence.  And Penny Allen, a health care provider, whom I saw birding one Saturday morning.  And Kadhim Shaaban, an Iraqi-American businessman who could not bear to see his people suffer under economic sanctions and spearheaded efforts to send medical aid to Iraq.  And Kathryn Bryan, who went to live in Rafah refugee camp in Gaza.  And Art Dorland, a veteran, who left a flyer under my windshield when we parked our well-stickered Honda at the Cleveland Metroparks. 

Since 2001, I’ve worked on an oral narrative project called “Stories of War and Peace,” and got to meet people from all walks of life who opposed the Iraq War.  They are people who have lost family members to the violence of war; who have witnessed firsthand the costs of war; who have religious or moral convictions about the wrongness of killing; who have political disagreements with particular conflicts; yet they all have seen themselves as agents of change, as small characters in a large and often dismayingly distant drama.

It is this last point—that these activists have labored distant from the scene of battle, and feel acutely their alienation and guilt both from the chauvinism that fuels conflict and the conflict itself—that Plum captures well.  It is the state of living at the center of empire, largely immune to its violence but complicit in it.  In Ford’s words,

I was never in that country, never saw the faces and can’t pronounce the names.  I didn’t stand with the doctors, staunching, stitching.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.  But every day the war went on and so did I.  We were secured, allied in our survival.  I was there to tally each day’s deaths.  I was hungry for the newspaper.  Every day the war resisted me, didn’t include me.  You will live on, it said, turning pictures toward me.  Limbs in ice, a foot protruding, absurd.  Soldiers’ faces turned skyward.  You will be fine.  (63).

That maddening security, “allied in our survival,” with a war that seems both real and utterly unreal, leads this group to try to breach the very real distance between there and here.

This real unreality draws the characters together, to make visible the invisible war, by choosing targets to destroy.  But they fight over every possible target, measuring the relative value and cost that each target might offer.  Here, the activists seem lost, groping for symbols, as locked in their abstractions as the war-makers themselves.  This is a similar situation that birthed The Weather Underground, in the wake of the post-1968 violence and the failures of the nonviolent anti-war movement. 

One of the characters even suggests blowing up a hospital, though the idea is shouted down by others in the group.  In fact, they agree on very little, except the impossibility of living without making some kind of concrete action.  But there always seems to be a reason not to bomb.  What makes them activists—their ability to imagine, to witness even from afar, the physical and psychic damage of violence—is precisely what makes it hard for them to bomb anything. 

Some of the most powerful writing in They Dragged Them Through the Streets occurs around the characters’ apperception of the vulnerable human body, wrenched by war.  If we could nurture a citizenry for whom the bodies and minds of others are nearly as precious as their own, we would have another world. In the words of Sara,

So I’m here. All wars come to the shelter in time. The skin smoothes over the nub of an amputation.

My parents think this is noble work, but they don’t want to hear about it. If they ask questions I sanitize my answers. There’s no way to say how beneath my hands I can always feel the hair on the back where I press the stethoscope, the blood that browns around sutures.    
What I want to end with is not violence, but something else.  As Muriel Rukeyser wrote, in The Life of Poetry, the poetry of 1930s social protest failed because of the “blood-savagery in it, ranging all the way from self-pity—naked or identified with one victim after another—to actual blood-lust and display of wounds…[it was] begging for attention and sympathy in the name of art that was supposed to produce action” (211).  Sometimes anti-war activists have relied too much on shocking imagery of destruction, rather than offering an alternate way of seeing and being.  Or, as A says—after watching a journalist’s carnage-filled presentation on the war, intended to disgust people into opposition—we owe the victims more than a repetition of their death or victimization:

I am no different from anyone, I said, after a pause.  I was thinking of that journalist: I threw up outside after, he’d said, standing before the slideshow, on the screen one body’s imperfectly closed eyes, lids too swollen.  He thought we would sympathize.  But you were one of the last people to see them, I thought.  Didn’t you owe them more, than to let disgust be your last gesture, the last thing they were offered?  To sit and watch them, watch the flesh bruise and dampen on the stone, that had been blossoming becoming decay, no one coming through that place to tidy, and why should they be tidy?—that’s not what we owe each other.  (120-121)
What we owe each other is the question of the book, and indeed, the question of all ethical relation—and in a more intensified way in a globalized world.  The answer will not be easy.

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