Friday, February 12, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day Three

Sand Opera Lenten Journey: Day Three

Thus says the Lord GOD:
Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,
lift up your voice like a trumpet blast…
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed….

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah, one of my favorite prophets, invites us to think of fasting as questing for justice, mercy and love. I've always had a hard time with fasting from food, partly due to health reasons, so I'm drawn to Isaiah's idea that "fasting" can take on other dimensions. Not just self-abnegation, but care for the common self, the common good. To break the bonds of those held captive unjustly, to free the oppressed, to break bread with those without bread, to shelter the homeless, the refugee. How can we break forth our light like the dawn?

(Every few days, I’ll try to offer some a “call to action,” but I welcome your input.)

Today begins the first poem from “abu ghraib arias,” a sequence of poems in Sand Opera that explores the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which it was discovered that U.S. military police had been engaged in abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees, and then documenting it in photographs and film. I won’t link to those pictures, because to do so would be to continue that trauma. What happened there is why I wrote Sand Opera. Words were my way in, into the heart of that moral darkness of the War on Terror.

These poems are a dialogue between Standard Operation Procedure for Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, the soldiers who served in Abu Ghraib, and the Abu Ghraib prisoners. I draw upon a number of sources: a Standard Operating Procedure manual for Camp Echo at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp (thanks to WikiLeaks); the testimony of Abu Ghraib torture victims found in Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth: America and the War on Terror; the words of U.S. soldiers and contractors as found in Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris’s The Ballad of Abu Ghraib; the official reports on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (the Taguba Report, the Schlesinger Report, etc.); interviews with Joe Darby and Eric Fair (two whistle-blowers); the Bible; and the Code of Hammurabi. 

The Blues of Lane McCotter

four Iraqis at the gate
all of them missing
their hands or their

under Saddam their arms
██████ had been
they knew they were

buried on the grounds
they wanted to uncover
those bones for proper

four Iraqis ███████
I could not grant
access on account

███████one could enter 
████start taking pictures

they removed their hands
██████ I watched as night
took the rest of them

“The Blues of Lane McCotter” by Peter Molin

Lane McCotter occupies a strange pride-of-place very near the beginning of Sand Opera.  Barely noted in his time or remembered now, McCotter was the Coalition Provisional Authority official charged with standing up a prison system resourced and administered by Americans after they occupied Iraq in 2003. McCotter’s plans were submitted and he was out of the country before the first prisoners were housed in Abu Ghraib, and by accounts McCotter agitated for professionally or even progressively run penal institutions, to include new facilities and a competently supervised Iraqi staff. But McCotter’s recommendations were vetoed and undercut by higher authorities, decisions that led to the makeshift use of Abu Ghraib, a hated symbol of Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror, as a CPA prison and the ad hoc deployment of poorly trained and motivated National Guardsmen to serve as guards. 

So what blues does Lane McCotter sing? Grief that his good work and name were besmirched by the travesty of events that unfolded in his wake? A lament that he was unable to press hard enough to see his plans and vision implemented? The knowledge of ultimate culpability that comes with having been at one time in charge? The guilt of banal bureaucratic participation in evil? One of Metres’ epigraphs, taken from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, would seem to especially apply here:

“…it took the war to teach it, that you were responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.  The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot never made it in at all, it just stayed there in your eyes….”

“The Blues of Lane McCotter” offers first view of one of Metres’s stylistic signatures in Sand Opera:  the repurposing of passages taken from memoirs and official documents, with blacked-out redactions added by Metres, as poetry to convey the ethical, material, psychological, and social horror of Abu Ghraib events.  The blacked out portions of text compel readers to fill in blanks and make connections as they will, thus drawing readers into the complicated, constricted, and ambiguous smear of implications faced by the Abu Ghraib actors themselves. “The Blues of Lane McCotter” recounts an anecdote related by McCotter in which he remembers denying entrance to a prison under his control to four Iraqis who want to recover severed hands or other body parts suffered during incarceration under Saddam. The speaking voice cannot allow the Iraqis access on security grounds, but the memory, or the image, as Herr has it, of being unable to help lingers. Early on, the anecdote implies, justice and good intentions were fudged, and the new boss remembers himself at the head of a long train of events that would eventually mirror the inhumanity of the old boss. By foregrounding McCotter’s somewhat remote connection to the abuses and humiliations that would follow, Sand Opera asks us to consider the responsibility all Americans bear for Abu Ghraib and to think what we might have done if we were in his place.

--Peter Molin is a retired US Army infantry officer who currently teaches in the Writing Program at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.  He blogs at Time Now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature.

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