Harold Pinter’s War

Shock and Awe II

“I Accept full responsibility, without exception, without excuse… ” Tony Blair (regarding the Chilcot Inquiry).

Neither Mr. Blair nor Mr. Bush can  apologize for the mayhem and death of the modern  Levant dropping through the neocon-rabbit hole of a supposed rapid dominance that neither shocked,  awed or dominated . The pair is joined at the hip as malevolent Tweedle Dees and Tweedle Dums of an abject moral failure. Afghanistan and Iraq are our longest running theaters of war.

Redemption is only possible if the unforgiveable concludes–if the descent descends no more–if the full measure of the debacle is accessed and bitterly acknowledged.

Harold Pinter’s War was a response to the inaugural Iraqi Wars of the  21st century:


Harold Pinter’s War

M.C. Gardner

It is the dead of night.

The long dead look out towards

The new dead

Walking towards them

There is a soft heartbeat

As the dead embrace

Those who are long dead

Walking towards them

They cry and they kiss

As they meet again

For the first and last time

August 2002

Harold Pinter’s Meeting opens a slim volume comprising twelve of his poems.  The collection is called War. With the exception of one piece, the poems were published in a variety of periodicals, chronologically from August 2002 to March 2003. They are produced, along with a speech given at the University of Turin , by the publishing house of Faber and Faber.

War is a scream in the night that echoes down corridors of silence. Pinter rages with the futility of a latter day prophet who knows that God is not only dead, but more frightfully, that he is an American who is deaf, as well:

And all the dead air is alive

With the smell of  America ‘s God.

Several of the poems are obscene, as befits their subject:

The big pricks are out

They’ll fuck everything in sight.


Perhaps only Bertrand Russell, an English pacifist from early in the 20th century, has fulminated as furiously as the English Pinter does here, early in the 21st.

“… the U.S. administration is a bloodthirsty wild animal.”

One feels in the next breath that Pinter might apologize to bloodthirsty wild animals for making the unseemly comparison.

In the Meeting, half of the poem’s twelve lines contain the word “dead.” There are the long dead and the new dead. The “long dead” is history.  We are the “new dead” or, in the least, shall shortly be. Pinter’s anger is directed at a world that has no patience for that inevitability.

His recent brush with mortality has eroded his patience further. He won’t let the horror of 9/11 excuse a doctrine that exploits that tragedy to further its own ends. From his speech at the University of Turin :

“The hypocrisy behind its public declarations and its own actions is almost a joke. America believes that the 3,000 deaths in New York are the only deaths that count, the only deaths that matter. They are American deaths. Other deaths are unreal, abstract, of no consequence… The atrocity in New York was predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of America over many years, in all parts of the world. “

Camus famously said, “At any street corner the feeling of the absurd can strike any man in the face.” Pinter asserts such feeling is not restricted to America ‘s latest belligerence or the 9/11 disasters, which preceded it.  T.S. Eliot would agree:

Falling towers,

Jerusalem , Athens , Alexandria ,

Vienna , London


Playwright, Donald Freed extends the poet’s list:

“From his earliest writings until his latest plays and poetry, the theme — explicit or implied, verbal or suggested in silences — has never swerved: human beings are so utterly vulnerable, so contingent on powers without pity, so scandalously naked to the techno-chemical fury of the Twentieth Century, that those who have a voice and a language must use it to create the record — by word in combination with unspeakable silence — of Buchenwald, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Chile, and Nicaragua.”

The record of word, and the substance of silence is profoundly at work in his plays and so also here. Of silence Pinter once wrote:

“There are two silences — one when no word is spoken.  The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed.  This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it.  That is its continual reference.  The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear… When true silence falls we are still left with the echo but are near nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”

Out of his anger flows a torrent of jeremiads.  America is the new Babylon . Invasions are word games disguised by the appellations Freedom and Shield.

From the end of American Football:

We blew them into fucking shit.

They are eating it.

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew their balls into shards of dust.

Into shards of fucking dust.

We did it.

Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.

Harold Pinter

August 1991

The reader will note that the date of the poem corresponds with the end of the first Gulf War. It could just as easily be read to signify the end of the second. In either  it is clear the wining is a dubious endeavor. As William Faulkner observed,      “… victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

The war goes on whether under the oppression of a dictator or under the pale of the American occupation. In either instance Americans and Iraqis die during the passage of each succeeding week. If a bomb blows off your arms it matters little to which side the ordinance belonged. The liberators are now subject to the same depleted uranium they used in their own weaponry. The weapons of mass destruction are our own. How many of the thousands of remaining troops will add their names to the thousands whose blood we left pooling in the desert?

There is a poignant loneliness to death in Pinter’s poems. Faulkner was right “…Christ was not crucified, he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels.” George Bernard Shaw was right. Death is not cumulative. There is only one death and it is our own.

The final poem of the collection is the only one not dated. In it he shows us our future — a bureaucratic voice makes formal inquiries of a deceased’s remains. From the first and last stanzas of Death —

Where was the dead body found?

Who found the dead body?

Was the dead body dead when found?

How was the dead body found?

Did you wash the dead body?

Did you close both its eyes?

Did you bury the body?

Did you leave it abandoned?

Did you kiss the dead body?

The final silence of “Did you kiss the dead body?” is the heartbreaking obverse of the angered irony of the earlier “kiss,” quoted above. When we remember that the first poem of the collection, Meeting, closes with, “They cry and they kiss / As they meet again / For the first and last time,” we hear the faint echo of Rilke. We remember Elegies that sought language where languages end. We sense that Pinter’s rage is book-ended by his humanity.

Those who do not condemn the atrocities wrought in their name are condemned in turn. Pinter’s outrage was the most humane voice to arise from the Iraqi Wars.  These poems are an unsettling commentary on the American and British enterprise.  Jeremiah knew that Babylon was at the gate. He knew Jerusalem would fall and his people would call him traitor. Victory, defeat, and a prophet’s silence — Pinter wrote Weather Forecast as the first bombs fell:

 Weather Forecast

The day will get off to a cloudy start

It will be quite chilly

But as the day progresses

The sun will come out.

And the Afternoon will be dry and warm.

In the evening the moon will shine

And be quite bright.

There will be, it has to be said,

A brisk wind

But it will die out by midnight .

Nothing further will happen.

This is the last forecast.


Harold Pinter

19th March 2003