Exterminating Fury Combined With Praising The Lord And With Narrow Instrumental Orientation

According to 2010 report – 18 veterans of Gulf War commit suicide every day (540 per month, about 6400 per year), with 950 attempted suicides monthly. Afghan and Iraq wars veterans are more likely to commit suicide by violent means. According to Rand Corporation’s 2008 analysis, 300,000 soldiers returning from the Middle East campaigns will experience PTSD and an additional 320,000 will suffer traumatic brain injuries.

[After “London Review of Books” and “Guardian” both refused, I sent the poem to “The Observer” that] was the most complex and fascinating web that I actually ran into. I sent the poem not to the literary editor, but to the editor himself. A couple of days later, he called me and said that he thought it should be published. He thought it was very testing. Probably going to be quite a lot of flack, he said. But he thought it should be published, not on the literary pages, but on the leader page. It was a truly political poem, he said. So I was delighted to hear that. He’d send me a proof, which he did.
The next Sunday nothing happened. And then the following Sunday nothing happened. So I called the editor. He said, ‘Oh dear, Harold, I’m afraid that I’ve run into one or two problems with your poem.’ I asked what they were. ‘In short, my colleagues don’t want me to publish it.’ Why not? He said, ‘They’re telling me we are going to lose lots of readers.’ I asked, Do you really believe that? Anyway, we had a quite amiable chat. He said, ‘I want to publish it but I seem to be more or less alone.’ I then said, Look, the Observer, as a serious newspaper, has in fact published quite recently an account of what the US tanks actually did in the desert. The tanks had bulldozers, and during the ground attack they were used as sweepers. They buried, as far as we know, an untold number of Iraqis alive. This was reported by your newspaper as a fact and it was a horrific and obscene fact. My poem actually says, ‘They suffocated in their own shit. ’It is obscene, but it is referring to obscene facts.
He said, ‘Absolutely right. Look, I want to publish the poem. But I’m running into all sorts of resistance. The trouble is the language, it’s the obscene language. People get very offended by this and that’s why they think we are going to lose readers.’ I then sent the editor of the Observer a short fax, in which I quoted myself when I was at the US Embassy in Ankara in March I985 with Arthur Miller. I had a chat with the ambassador about torture in Turkish prisons. He told me that I didn’t appreciate the realities of the situation vis-a-vis the Communist threat, the military reality, the diplomatic reality, the strategic reality, and so on.
I said the reality I was referring to was that of electric current on your genitals. Whereupon the ambassador said, ‘Sir, you are a guest in my house,’ and turned away. I left the house.
The point I was making to the editor of the Observer was that the ambassador found great offence in the word genitals. But the reality of the situation, the actual reality of electric current on your genitals, was a matter of no concern to him. It was the use of the word that was offensive, but not the act. I said I was drawing an analogy between that little exchange, and what we were now talking about. This poem uses obscene words to describe obscene acts and obscene attitudes.
But the editor of the Observer wrote to me and said he couldn’t publish, with great regret. ‘I’ve been giving serious thought to publication of your poem on the Gulf War. As you know, my first instinct was in favour, despite warnings by senior colleagues that many readers would be offended … I admit to having cold feet.’

Harold Pinter

What Pinter is clearly doing in American Football is satirising, through language that is deliberately violent, obscene, sexual and celebratory, the military triumphalism that followed the Gulf War and, at the same time, counteracting the stage-managed euphemisms through which it was projected on television. […] Pinter’s poem, by its exaggerated tone of jingoistic, anally obsessed bravado, reminds us of the weasel-words used to describe the war on television and of the fact that the clean, pure conflict which the majority of the American people backed at the time was one that existed only in their imagination. Behind the poem lies a controlled rage: that it was rejected, even by those who sympathised with its sentiments, offers melancholy proof that hypocrisy is not confined to governments and politicians.
Michael Billington, “Life and Work of Harold Pinter”, Faber and Faber, 1996

I suspect the ‘me’ in the final line is Mom since we all know the slang expression, ‘You kiss your momma with that mouth?’ “We’re fighting for mom and apple pie.” That’s what the American GI’s often said when asked what they were fighting for during World War II. Either that or for God and country.
Jim Murdoch, “The Truth About Lies: The Poetry of Harold Pinter”

American Football

(A Reflection upon the Gulf War)

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.

We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
They suffocated in their own shit!

Praise the Lord for all good things.

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

The poem is stylized as a mini-play representing an extremely frustrated American soldier who sometimes in the same breath combines exclamation of religious bliss (“Hallelullah” and/or gratitude to the Lord!), instrumental/technical orientation (“”It works”, “We did it”), and the forceful sadistic posture towards other human beings scapegoated into generic labels of being different from us (“them”, “their”, “they” as the opposite of “We”).

The destructive passion expressed by the soldier, mainly concentrates on the anal and genital objects, angles and functions. Sometimes anal and genital focuses are combined, and sometimes a necrophilic coloration is added to the genital agitation (“We blew their balls into shards of dust”).

What kind of soldiers can feel and talk like this? – Only the overwhelmingly disappointed. We hear in News – how many American soldiers, after a while started to violate the rule of military conduct and were sentenced and punished, and how far some of them went in killing civilians and in torture of prisoners. What kind of disappointment must a soldier experience to express himself as the protagonist of Pinter’s poem does? The answer is rather obvious. To make military service respected by those who are ready to sacrifice their life, you have to give them reasons for fighting in war – the false reasons for war is like a delayed detonation mine in a soldier’s soul. In order to feel that war we involved in, is worthy of human life and death, to perceive it as a noble and dignified occupation, the servicemen have to know and to believe that they are defending their country against enemies who want to destroy and enslave the sacred land of our ancestors. Bush Jr. administration’s reasons for invading Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t find confirmation in facts, and this took from American soldiers the meaning of their heroic decision to invade other parts of the world – the absence of WMDs in Iraq was a fatal blow to the very soul of the young Americans who enlisted to serve in the Middle East. This, it seems, is the ultimate reason for such shockingly inflated numbers of suicide among the vets who returned back from the Gulf War. And this is the fundamental reason for the psychological and sometimes ethical degradation in those who serve and served in the Gulf War.

That’s why the protagonist of Pinter’s poem talks the way he does – he doesn’t respect what he has to do, and primitive psychological defenses against the fact that you have to kill somebody without noble reason – primordial bravado, purely emotional hatred and nationalistic contempt for the Iraqis and Afghanis based on belief that “we are greater and smarter” and “they are weak and stupid” is the only “meaning” our soldiers are left with.

Fight with enemies becomes anal and genital fury (defiling the people of the opposite side by ascribing to them anal and genital identities – “blowing the shit out of them” became our soldier’ perception of bodies of the people of another nation including women and children’s; “blowing shit out of their fucking ears” becomes our soldiers’ perception of civilians of other nation as deserving to be exterminated. “We blew their balls into shards of dust, into shards of fucking dust” – is the genocidal culmination of the protagonist’ blindly belligerent determination. “To blow balls into shards of dust” is not already human speech and it’s not human intuition and intentionality that is talking, but a monstrous robotism determined to kill without human reasons and activated by software with genocidal pre-determination against genetic information of human species. When human reproduction is not perceived as a sacred gift from Creation, but instead as “dust that is fucking”, human species is in real, if not ultimate trouble. Of course, speech does not always express what the person really means, but Pinter reminds us that where the area of reasons for war becomes more and more “rarefied” in comparison with a more and more perfect technology of killing, the distance between regressive violent words and murderous actions becomes as short as the space between a finger and the button.

The most troubling aspect of Pinter’s poem is exactly how natural and ritualistically easy the poem’s protagonist’s verbal expressiveness matches with the most extremist actions where anti-social behavior becomes a matter of debased physiology. Usually people try to ignore the seriousness of sadistically pornographic verbalizations – they cowardly hide in the caves of connotations (in the darkness of abstractions). “They suffocated in their own shit” – means to be suffocated in their own bodylines, in their own bodily being. That’s how easily the archaic – religious: super-human sensibility is combined with super-modern – technological disrespect for the bodily incarnation of human soul. “We blew the shit out of them” means “we liberated them from their bodies” – we blow their bodies out of their bodies: we disincarnate them – we make them “spiritual” and by this we make them more “noble”, more “sublime” (cleaned of their bodies). This is the shameful “metaphysical” echo of genocidal rage.

It’s very important that Pinter emphasizes how traditional religious frame of reference naturally combines with destruction of life by technological means. From “Hallelullah!” and “Praise the Lord” the transition to “blowing shit up their ass” or “to blow balls into shards of fucking dust” is not already “natural” but it’s, somehow, “organic” and as such a proof that these soldiers have lost human souls to psychotic yearning for power and wealth of the creators of Gulf War, who stole from the soldiers their conscience, their hope and meaning of life without which we cannot live and many of us suffer from deprivation to the degree of committing suicide. In a sense, the character of the poem who wants reward for his war deeds in the form of a kiss from his wife or beloved is already suicidal – he is going too far in his cynical bravado, he will be broken by god in his transgression of universal existential norms of human life and decency. For these abused and traumatized people their murderous talk (Pinter showed us,) and, sometimes, their criminal actions, is the only (and the illusory) way out of the meaninglessness of their participation in meaningless wars which has nothing to do with defending of their country and its interests.

George Bellows, “Football”, Crayon ink drawing
George Bellows, “Football”, Crayon ink drawing