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Your War, Our Dead
April 27, 2004
By Luciana Bohne

It's easy to teach literature these days. Not a day goes by that the White House doesn't illustrate some folly of the abuse of power, an obsessive literary theme for thousands of years. This week we have the denial by the state to let us grieve in public for our war dead. Coincidentally, I am teaching Sophocles's Antigone, written 2,500 years ago during Athens' Golden Age.

Antigone is a play about an insecure ruler, Creon, who decrees that the city of Thebes will give no ritual burial to one of their sons who led an attack against the city in the recently concluded civil war. The fallen warrior's sister, Antigone, defies the decree, performs the rites of burial, and goes serenely to her death. Behind this stark plot outline, there rages a fierce debate over the rights of the state to regulate, control, or suppress the populace's most fundamental emotion: the right to grieve.

In the part of Antigone, we have, today, Tami Silicio, who took a digital photograph of twenty coffins, draped in the US flag, carrying the remains of US soldiers on their last voyage home. They will arrive at Dover Air Force base at night, I have read. They will be received tenderly, I am told, by a staff of hard-working and meticulous attendants. Their families, I hear, may be kept from greeting the plane. We will never say good-bye, watching the burial ceremony on television, catching a picture in the press, hearing the sad bugle on the radio. They will be expected to go gently into that good night, though we waved them boisterously to their deaths for God and country only a year ago. They might as well be traitors for all the honors they get.

Tami Silicio in Kuwait wrote to Amy Katz, a friend in Edmonds, Washington state: "I took the photograph from my heart. I don't care if I have to work for $9 an hour the rest of my life to pay my mortgage... I let the parents know their children weren't thrown around like a piece of cargo, that they were treated with the utmost respect and dignity." Like Antigone, Silicio has a passionate heart, "I will bury him; and if I must die,/I say this crime is holy: I shall lie down/With him in death, and I shall be as dear/To him as he to me./It is the dead,/Not the living, who make the longest demands/We die forever..."

In the part of Creon, you have to imagine George Bush's whole court of hypocrites, spinmasters, and faux patriots, for Bush alone is too low a moral character to fit into the shoes of a tragic character like Creon, whose hubris was fueled by a misguided but authentic love of country and harmonious rule. Creon's defense was a hatred of "anarchy" but George just loves the power to push his weight around - to swagger and smirk, mugging at the camera, clad in military costumes, shouting from the safety of a home-docked battleship or a soft office chair, thousands of miles away from danger, "Bring 'em on!"

Hardly the dignity of the ruler is his, when he jests away the casus belli, "Those WMDs have gotta be here somewhere"! This is more the persona of a monster-sized Roman emperor - the one who fiddled while Rome burned, for instance, Nero of the psychopathic fame. Our soldiers are dying? I'll make a joke of how we fooled them into that sad end!

No, not a tragic hero - this insensitive, immature, and inarticulate oaf. But, like Creon, he has a weakness for boasting, intimidating, and scarifying - the macho posturing of the schoolyard bully. Listen to Creon: "Who is the man here?" Indeed, who is the man in Bush's times if women continue to be legally allowed to control their bodies - or, indeed, like Tami Silicio, allowed to honor the dead in defiance of their being officially "disappeared" by Department of Defense diktat. It is prohibited to wallow in grief; it may hurt his "election" chances. That we may go quietly mad, repressing the anxiety we may not express, is no concern of his. He's got Republican fundraisers to attend - by the hundreds. And not one public funeral thus far. Who are we to try to shame him with our grief? "Who is the man here?"

To be fair, the brattiness and egocentrism of this infantile president, who seems to have barely a passing acquaintance with normal, ordinary emotions - which, when convenient, he nevertheless ruthlessly exploits like any manipulative child - may have been engendered by a singularly tenderness-deprived infancy and childhood. Barbara Bush, in a bout of triumphalist stupidity and cold, cheerful idiocy, declared in a TV interview just before the invasion of Iraq that she would not entertain thoughts or visions of carnage or the like in the event of war. "Why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many. It's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?'' said Barbara Bush in the winter of 2003.

Bush's mother displays the toughnness, the sheer manly pride in Republican motherhood (historically, there is such a concept of motherhood; I'm not hurling an insult). The idea that mothers should breed sons for power and in doing so avoid contaminating them with tender emotions may have been the American version of European Victorianism - that austerity of education that crippled men with the fear of tears and sent them, grim and resolute, to the abattoirs of WWI and the killing fields of their murderous empires.

Now this latter-day Antigone, Tami Silicio, has the effrontery to hold up a picture to the American people of twenty coffins, swaddled like new-born babes in the comfort-blanket of their country's flag. The coffins look like cradles. We want to hear Bush say to these young casualties of his unjustified and illegal war of choice, "Lead me away. I have been rash and foolish./I have killed..." - as Creon, eventually did.

But, if he will not, he may let us say it. Thus cleansed, we may yet turn our thoughts to those other dead - those whom so many officials from Powell to Kimmit have deemed irrelevant or uniteresting - the only true and blameless victims of George Bush's aggression, the Iraqi people. Let us be "bred to stoicism" (as Creon's wife asserts when she demands to know the truth of her husband's criminal pride) and face up to our responsibility. Let us end this criminal war.


You can reach Luciana at lbohne@edinboro.edu

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