The Old Lie

I wrote a version of this nearly eight years ago.

I meant it then, I mean it now.

We cannot casually justify then simply apologize for killing innocents.

I’m writing this for myself. You’re welcome to read it, but don’t feel obligated. It gets long-winded and obscure. Perhaps I’ll return and revise it, but it’s a picture of where I am right now.

Shortly after 9/11, we knew who and where the culprits were: The leaders of al-Quaeda, holed up in Afghanistan with permission of the Taliban. Understandably, the national blood was up; retaliation was inevitable.

Neither “right,” nor, as it turned out, “defensible.” But “inevitable” it was.

What was wrong with the retaliation, as we carried it out? The same thing that was wrong with our invasion of Iraq, the same thing that is wrong with our ongoing operations now in Afghanistan. We are killing innocent people.

There must be some answer to it, this raining down of death on civilians, this “collateral damage” which totals in the millions today, surely in the billions since military forces discovered how to combine airplanes and gunpowder. I’ve tried for years to wrap my head around it, and can show for the effort little more than empty aspirin boxes.

Does religion help? Can it? I long ago gave up on the Catholic Church for dependable, consistent moral guidance, but I did grow up in it, was educated in it through high school, and kept a tenuous connection to it well into my thirties. Willy-nilly, it is deeply embedded in me, just as it is in all of contemporary Western moral philosophy. So it was a reasonable place to begin research on that invisible line between right and wrong, insofar as war is concerned.

Reasonable, but frustrating.

The Vatican has an extensive and easily-accessed website, with what passes in an ecclesiastical setting for straightforward answers to difficult moral questions. There’s quite a list of sections dealing with the Fifth Commandment: You Shall Not Kill. These two seemed most relevant:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”

This last one actually precedes the other; I put it last because it was the most difficult to parse. It means — and I come to this from what follows as much as what went before — that killing someone else in self-defense does not violate the prohibition against murder. It is all right to kill in self-defense.

Of course, there is bickering about that as soon as we get back to that looming terror, “collateral damage.” As much sense as I can make of that comes from an exchange of letters in the New York Review of Books, concerning the death of civilians in Palestine — a very civilized debate between scholars and generals over the use of force — which included this footnote:

According to Michael Walzer, the Double Effect doctrine, derived from Catholic moral theology, holds that when you are attacking a military target (hence a legitimate target), you are not morally blameworthy for collateral damage (the second effect), even if you know with certainty that the attack will cause the damage, so long as you don’t intend the damage and so long as it is not disproportionate to the military value of destroying the target. In Just and Unjust Wars (1977), Walzer proposed a revision of this doctrine, to which the authors refer: that it isn’t enough not to intend the damage, it is morally necessary to intend that the damage not occur, and then to take positive measures, including measures costly to yourself, to avoid or minimize the damage.

If you are interested in hair-splitting over the spilling of innocent blood, that exchange of letters in NYRB, and the articles which precede it, make fascinating if grim reading.

The conclusion I come to is the same one which has been grating on my conscience for at least half a century: War is once in a while inescapable, yet it is always wrong. War, in theological terms, is a sin.

It’s not a startling conclusion, nor is it profound or unique. If you have come this far, grappled this long with my logic and my prose, you deserve a reward. It is this. A couple paragraphs from an essay by Chris Hedges, which reaches the same conclusion with harsher and harder-earned research. His title also is, “War is Sin.” Go read the whole thing.

War exposes the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. It rips open the hypocrisy of our religions and secular institutions. Those who return from war have learned something which is often incomprehensible to those who have stayed home. We are not a virtuous nation. God and fate have not blessed us above others. Victory is not assured. War is neither glorious nor noble. And we carry within us the capacity for evil we ascribe to those we fight.

War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans, calls for sacrifice, honor and heroism and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in the claims of divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just…. It promises to give us an identity as a warrior, a patriot, as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits.

But up close war is a soulless void. War is about barbarity, perversion and pain, an unchecked orgy of death. Human decency and tenderness are crushed. Those who make war work overtime to reduce love to smut, and all human beings become objects, pawns to use or kill…. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip away the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish obsessions that fill our days. It lets us see, although the cost is tremendous.

The title of the post comes from a Wilfred Owen poem, Dulce et Decorum Est.

If it walks like a fascist…

Art, literature, history, politics.

Also, grief and humor, graphic novels, childhood trauma, Art Spiegelman and Si Lewen. You may not know Lewen. Read on. You will, and be better for it. And Philip K. Dick, he’s in there too. All of which incorporates our immediate grotesqueries, but then, what doesn’t?

Here’s a quote from Spiegelman to get you started.

I’m finding more and more that I’m really interested in Sam Beckett. I just keep returning to him as some kind of bedrock—“can’t go on, must go on, will go on.” Godot is called a tragicomedy, and I’ve been thinking about that word a lot, because it doesn’t mean tragedy and then comedy; it’s trying to conflate them into being one word, so that these things are simultaneous. Looked at one way, from an Olympian point of view, it’s hilarious! And from another point of view, it’s an absolute tragedy, with all of the depths of meaning that that has.

I’ve been trying to focus on my own writing, on the rambling poem-like things which suddenly capture my attention and my energy. But what I write there also works, as if magically driven, to the immediacy of our world, our people. Some of those, sooner or later, I’ll put up here as well.

You have been warned.

If you aren’t already pissed off…

Bear with me a moment. This whole spying-disrupting-electing-bugging-dissembling-swaggering-accusing thing makes my head go funny inside. And hurt. Really hurt.

Wading through or trying to walk around in as much of the story as the rational mind can assimilate, I come down at last to one question. Well, to a lot of questions, but one of them seems obvious and I don’t understand when it hasn’t been asked before.


  • The Russians did in some manner attempt to influence the 2016 Presidential election.
  • Several individuals and committees and boards of inquiry have been probing the extent and possible consequences of that Russian interference.
  • Said individuals/committees/boards are in agreement that something happened but they can’t report on what they have found out.
  • They also agree that they have not had access to all presumably extant information.


Somebody or somebodies somewhere are sitting on and apparently refusing to tell what they know. Rather, what they knew and when.


Somebody knew some very important shit way back probably as much as a year, information pertinent to and possibly destructive of our democratic processes.

  • So how come aforementioned somebodies did not speak out back then?
  • Is it not the purpose of gathering national intelligence to apply what is discovered to the advantage of the nation?
  • Why, to cut to the chase, did various security agencies not inform us: the public, the press, the government what was going on?

And right this very minute — 10:42 AM MONDAY — with the sort of timing you find only in the most cheesy of spy novels, comes a bulletin from The New York Times. FBI Director James Comey has “publicly confirmed an investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election and whether associates of the president were in contact with Moscow.



This has nothing to do with whatzizname

Next time you’re upset by something you read or hear in the news, please do be careful and precise in any reactive procedures. It is important, that it to say, that any message you broadcast reaches the audience you intended, and not some other one with which you may have confused it.

Consider the situation of those indignant Turks who decided to vent their anger on the authorities in Holland “in response to a heated diplomatic dispute Turkey was having with the Netherlands.” They called the official numbers they found on-line for the city of Rotterdam. They did not, however, pay sufficient attention to international country codes.

… from G

A journal entry from years ago, which may appear later in SOG’s personal copyrighted patented pseudo-poetry-like format.

Across from me in the coffee shop, a woman in her late twenties, perhaps a couple years older. Stocky but not overweight, heavily plucked eyebrows, startlingly pretty gray-blue eyes.

She wears a mock sailor’s cap, frayed but neat, turned brim down. Beneath the cap her hair is short, straight, and very black. Something about its disarray suggests it once was wavy, and might be again if she let it grow long.

Three small black-haired boys sit with her. She seems abrupt with them but they respond affably to her gruffness, as if to say “I know you’re just kidding, ma.” Apparently they read her right, for she does not raise her voice and does not threaten, even lets herself smile a couple times at the well-contained mess her youngest is making with a cup of hot chocolate and a jelly doughnut.

So clear is the relationship among those four that at first I do not notice a fifth member of the group. He is a thin, nervous man with a blond mustache, a canvas pork-pie hat, a fake leather jacket and a very large watch. It is hard to see the entire man. His parts do not fit together. I look for him and see only a mustache or a hat or a jacket or a watch.

He does not talk to the boys. His conversation consists of complaints and grumbles. “Look what he’s doing with his doughnut.” She responds silently, glancing at the errant child long enough to determine nothing terrible is happening, then resuming a straight-ahead gaze, as if studying her hands.

I expect her fingers to be stubby with nails bitten short. I am wrong. Though rough — from work, I have to believe — her fingers are well-proportioned, her nails neatly trimmed.

She smokes Winston 100s relentlessly, consuming them with no apparent joy, pausing over the small ritual of lighting each one with a lighter lifted carefully from a pocket inside her small dark green purse.

Cigarettes tumble haphazardly from the pack. Her attention as she lights them is always on the lighter. Metal trimmed in wood, silver and walnut, wider and perhaps shorter than is fashionable but with an unmistakable grace. It does not seem new, though it is unscratched. There’s an inscription, most of it covered by her hand as she lights her cigarettes, but I can see that it ends with “…from G.”

The lighter works efficiently, firing quietly on the first try, snapping off then disappearing once more into the folds of her purse.

The boys finish their treat. The woman wipes the youngest one’s face and gets up to leave. Like ducklings, the children line up and march out solemnly behind her.

The man comes last, a great clutter of sounds, cowboy boots clicking on the tile floor, key ring jangling importantly, constant unnecessary shouts for the boys to hurry.

I do not think this fragmentary man in his pork-pie hat is G.

Mid-Hudson Trainscape

Sun now clear of the ridge
glitters on sheets of ice
breaking and reforming
in ponds beside these tracks
A bleak winter trainscape
heading South toward Manhattan

The Hudson some eons past
swerving this way and that
plowed the cluttered slope
marking an efficient path
for a steady downhill ride
Albany to Grand Central Station

But water, more pliant than steel
turns quickly, even more abruptly
drops a foot or two or ten
with enthusiasm and sparkle
and with no apparent ill effects
moves which metal rails reject

I named the trainscape bleak
and it is, as much as can be seen
on the nearby eastern shore
from seats on a rigid metal car
swaying and lurching as it tries
to follow Hudson’s antic trail

Halfway up the hillside, sad houses
painted or faded to mute earth tones
back yards furnished with car parts
old appliances and broken toys
brave doomed gardens invaded
by mulberry willow and hemlock

Everything nearby in light
reflected from brown earth
and hillsides and filtered
through the dirty train windows
is brown, but across the river
intermittent bursts of color

Blue tarpaulins on boats in a marina,
yellow brick church halfway up a hill,
scarlet shingle roof lavished
on a vast Baroque structure
private school, retreat center
or home of a tasteless billionaire

Such sumptuous living is rare
sad houses easy to see on this side
must have peers on both sides
but West, across the river
here and there quite wide
distance is a reducing lens

At this distance you can see only
large white houses on ample lots
furnished with small vague items
pale gray and tan stone buildings
set high on the tops of hills
or promontories, expensive land

weed trees long since excised
leaving behind in casual array
or still more careful disarray
a select few maples and oaks
and a sycamore stately enough
to justify its own survival

Farther south hills to the west
beyond this valley rise in duochrome
Murky green gray near at hand
above a million white caplets
flicking on the river surface
then brown bank winter earth

Beyond brown flat lands
those slowly rising hills
still streaked with snow
erotically swirled, folded
creased and rounded
lie open to the morning sun