Dearest Rachel –
I don’t think you performed this before I was aware of you; at least, not when you performed it for the BASIC group as part of a talent night. If I recall, you had also recited this as part of a similar talent night on the educational cruise you took with your parents aboard the S.S. Universe (of course, I wasn’t on that cruise with you). At the time, you mentioned you’d seen it done by Jack Lemmon on some television variety show.
Well, I’ve barely started in on your collection of videotapes; I don’t know if I’m likely to find his recitation. When I do a search for it, I can’t seem to find his performance on YouTube or Google. I can, however, find a version by one of your favorite singers, John Denver. Perhaps it’s just a matter of your having misremembered (in which case, I’m grateful for not being the only one to do that sort of thing):
I wish I had a recording of your interpretation of the poem; you always did such a marvelous job of reciting it, too. Soulful and mournful, all but weeping for the children (although you held in your tears for the sake of the recitation), with a tone of infinitely weary sadness.
It may well be that we have either an audio or video recording, and I simply haven’t gotten to it. Jan and I came across a tin in which you had intended to send to a friend of yours (I believe their name was Blaine – unfortunately, we didn’t know the person, and the tin was empty, so we couldn’t forward anything on to them – assuming they were still alive by now, even) a copy of your performance. Maybe someday I’ll find it, maybe it no longer exists, maybe it never actually existed. I’ll have to settle for this as a substitute for now.
In writing about this, I’ve looked up the name of the author, one Lascelles Abercrombie. No, I’d never heard of him before, either. Apparently, he was friends with the likes of both Robert Frost and J.R.R. Tolkien, among others. I’m gong to say that “The Box” was probably affected by his experiences living through the Great War, and the emotions it evokes are clearly colored by it.
One noteworthy thing to consider, though, is that he passed away (from diabetes, at the relatively young age of 57 – although I haven’t, and you never will, outlive him, it’s still surprisingly young) in 1938, on the eve of the sequel to the Great War – you know, the one that renamed it retroactively to World War 1.
I bring that up to point out that the “all wars are bad” mentality, while understandable and justified, is not always so. Sometimes, wars must be fought, and WW2 proved to be one of those cases. Not for nothing was it referred to as “The Good War” in some quarters. There has rarely been such a clearly black-and-white, “good vs. evil” war as that one. Even to this day, when one wishes to denigrate someone as pure evil, they are measured against the Nazis as a form of comparison.
Of course, there’s also the flip side of that process in the form of Godwin’s Law, wherein by doing so, you lose the argument, but that’s mostly because the Nazis were so cartoonishly evil in many ways, that most modern comparisons to them are flippant to the point of ridiculousness. We have no idea how horrible these people were, not having lived through their brutality and hatred (then again, ‘living through’ it was enough of a challenge if you were on their list of undesirables).
Denver’s rendition was recorded in the early seventies, while the Vietnam War was tailing off and it was becoming clear that that conflict, always ethically and morally questionable (was the Domino Theory about the potential spread of Communism really accurate, and even if it was, was it worth betraying a group of nations who had fought the Japanese side by side with us for their own freedom to choose their own governance, only for us to come in an attempt to give them back to the French as colonial rulers? Sure, the French would probably be better governors than the Chinese, but given the bloodshed over that, shouldn’t we have left this to the Indochinese nations themselves? We made such a bad name for ourselves that these people ran toward Communism rather than slowly sliding into it, and the costs were horrific – you could ask your friend Jokun), was clearly becoming unwinnable, despite the fact that the Vietcong was suffering far greater losses than we were. They simply wanted this more than we wanted to stay and Westernize them. And we had long since wondered if we weren’t the bad guys in this situation. Although there was also the fact that the folks who were protesting simply didn’t want to be required to go and fight, the fact that they didn’t want to fight a war they didn’t believe in didn’t necessarily make them cowards. It was all much more nuanced a conflict than the WW2 their parents fought, and if we are to fight, we should want to know we are on the side of the angels before we do so.
But we don’t get many such black-and-white options these days.
That era saw a lot of “no more war” protest songs and poems, and one that has always stuck with me is this one, written by Ed McCurdy in 1950 – placing it even before the Korean War, let alone Vietnam.
It’s a beautiful song, with a lovely melody, and well-intentioned lyrics, to be sure. But for all that, I find myself shaking my head at its naïvety sometimes. The song subverts itself with its description of what all the signatories of this universal peace treaty do upon ratifying it: “they all joined hands, and bowed their heads… and grateful prayers were prayed.”
At the risk of seeming poisonously cynical, that would, in and of itself, most likely end the treaty before the ink had dried. One diplomat would pray to Allah, another to Yahweh (and probably another to Jehovah, which would be a ridiculous argument of its own, God help us), and there would be a brawl right there and then in that ‘mighty room’ that would spill out into the street, the city, the country… and the next thing you know, all that material that lay ‘scattered on the ground’ would be promptly picked up and put to its intended use once again. Far too many of the world’s worst wars, from the Thirty Years’ War, to the Crusades, to the conquests of the Umayyad Califate, have been done in the name of religion. Marx and Lennon (John, not Vladimir) had some points in suggesting that without any religion, there would be so much less fighting throughout history.
Of course, with ‘nothing to kill or die for,’ there is also nothing to live for, either.
Listen, I’m not speaking in praise of war by any stretch of the imagination. I’m watching even now as the Pax Americana we thought we were building crumbles across the world, and vast regions determine that no, they don’t want what the West has (of course, considering that we in the West tend to air our dirty linen in public in a way that many societies don’t, we probably don’t do ourselves any favors towards making ourselves look at all appealing, and the whole “we’re inherently evil and racist” attitude of the last couple years doesn’t help). What they do want is a mystery to me, as it seems they want God – or rather, Allah – on their side. But we Americans tend to think that WE have God on our side (although Bob Dylan says so here with no small amount of sarcasm):
To be sure, the question is not “is God on our side,” a question that has been posed since the days of Joshua as he prepared to go to battle against the city of Jericho (and we all know how that turned out), but rather, are we on His?
And until we can confidently say “yes” to that (although all too often, we as humans still do, with terribly misplaced confidence), that box, and the pointy ball within it, will continue to wreck its will throughout time and space on this tiny little mud clod.
Bet you’re glad to be free of the place, eh?