Perhaps Laura Bush should have known better. When she invited a group of poets and critics to the White House in February to celebrate American poetry, she counted on a literary crowd acting in a way that would serve literature. As everyone knows, she sharply underestimated the quotient of adolescent self-righteousness in this segment of the population. With the United States poised to rid the world of hideous tyranny in Iraq, it was simply business as usual when Sam Hamill, a poet and publisher, broadcast an email calling on his fellow scribes to boycott the event and organize a series of protests against the impending conflict. It was, as Mr. Hamill explicitly noted, a rerun of the 1960s, a chance to “reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.”

The little pacifist dramas that erupted on college campuses and elsewhere across the country in February did not, despite the crowds they drew, amount to much. We witnessed a lot of self-congratulation, a lot of narcissistic grandstanding, and, where poets were involved, a seemingly endless amount of bad poetry. But the net effect was … nothing. Well, not quite nothing. One distinguished poet we know described the outbursts as “squeals from the nursery.” That is exactly right. The pity is that those squeals monopolized the ink and the airtime, marginalizing the many sensible poets who, whatever their political orientation, are mature enough to know that one does not repay hospitality with bad behavior. We suspect that Mrs. Bush will think twice before extending another invitation to the poetry establishment: who can blame her? She sought to organize a literary event, and a few preening thugs managed to re- inforce the image of poets as irresponsible dreamers.

No sane person can contemplate war without misgiving. But history shows that the pacifist option, far from preventing wars, generally makes them more deadly. In his book Modern Times, the historian Paul Johnson quotes from a candid secret briefing that Josef Goebbels gave in April 1940, only weeks before the Nazis overran France and took Paris with hardly a shot. “Up to now,” Goebbels wrote in this oft-quoted passage,

we have succeeded in leaving the enemy in the dark concerning Germany’s real goals, just as before 1932 our domestic foes never saw where we were going or that our oath of legality was just a trick. We wanted to come to power legally, but we did not want to use power legally. They could have suppressed us. They could have arrested a couple of us in 1925 and that would have been that, the end. No, they let us through the danger zone. That’s exactly how it was in foreign policy, too… . In 1933 a French premier ought to have said (and if I had been the French premier I would have said it): “The new Reich Chancellor is the man who wrote Mein Kampf, which says this and that. This man cannot be tolerated in our vicinity. Either he disappears or we march!” But they didn’t do it. They left us alone and let us slip through the risky zone. … And when we were done, and well armed, better than they, then they started the war!

Hitler could have been easily stopped in 1936 when he remilitarized the Rhineland: the intellectuals of the time wouldn’t hear of it. He could have been easily stopped in 1938 when he gobbled up Austria and then much of Czechoslovakia: Neville Chamberlain spoke for the biens pensants when he returned from Munich waving a piece of paper and declaring he had brought “peace in our time.” Hitler might even have been stopped, though less easily, in 1939 after he invaded Poland, had the French acted decisively. Instead, the world was subjected to six years of horrific war.

Saddam Hussein has frankly acknowledged that Hitler and Stalin are his models, his heroes. Accordingly, no one should be surprised that he has tortured, maimed, and murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people and killed hundreds of thousands more in his predatory wars. Evidence of Hussein’s appetite for acquiring chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons is beyond dispute, while evidence for his links to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups mounts daily. Where are the intellectuals marching to protest those things? As the journalist Barbara Amiel noted in the London Daily Telegraph a few days after the big anti-war protest there,

The most revealing aspect of the anti-war march in London was what you did not see. You did not see any messages to Saddam Hussein or criticism of Iraqi policy… . If this were a genuine anti-war demonstration, why, along with demands on the British and Americans, would there be no demands of the other party to the conflict—Iraq? Commentators on the march were taken by the good order of it. I was taken by the sheer wickedness or naïveté… . All those nice middle-aged people from middle England with their children bundled up against the cold, marching for peace; did they have nothing to say to the party that had ignored 17 UN resolutions? A similar silence existed in all the anti-war marches in Europe. One either has to question the good faith of the marchers—or their brains.
Iraq is still, we must hope, in that “risky zone” that Goebbels spoke about. We can stop Hussein now. Or we can be forced to try to stop him later when he is capable of greater damage. What will it take? Another, perhaps even more devastating, 9/11? The poets and other protesters who pretend that George Bush is somehow more threatening than the tyrant who rules Iraq are the grave diggers not only of countless Iraqis but potentially also of many of their fellow Americans.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 7, on page 1
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