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Bombs Away

I was in a motel room in New Jersey when the bombs began to fall. Outside all I heard was the moan of fast-moving traffic burning gasoline and diesel on a nearby highway. The only lights in the sky were from commercial airplanes landing and taking off at nearby airports through high clouds. I turned on the TV, which lit up to bomb bursts over Baghdad and frontline news reports. Some of the news coverage made it sound like the latest TV “reality show” was making its debut—Bombs Over Baghdad.

I was in New Jersey to teach seventh- and eighth-graders in the Paterson city schools about poetry. I’ve been doing this for seven years as part of the poetry performance trio 3 Guys From Albany. Charlie Rossiter, Dan Wilcox and I usually set aside two days each year to work in the Paterson schools, getting the kids excited about the art form. Our school visit this year had been scheduled to include the last day of winter and the first day of spring. With bombs flying on the night before entering the schools, I wondered how the kids in class the next day would be reacting to world events. What would we hear in their words?

I watched the war news for about an hour that night as I settled into the well-worn motel room and its stale decor. As I watched, I noticed that some of the networks had invested in fancy new sets and animated graphics for the occasion. An army of retired generals popped up on the screen as instant consultants, experts in the technology of mass killing. I wondered if they had sold advertising spots to military contractors or planned a future TV movie. Some of the imagery seemed destined to show up in future video games. War had become entertainment.

It sounded like all the information the TV news outlets were relaying to the public was what the military gave to them. There were live reports from correspondents dressed like combatants who were “embedded” in various military groups. Embedded means “to cause to become an integral part of a surrounding whole,” according to my dictionary. What I heard sure sounded like these embedded correspondents were an integral part of the cadre of public-relations specialists spin-doctoring for George W. and his war. They made it sound like the war might be over by breakfast.

One point I kept hearing repeated by the media’s talking heads on Wednesday night was that the time for disagreement about policy toward Iraq was over, and that everyone should now line up behind George W. and his war. The sense that dissent is unpatriotic seemed to be implied. I didn’t understand this logic. Why would I get behind this attack when I didn’t agree with its necessity? Because Dubya dropped some bombs? I clicked the TV off, turned off the light and settled toward sleep, wondering what acts of war would take place before I awoke.

The next morning I did my regular yoga routine on a folded-up bed cover on the floor. As I went through a sequence of postures, thoughts about the war and the classes that I’d be facing kept popping into my head. As I stretched and relaxed muscles, I wondered what the kids were learning about the previous night’s events. When I was their age the Vietnam War was heating up.

Our poetry classes for the first day were in the library of a school named in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. As we approached the school, I thought about how its namesake would be an articulate voice for peace if he were alive today. The second day of poetry took place in a school with a noticeable number of Muslim youth from the Middle East and western Asia. They made me think of the children and youth currently threatened with becoming “collateral damage” in Iraq.

While we did not bring up the subject of the war directly in the classes, we did mention a number of related issues: freedom of speech, discrimination, global warming and the use of poetry to deal with difficult times. When students asked about the sneakers I was wearing (hand-painted with bright fluorescent colors) I noted that they had the word “peace” written on them and were my “peace shoes.” The kids seemed to like that.

We had the students write short bits of poetry about how they knew spring was coming to their neighborhood. We stayed upbeat. Interestingly, none of the students mentioned the war in their writings, and life in the schools seemed to go on as usual. I found this apparent normalcy strangely disturbing.

Following two days of grade-school classes, we had a Saturday afternoon poetry show scheduled at the Bowery Poetry Café in lower Manhattan. We headed out for the café early in the morning. At the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, we saw the first sign of the security measures to protect New York City: two cops shouldering huge automatic weapons out in the middle of traffic. Automatic weapons have never made me feel very secure.

After checking out the café, Charlie, Dan and I hiked up Broadway until we met around 200,000 people marching toward us in the street. It was a march for peace, but unlike the march on Feb. 15, this one was granted a city permit. It was also about 65 degrees outside this time around, with sunny skies. People shed bulky, dull winter coats and displayed a dazzling array of color and cultural diversity accompanied by clusters of drums, cymbals, signs and chants on the wide and carless avenue.

At first, we just watched the display from curbside. Then, we simply stepped into the massive human flow to become willingly “embedded” in the peace march. We became part of a dramatic exclamation of free speech that made it clear that not everyone in this country thinks war is the answer.

—Tom Nattell

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