Breyten Breytenbach was declared a "terrorist" and imprisoned in South Africa for his anti-apartheid activities. His "letter" was written at the beginning of the war but has not been previously widely published in the U.S. —Ed.
LETTER TO MY AMERICAN FRIEND: Dakar, 8 March 2003
Joe, please receive these random thoughts at countdown time. It is the eighth of March. In a few days, it now seems certain and ineluctable, thousands of people will die stupidly and violently. Nothing new. The human species is dumb though sly and violent though tender. But this time round the killing spree has been more cynically prepared and more nakedly for greed and power lust, the ritual celebration of distant death brought about by sophisticated weapon systems more rigorously foretold, the lies in the teeth less elaborate - maybe because the principal actors are more mundane and their tongues more wooden. Now grown primates with marking on their faces will make real the boys' games of snuffing out life in a bloody sandpit. The banality of evil, of killing “to save lives.” I write these lines at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris while waiting for my flight to Dakar. The terminals are unusually and eerily quiet. The embarkation too will be quite different from the normal jostling rush to get on board; only a passel of ‘undesirables' will nonchalantly keep up their bedraggled appearance as they are escorted on to the plane for the trip back to square one. Many seats will be empty. It is as if people are waiting, resigned or fearful or stunned, for this thing of man-made horror to be unleashed finally. Enough waiting already! It's been a balmy, sunny day in old Europe, as if tinged by a premature spring in the air. With heart in throat and a stone in the stomach one remembers that only yesterday, and still today, life was ‘normal': children going to school, young people kicking a ball around a vacant lot, lovers exchanging sweet messages on their cellular telephones, madames walking their poodles and madams their dogs... It is good to be alive, isn't it? So why die? Why inflict death? On board I watch the news: a young GI with painted cheeks talks about the “adventure” of going abroad for the first time (maybe the last also); a white-clad human bomb in Baghdad says he has no fear of dying a “martyr.” Don't they know that the only experience worth having - the only one we know - is life? These adolescent wolves are weirdly innocent. The real killers, the ideologues and the fanatics, maybe too corrupt and twisted to still experience the shiver of ejaculation, are elsewhere in their war rooms with the maps of ‘scientific' knowledge and control on the walls. How puny the targets seem. How abstract and dream-like. Should one be surprised, distraught perhaps, by this surge of macho bestiality? Is it unusual that again even some intellectuals will exult in the bloody tough-mindedness of being ‘realistic', showing their ‘naturalness' by dirtying their hearts, giving proof of the high they too may experience at not being lily-livered ivory tower dwellers? I don't want to think about it. I don't want to pretend to some geo-political understanding of the murderous folly. For now, in this lull between destinations, I want to be maudlin and remember our shared humanity. We're going to be subjected to strong emotions and much brutalization, exposed to the lures of desperate simplifications. I hope we won't be driven apart and that, come shock and awe and hell or high water, we will continue to honor our joint memories of dreaming about the possible dignity of human existence. Yet, we have to think some things through. How do we get out of the box of defending, even if only by default, the actions and the attitudes of despicable dictators who will now be presented as sacrificial sheep? When you have crazed war mongers running your government in Washington, what feasible resilience can democracy still have? How can we - you and us - effectively help oppose and undo the imposition of American imperial world power? Must we go underground then, revert to clandestine resistance, to the rotting romanticism of whispered codes and invisible ink? Surely, only you from within the belly of the ravenous beast can effectively weaken the monster. How do we live with the shame? How do we realize the victory for humanity that will be putting Saddam and his generals together with Bush and his acolytes in the international dock, accused of crimes against humanity? And how can we help conceive of a beyond, of an international arrangement of a new kind (please, let's not think of it as a New World Order)? How do we stop committing suicide? How do we foster some respect for life, maybe even for decency? It is dark outside now. We too are flying over an ancient map: first over Lorca's chanted Cordoba of the dark horses; then Casablanca where Bogey lisped; Meknes, Safi, Essaouira where descendants of black slaves dance their mystical raptures; Ouarzazate off to the left; Agadir; Nouakchott; dark moon and dark desert, and soon we'll descend toward Dakar Yoff. I'm told that the Harmattan has been breathing its gray breath of late over leaf and windowsill. Most of my fellow Africans in the half-empty aircraft are dozing. I watched them peruse the papers. What are they thinking? Perhaps this coming war will be experienced in Africa with wry relief that others, more sophisticated barbarians elsewhere, are also stupidly dying in large numbers. But of course, for all of us it will be another defeat in the struggle for democracy, a further invalidation of the modernist project. Forgive me my naive mumbling. It may come across as the murmuring of some gladiator saluting his brothers as he slopes off to die. And of course it is not that. You won't catch me on any front. Like you, I hope, I too will be sitting on the outskirts watching from the bleachers and puking in my paper bag. Nevertheless, this is our war. I (and I'm sure many of you too) go into this with despair, with disgust, with death in the soul. Those who dreamed, planned, plotted, and will now be ordering the mass dying are people like us. Yes, even Rumsfeld and Cheney and Saddam Hussein - so very similar in their delirium of destruction - are ordinary humans. And those who will die are people like us, they're our people, except that most of them are innocent. They will die in terror. They will also die for nothing. Indeed, man is a wolf to man. And a mad dog. It could well be, as Norman Mailer intimates, that one war camouflages another, that putting America in an orange alert state of continuous war and occupation (already the bases are mushrooming all over the world, including Africa, and soon proconsuls will be named), retching and ratcheting up the prostitute notion of patriotism, will permit the moral rearmament forces of darkness to sweep clean the home stage of all your raucous minorities, your uncouth thinkers and your uncloseted deviants. There again, we must start thinking of afterward. What comes after Bush and his gauleiters who, surely, must be as unrepresentative of the majority of ordinary decent folk in America as Saddam Hussein and his mustached clones are of the 100% who ‘voted' for him? How will we come out of the war? Probably humbled and confused. But that's still a long way off because all signs are that this war (which has started) is intended to be total and without end. I have no truck with the god of the Arabs or the Jews or the Christians - that fount head of cruelty. A pox on all their monotheist houses! But I nearly wish I did accept such an Existence so that I might pray: “Please God, be kind to the Palestinians in this tempest of their scattering. Save them from annihilation. And stop the Israelis from losing their souls.” Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said: “I don't know what the soul is, / but whatever it is, I know it can humble itself.” I thought I'd reach out before death comes raining down. I cannot wish you a good war, but I do hope you succeed in passer entre les gouttes, in avoiding the drops. May the ink of anger and sorrow overcome the blood of the innocents. Let's stay in contact. Let's survive.
(mirror note 2, November 2004) Now the charade of American elections has come and gone, flawed and fraudulent in places, and with it the dream of America coming to its senses evaporated. Bush subliminally - and often quite crudely - appealed to the average American's fear and hatred of the 'other', done all the more easily since people here no longer have the means to access objective information. Facts are 'presented', reality is a concept, perceptions 'created'. It was openly boasted that henceforth 'faith' will trump facts-based political practice. God save us from America! (But then, it is claimed, it was God who called upon Bush and charged him with saving civilization, who straightened his tongue and dried out his liver.) The Democratic Party could not squirm out from under the assessment that it is a badly strained conglomerate of special interest constituencies, and in the heartland people wanted simple and straight answers to complex problems; they wanted their uncomplicated Christian identity back. Give me God and my gun! What happened was a template shift of the political point of gravity to what can only be termed a fundamentalist majority quite willing to condone fascist methods to fight the enemy within and abroad. This is of momentous importance internationally; there will be even greater polarization and a result will be that people who up to now were considered 'moderate' will also turn away from the US in deception and despair. Why could the left not strike out and establish a clear alternative to the regressive and death-bringing and death-wishing policies of the Bush administration? It is stifled by its own cleverness and wishful thinking, forever contextualizing and trying to seduce a mythical middle ground; it probably secretly and guiltily shares some of the prejudices purveyed by the cowboy; it subscribes even more enthusiastically to the 'founding values' of consumerism and materialist entitlement than the Republicans do, and thus it is incapable of conceiving a radically different relationship to the world. So, what now? Lack of money and soldiers may curtail for a while America's onslaughts. The world will be destabilized in attempts to bail out the States. The United Nations will be made spineless and weak. There will be no international order. And many, many more people will die violently…