Friday, May 20, 2011

Finally Comes the Poet

I seem to spend a great deal of my preaching life wrestling with Walter Brueggemann. He's getting on up there in years, so I ought to be able to take him now, but most of the time I still wind up bearing the scars of our encounters. And I've never actually met the man.
At the moment I'm being bounced about by his argument that "obedience follows imagination." More than 20 years ago, in Finally Comes the Poet, Brueggemann wrote:
Our obedience will not venture far beyond or run risks beyond our imagined world. If we wish to have transformed obedience (ie. more faithful, responsive listening), then we must be summoned to an alternative imagination, in order that we may imagine the world and ourselves differently. The link of obedience to imagination suggests that the toughness of ethics depends on poetic, artistic speech as the only speech that can evoke transformed listening. Even concerning ethics, “finally comes the poet”. It is poetic invitation that holds the only chance of changed behavior, a point understood and practiced by Jesus in his parables, which had such ethical bite, but such artistic delicacy.

I think I'd buy it if he'd written it in rhyme!
But seriously, I came across this quote while looking for something else on the web and it got me to thinking about something I ran across a while back in a used book store. The internet and used books stores work much the same alchemy for me, and they often seem to have been "organized" by the same folks.

In any case, I just finished William Prochnau's Once Upon a Distant War. Not quite as old (copyright 1995) as the Brueggemann text, Prochnau tells the tale of the young correspondents who covered the early days of America's involvement in Vietnam. Malcolm Browne, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnet, Horst Faas, Charley Mohr and a handful of other young reporters who found themselves drawn deeply into the turmoil of a failing South Vietnamese government and the inept American efforts to respond.
Halberstam (The Best and the Brightest) and Sheehan (A Bright Shining Lie) went on to write two of the most important reflections on the war. Arnet became one of the great television war correspondents and stayed in Hanoi until the bitter end of the American war in 1975. Faas photographs brought the war into American homes, and his efforts as AP photo editor ensured that we saw the most famous images from Vietnam, including the "napalm girl" in 1972.
Prochnau follows the story from the days when there were only a couple of hundred American advisers in Vietnam in 1961 through the fall of the Diem regime a few weeks before Kennedy's assassination in November, 1963.
The reporting of these young men -- especially Halberstam in the New York Times and Sheehan for UPI -- convinced key leaders in the Kennedy Administration that Diem was not capable of leading the South, and helped create that atmosphere which led to the coup that ended Diem's reign and his life.
Prochnau wrote of the coup:
For the correspondents it was a moment of great triumph. Rarely had such a small group of relatively young reporters attained such influence. Perhaps never had so few redefined the rules for the many who followed. They had exposed the government's lies and cast light on its ineptitude, two of the most fundamental functions of their craft.

By odd happenstance, I read both Halberstam's and Sheehan's Vietnam histories about 10 years ago -- during the months after the invasion of Afghanistan when the Bush Administration was turning its eyes toward Iraq. There was, at the time, a great deal of debate about whether or not we were getting ourselves into "another Vietnam."
I was struck at the time not by similarities of circumstance but by similarities of thought. Desert war was not going to be the same as jungle war. The War on Terror was not going to be a replay of the Cold War. Al'queda was not the Viet Cong. Ben Laden was not Ho Chi Minh. And so on and so forth, but the American media was still marching in lockstep with the government's perspective.
The vast majority of the mainstream media reporting of 2001-3 either supported the war and its justifications outright, or failed to ask particularly probing questions about the Bush Administration's aims and strategies, much less the deeper questions that a march to war ought always to raise.
Almost a half century on from the early days of Vietnam it is easy to forget that the young correspondents whose reporting changed the way America viewed that war themselves entered the work entirely supportive of American aims. They were the children of the World War II generation, and they believed the cause in Vietnam was just. In Hanoi they asked a lot of questions about tactics and competence, and their questioning unleashed a torrent of questions in America that came on the heels of the reporters' triumph in November '63.
"But," as Prochnau wrote (in the rest of the paragraph blockquoted above):
it was a triumph to be tempered. It would take others to see and ask the most important questions of all. Could the United States win with any South Vietnamese government? Should the United States win? Did all those well-meaning, can-do, we've-got-the-answer Americans have any business at all in a far-off and alien land among a people in search of their own unique destiny?

Those are not questions that America's war leaders could ask in 1963. Those were not McNamara's questions. Those are not questions that America's war leaders could ask in 2002. Those were not Rumsfeld's questions. We're still not asking those questions well.
We simply lack the imagination.
Finally, comes the poet.