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‘I find reading the Iliad almost intolerable: that orgy of battles, wounds and death, that stupid and endless war, the puerile anger of Achilles. The Odyssey, however, has a human dimension, its poetry grows from a reasonable hope: the end of the war and exile, the world rebuilt on the foundation of a peace gained through justice.’

Primo Levi, The Search for Roots.

Primo Levi is always a tonic—hopeful in his very acerbity. At a time like this, when the world—literally the whole world—waits on words, it is bracing to hear hope extolled, and exhilarating to think hard about the foundations of peace and how we might lay them down.

In March 1991, as we were preparing the first issue of Eureka Street, Cartoonist John Spooner drew a cover for us (there it is, above, in the almost infinite regress that these plus-ça-change-times dictate).

Because monthly magazines are not news bulletins we gave him specifications to cover all bases: something time-proof, please, to catch the anxious edge of hope and of peace in a period of international uncertainty and manipulated media frenzy (remember the nightly bulletins with their precision bombings looking for all the world like computer games?). Something also to suggest that living can’t be suspended while leaders manoeuvre. Spooner took his ludicrous brief like the lawyer he once trained to be and the great cartoonist he manifestly is, and came up with the goods.

Cartoonists (and Australia has the best in the world) provide a tough registration of the way things are. In their economy of line they manage to get so much in—ironies, hypocrisies, political grey areas, the facts behind the facts, the deals done. Their work could not be more distinct from the syndicated,
massaged, pooled and partial daily reporting that now so constrains dissemination of the news. Often they are the only ones routinely plumbing the depth of issues, and the only ones with tools sharp enough to point a moral that is not mere preaching. Fortunately, there are others who will lay it on the line, some of them journalists, some professional analysts, some statesmen.

On 12 February, veteran US Senator Robert Byrd gave a speech from the floor, calling his fellow Senators to account: ‘On this February day, as the nation stands at the brink of battle, every American on some level must be contemplating the horrors of war.

‘Yet, this Chamber is, for the most part, silent—ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war.’

Byrd, with very American gravitas, told his fellow Senators what demonstrators have since told their governments by massing in protest in cities all over the world. ‘This,’ said Byrd, ‘is no small conflagration we contemplate. This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No. This coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in US foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world.’

Byrd is not a young man, which liberates him somewhat—he has the experience of a long-term politician and nothing to lose by speaking out. But he is also, in his frankness, consciously carrying on a tradition for which the United States has been rightly lauded.

‘This nation’, he warned, ‘is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way at an unfortunate time.’ Byrd is a Democrat, but also a conservative American patriot, and alarmed by the doctrine of pre-emption, ‘… the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future—is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self defense.’ That radical new twist, he observes, is not sanctioned: ‘It appears to be in contravention of international law and the UN Charter.’

No-one could accuse the Senator of being anti-American. The rhetorical browbeating currently used in place of argument does not work in his case. His words demand attention, and will continue to do so even as negotiations between the US and its uneasy allies become more intense and the diplomatic arm-twisting more painful. Poor Turkey—caught in the middle.

In his analysis of the international ramifications of current US policy, Byrd draws attention to Pakistan—‘at risk of destabilizing forces’. In The New Yorker (27 January 2003) another veteran, journalist Seymour M. Hersh, provides a grim and documented account of Pakistan’s dealings with North Korea, of trade deals made under pressure (cash-strapped Pakistan needed missile systems) involving Pakistan’s nuclear weapons secrets—high-speed centrifuge machines in particular. Hersh’s article, drawing extensively on CIA reports, is disturbing enough in its principle focus on the trading in nuclear material but even more alarming in the picture it draws of an Administration that has taken its eyes off a situation potentially more dangerous than anything that could come out of Iraq.

Byrd, in more rhetorical mode, echoes Hersh’s disquiet: ‘Has our senselessly bellicose language and our callous disregard of the interests and opinions of other nations increased the global race to join the nuclear club and made proliferation an even more lucrative practice for nations which need the income?’

His answer is clear: ‘In only the space of two short years this reckless and arrogant Administration has initiated policies which may reap disastrous consequences for years.’

One can discount a little for partisan politics here: Byrd is a US Democrat in a Republican-dominated period. But his list of charges is echoed by many other authoritative sources who have no direct political involvement. ‘Pressure appears to be having a good result in Iraq’, Byrd says. Again, from America, not from America’s critics, come the journal articles that support that claim: Saddam Hussein might be a murdering tyrant but deterrence works with him. So the pressure to act now, and the connected deriding of the United Nations for its reluctance to sanction force, is in Byrd’s terms ‘a box of our own making’. North Korea is another matter entirely.

One of the most disturbing by-products of this current state of international tension is that so much else of import is displaced while we watch and wait. In Australia we are just coming to the end of a period of what can only be described as natural disaster—drought compounded by fire. (The cindery gumleaves on page 9 of this month’s Eureka Street are a random cull from my back garden—kilometres away from the burnt Canberra suburbs.) But in Canberra, as Michael McKernan notes this month (p9) natural disaster brought out extraordinary bravery, community spirit and enterprise in people who in their normal routines hardly talk to their neighbours. That’s hopeful, that’s work enough, work for us to be going on with.

Odyssey, not Iliad.




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