I was eight when George W. Bush declared war on Iraq. During the first few months people in bars would turn their heads towards the television and say, smiles popping all gung-ho, that we’d have Hussein’s head on a stake before the year was over. I asked my father about bombs and he told me. We looked at pictures at encyclopedias together, he tracing the mushroom cloud with his fingertips and chewing through technical terms. The paths laid by chemistry like empty beaches, skin snapping and disintegrating, cities left ugly and people left wrong because they couldn’t run as fast as their houses could fall. My reaction was probably a stupid one, one I would have to be patted on the head and forgiven for, as those of children are wont to be. You can’t tell me Byron didn’t pluck the wings off butterflies as a boy.
My connection to the Iraq war was one held at arm’s length, one I dissected with little compassion. It did not occur to me that your father could be taken there, could be given a few month’s worth of training and a rifle and be expected to chase people across towns and open up arms and backs and brains like candy wrappers and spitskim copper into beating bones like I skipped rocks and slipped down branches.
My third grade teacher maybe had a boyfriend planting grenades somewhere, under the upside-down scoop of the sky, where birds came to drown. After an initial incident, she told me that I was not allowed to tell my classmates about the nuclear power of the Middle East or China or the old USSR, or its potential ability to kill us all. She was probably right, but I hated her for taking her red grading pencil and allotting me perimeters. She was using her tornado drill voice to censure me, the same tone she used when telling us to stay away from open windows and listen to alarms and keep textbooks over our heads.
We are all of the blood of Prometheus. We have a need to take what is not ours and spread it without giving a damn about the consequences. A primitive desire. A drugged demand, to have more than we can possibly carry. I don’t believe in thwarting those who ask questions. I will tell you everything I hold. You will know the extent of the damage, and I will not give you the benefit of a parachute.
A few days ago my brother asked me about bombs. He’d heard about the Fat Man and the Little Boy somewhere. I think of a good answer, a perhaps slightly watered-down one, and a poem eventually comes to meet me in a crash and whoosk, earth zooming up to burst headlong:
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
a circle with no end and no God.
– Yehuda Amichai