Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Alas, Old Murfin Verse Still Timely—Nits Make Lice

In 2012 a photo of children killed in an Israeli air raid in Gaza provoked a strong reaction.
These days if you post a photo of a war atrocity, say dead babies, Facebook will cover it with a gray veil and a trigger warning that the photo contains disturbing content before you can open and view it.  Or, alternatively, you can be placed in Facebook jail for some days if anyone complains.  The anyone is usually somebody who wants to cover up a war crime by “their guys.”  It seems like no one wants to see the grizzly reality of war and lots of people want to keep you from seeing it so that you will not be stirred to do something about it.
Back in 2012, I posted a stomach wrenching picture of four dead children killed in an Israeli air strike against Palestinians in Gaza.  The next day I found that the image was  deleted from my page.  Perhaps someone was offended.  Above is a different picture of the same dead children.  Don’t avert your eyes.

The reaction was predictable.  Most folks were horrified and rushed passed it for another comforting round of cute kitten posts or pithy, snarky memes.  You know the kind.  Those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause seized on it to denounce Israel for war crimes and genocide.  The four dead babies just the latest got ya in an endless round of glorified martyrdom.

My Israeli and pro-Israeli friends were outraged.  You don’t understand, they practically screamed through the screen at me.  At best I was a dupe, at worst an anti-Semite.  The ever useful tape of a British officer testifying at the United Nations that in an earlier attack on Gaza the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) acted to limit civilian casualties in a way “unprecedented in the history of warfare” was trotted out as if, true or not, it made those children any less dead.  And then, of course, some one posted a picture of Israeli children injured by a Palestinian rocket.  Sort of “my kids trump your kids, so there!”
It all seemed so familiar.
These days almost no one except the Israeli government will make the case that they act with restraint in the on-going pounding of Gaza, the world’s largest open concentration camp and free fire zone.  Pictures of dead children there can be found every week without much searching.  But so can photos from Yemen where the Saudis pound civilians with high tech American arms with impunity and lately shots of Kurdish victims of the Turkish invasion of Syria.  Not long before that American drones were doing the dirty work where supposed terrorists were active with no regard or remorse for civilian collateral damage.”
And you don’t have to limit your search to the always volatile Middle East to find examples.  There are half a dozen or more other regional conflicts, many of the flying below our radar, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that can produce their own images.

I have never been able to find the news photo a Rwanda atrocity that inspired my poem Nits Make Lice but this will give you and idea of what happened.
Back in the 1990’s I was struck by a news photo from Rwanda.  It showed a field of Hutus hacked to death by a mob of Tutsis who were avenging an earlier massacre of the Tutsis by their Hutu neighbors in a real attempt at genocide.

The poem Nits Make Lice came to me from that image.  I read it one Sunday in a peace service at what was then still known as the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock.  Most folks zone out when someone starts to spout poetry, particularly long poetry.  Bur enough folks were listening that there was an audible gasp when I got to a certain passage.  I was pulled aside later by the Worship Committee Chairperson and scolded.  The poem was entirely unsuitable for a Sunday morning.

After 9/11 and during the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan,  Nits Make Lice was one of several poems that I read at Poets Against the War programs, at demonstrations and rallies, and in speaking engagements at the local community college.

My editor at Skinner House Books refused to include it in my 2004 Meditation Manual, We Build Temples in the Heart.  It seems that being shown the naked brutality of war and the wild animus that justifies any horror was not suitable for an audience expecting uplifting, inspirational verse.

It is time again to resurrect what I think may be the most important poem I have ever written.

Please don’t avert your eyes.

A portion of a Cheyenne winter count hide painting depicted the mutilation of women by soldiers of the Colorado 3rd Colorado Cavalry in their attack on a peaceful village during the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Four years later in 1868 George Armstrong Custer led elements of the 7th Cavalry in an attack on Black Kettle's Southern Cheyenne camp where similar atrocities were reported.  Colonel John M. Chivington who commanded at Sand Creek was credited with saying "Nits make lice" as part of his orders for no quarter during the raid.  The "old general" who responded to newspaper criticism of Custer's attack was formal Civil War Cavalry commander General Phil Sheridan then in charge of western operations against the plains tribes who quoted the line.

Nits Make Lice

Somewhere in Africa a small boy lies,
his mother's reedy arm stretches over him, a perfect picture of sweet repose
until a closer look reveals his spilling brains
and his mother's head, half severed,
stares backward at her crumpled feet.
            Pull back and see a hundred dusty lumps like them.

The horror of that dead child shakes us, 
taps wellsprings of pity
and of blank incomprehension
at an alien ferocity.

Yet.. .

Nits make lice” the old hero said
when some irksome scribe inquired about 
the latest massacre on the plains-­ 
about the private parts of mere squaws
cut out and stretched over troopers pommels, 
about limp and tattered ragbag babes
tossed from saber tip to saber tip 
in a macabre game of polo.

Nits make lice.

And in the relentless logic of war,
it is utter and irrefutable truth
that today’s laughing toddler may, 
in fifteen years or so, 
draw a bead upon your own beloved child .

Nits make lice.

Better, after all, much better
to kill him now to save lives later,
to cast off foolish sentiment,
that useless relic of Victorian ladies
swooning with the vapors 
over the innocence of youth.

Nits make lice.

And so our resolve firms
and our methods, 
honed by enlightened science far out-strip 
the stumbling, drunken troopers wild careen 
against a sleeping village
until whole cities of breeding,
 pestilential vermin
may efficiently be incinerated .

Nits make lice.

Yet.. .

Something in us stirs still at that
dead Tutsi child, yearning to save his life,
or failing that, to end the carnage,
before the play of others is macheteed away.

Nits make lice.

Impossible, impossible to save that child alone-­
the mother, too, and aunts and grandmas, brothers, cousins, fathers--
even the wild-eyed ones who first
wet their knives on Hutu babes
and opened Pandoras Box of sweet revenge—
all, all must be valued as the boy,
to save one, all must be saved.

Nits make lice.

To save the nit,
we must even love the louse.

 --Patrick Murfin

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