Friday, May 16, 2008

Lessons from The Heart of Darkness

I listened to a program on BBC this morning as I lay in bed waiting for the fog to burn off and reveal whether it was a gardening day or an inside chores day. The program profiled soldiers who had been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan to assess whether the convenant between government and soldiers, a promise to look after them, was being kept. As with so many programs, it was nominally balanced with some saying yes; some saying no, but left the listener with a lingering sense of failure: a diffuse failure so that no one could be blamed directly.

The usual suspects were all lined up for insightful sound byte interviews: Ministry of Defence, National Health Service, the administration that got us into the war, which presumably includes the Americans though they were not evident in this program, and the administration that would like to be in power, but, because they weren't, can claim that they are not responsible for sending our troops to Iraq.

America was dragged into the conversation in a way that I find sadly amusing now. It was suggested that wounded soldiers might be better served in separate military hospitals "such as they have in America." The veterans hospitals in America have been sadly underfunded for years. Most soldiers avoided them if at all possible. The media and anecdotal information from friends have offered up the same sad testimonies of soldiers ill-served by the insitutions meant to protect them over there as soldiers face here. Hence, my sadness in hearing them held up as a model.

My amusement comes in recognizing one of two familiar themes in the way that America is represented. On the one hand, America is often cited as an example of how to do things better, as if the diaspora or the brain drain of the UK continues to look westward to this shining examplar of big, new, and bold.

On the other hand, America shows up almost as often in the press or in conversations as a bloated, greedy, isolated, self-absorbed continent blundering through the world and taking its allies down with it.

Perhaps I have become so cynical because I am old enough now to have seen too many wars, or arguably, too many choreographed media presentations that dance around the hard questions by which we really live. I don't know how many wars is too many. I accept the theoretical concept of a just war, and I am personally much too tempestuous to embrace pacifism except as an admirable quality. Thus, stuck between too many wars and the inevitability of more, I try to make sense of the covenant between a government who asks its citizens to die for a cause that another administration will change its mind about.

This covenant, the simple promise that the soldier will be adequately compensated for his or her loss or disability, seems at the heart of what a government should do. If the government cannot do this, then it seems to me to fail at the most fundamental level. It fails not only its soldiers and their families but also its reason for existence.

The failure to come to grips with this fundamental reason for its existence is being obscured by more and more social legislation: programs to help us eat properly--with punishments for deviating from their plans; programs to educate our children and how to measure how carefully they are meeting government-mandated targets; targets now for children up to the age of 5, requiring weekly reports with day by day snapshots as documentary evidence. Ironically, parents or care givers are also subject to other government requirements about when it is permissible to photograph children.

The government and the media have been filled with more and more detail--changing cannabis from Class B to Class C; raising or lowering drinking ages or driving ages or the number of children in a classroom. The idea has been nagging at me for some time that this social legislation is not only a smokescreen for government's failure to meet its express purpose but also, and more worryingly I think, the result of a political theoretical bankruptcy.

Similarly, I think journalists are struggling to see through the topical issues to the larger questions--what is the role of government? In our post modern, global economy what should that look like? This morning's program touched ever so gently on a central question behind the covenant. Can we keep pace emotionally, morally, financially with the improvements in medical technology that save lives at the price of broken human beings? Social policy and the ethics of health care issues often lag behind the technology.

One of the ways to enrich our public discourse is to look at fiction. Again, we need to look more broadly than Oprah's latest selection or formulaic novels that fill all the shelves in the charity shops. I would place Heart of Darkness at the top of the list for today's conundra. Fiction can take us into questions that journalism cannot. If you know this book only by its latter day interpretation in the film "Apocalypse Now," you owe it to yourself to read it. It is one of few books that I have read more than once. It is a book so well crafted that my admiration for it even survived a too close analysis of it in graduate school. It is not a comfortable book, but we are not living in comfortable times and we do not have comfortable questions in front of us.

An important lesson from Heart of Darkness is that none of us is exempt from culpability for exploitation. That's one of the hard questions left unasked. If we want our government to keep its covenant with its soldiers--and I wholeheartedly agree that we should--then what sacrifices are we willing to make to ensure that happens?


At 4:22 PM, Blogger TerriRainer said...

Sometimes it is truly a blessing to be an ostrich! I know that's a horrible cowardly response, but I think it's why I love fiction, both reading and especially writing it.

You have the ultimate control over the world of your own making, whereas in real life, it seems very little of the world can be controled, or even changed by any one individual.

:) Terri

At 8:26 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Hi, Terri- yes, I know what you mean. I often like to get lost in a book. Alexander McCall Smith has some great ones for that. I also like that fiction allows us IN to something in that it opens alternate doors to a situation.
My daughter helped me considerably by getting me to read some of the classics. If not for her, I would never have read Madame Bovary or the other Bronte sisters. I just finished a collection of Scottish short stories--kind of a sampler of authors.

At 2:04 AM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

Thought-provoking. Thanks.

At 2:56 AM, Blogger Hayden said...

I give most heart-felt agreement with this. I get so angry at people who refuse to entertain these questions early on, and who turn their heads from our palpable failures to keep our pledge to these poor men and women.

There is a cost. No matter the price, we owe it and should pay up, while thanking them for their sacrifice. Can't afford that extra electronic doo-dad, or night out? Oh well, debts must be paid!

And I am not yet convinced that there is a just war...


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