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Poetry of the Taliban (Columbia/Hurst)
Poetry of the Taliban (Columbia/Hurst)

Columbia University Press, 2012
176 pp., $24.50

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Charles Cameron


Poetry of the Taliban

Regarding the image and likeness.

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But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the psychological repercussions upon the soldier and the society. Largely through an ignorance of the processes and implications involved, this did not happen for Vietnam veterans—a mistake we risk making again as the war in Iraq becomes increasingly deadly and unpopular.

And what's the basis for this? Sebastian Junger hung out for the better part of a year with troops in one of the most heavily contested parts of Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, describing what he saw there in the book War and the film Restrepo, which he directed. Junger commented not so long ago in the Washington Post:

I can't imagine that there was a time in human history when enemy dead were not desecrated. Achilles dragged Hector around the walls of Troy from the back of a chariot because he was so enraged by Hector's killing of his best friend. Three millennia later, Somali fighters dragged a U.S. soldier through the streets of Mogadishu after shooting down a Black Hawk helicopter and killing 17 other Americans …. Clearly, the impulse to desecrate the enemy comes from a very dark and primal place in the human psyche. Once in a while, those impulses are going to break through.

And:

They are very clear about the fact that society trains them to kill, orders them to kill and then balks at anything that suggests they have dehumanized the enemy they have killed.
But of course they have dehumanized the enemy—otherwise they would have to face the enormous guilt and anguish of killing other human beings …. It doesn't work …, but it gets them through the moment; it gets them through the rest of the patrol.

People who fight wars find it easier to kill people they have dehumanized. Perhaps, as Junger suggests, it makes it easier to handle, for a while, the burden of having killed. But then comes the post-traumatic stress, the label "PTSD," the rising tide of military suicides.

It's almost easier for me to go to the sacramental side.

All terror is sacramental, Joseba Zulaika suggests in Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables, and Faces of Terrorism—an "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace," as evidenced by the stories of miracles recounted by bin Laden's mentor Abdullah Azzam in his book, The Signs of the Merciful in the Jihad of Afghanistan.

It is with sacramental eyes, then, that we must understand and oppose terror, as William Cavanaugh in Torture and Eucharist suggests we should the "disappearances" and torture under the Pinochet regime in Chile. The issue, again, is that of personhood, of humanity, of the image and likeness.

Of which the poets Samiullah Khalid Sahak and Faizullah Saqib speak.

Sun Tzu in The Art of War advises us to know our enemy. Christ goes further, and instructs us to love. He instructs us in loving:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

Somehow, we are to understand a new relationship of enmity with amity.

Perhaps the poetry of the Taliban can show us something of our enemy's humanity, brutal and angelic by turns, as is that humanity with which we ourselves contend:

Like those who have been killed by the infidels,
I counted my heart as one of the martyrs.
It might have been the wine of your memory
that made my heart drunk five times.
The more I kept the secret of my love,
This simple ghazal spoke more of my secrets.
                                                          —Khairkhwa

Charles Cameron is a writer, teacher, and game designer.

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