“In a dark time,” poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “the eye begins to see.”
Stanley Kunitz observed: “In a murderous time / the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.”
In the current murderous time, amid the dim media swirl, acuity arrived for some with the news that President Biden had approved sending cluster munitions to Ukraine. For entrenched elites in Washington, using taxpayer money to shred the bodies of children and other civilians isn’t a big deal when there’s serious geopolitical work to be done.
The same White House that correctly put cluster munitions in the category of a war crime when Russia began using them in Ukraine last year is now saying they’re just fine — when the U.S. supplies them to an ally.
Top administration officials have been quick to emphasize the toughness of the choice. “It was a very difficult decision on my part,” Biden said.
That reminds me of the infamous 60 Minutes interview with Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in May of 1996. CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl brought up impacts of the U.S.-led sanctions on Iraq, saying “we have heard that a half a million children have died,” and then asked: “Is the price worth it?”
Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”
Eight months later, acting on the nomination of Albright to be secretary of state, the Senate confirmed her. The vote was 99-0. Maybe it would not have been unanimous if any of the senators’ children had died while she declared their deaths to be “worth it.”
Like Albright’s “very hard choice,” Biden’s “very difficult decision” was based on convenient abstractions and, ultimately, a willingness to sacrifice the lives of countless others, while claiming pristine virtue. Defending the president’s cluster-munitions decision, no one on the Biden team need worry that one of their own children might pick up a U.S.-supplied “bomblet” someday, perhaps mistaking it for a toy, only to be instantly assaulted with shrapnel.
The Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill who’ve been trying for the last week to justify shipping cluster weapons to Ukraine are evading a basic truth that BBC correspondent John Simpson reported long ago, in May 1999, while U.S.-led NATO forces were dropping cluster bombs onto the streets of Nis, Serbia’s third-largest city: “Used against human beings, cluster bombs are some of the most savage weapons of modern warfare.”
At the time, the San Francisco Chronicle reported: “In a street leading from the market, dismembered bodies were strewn among carrots and other vegetables in pools of blood. A dead woman, her body covered with a sheet, was still clutching a shopping bag filled with carrots.”
Today, with political fashion treating “diplomacy” as a dirty word, the resolute militarism of the U.S. government is bipartisan. While we should emphatically condemn Russia’s vicious war on Ukraine, we should be under no illusions about the moral character of U.S. foreign policy.
For example: During three presidencies, beginning with Barack Obama, the U.S. government has aided and abetted the Saudi-led war on Yemen, where the death toll since 2015 is now estimated at close to 400,000. Biden’s high-profile fist bump with Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman a year ago tells us a lot about the extent of the U.S. commitment to basic human decency in foreign affairs.
The murderous time that we live in now, organized as war, is reflexively blamed only on the barbarism of others. But President Biden’s decision to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine is shocking to many Americans because it has undermined illusions with no more actual solidity than sand castles before the tide of truth comes in.
In a dark time, the eye begins to see.