War's sound track echoes from Dresden to Baghdad
The day the bombs started falling on Baghdad in 1991, my Notre Dame jacket, my most prized possession, was stolen out of my locker. The thief also stole a package of Hostess SnoBalls and a peanut butter and honey sandwich, snacks that I would eat after school to give me energy for wrestling practice. I weighed 110 pounds and wrestled in the 112-pound weight class.
A young policewoman came to the house to take a report that evening. Before she arrived I was sitting in the living room trying to do my algebra homework but, instead, watching live images of explosions lighting up the Baghdad skyline.
It was impossible to understand what was happening on the screen. There were no soldiers. My picture of war came from Vietnam: shaky handheld-camera footage of soldiers cautiously trudging through the jungle.
Instead, what I saw was a view of central Baghdad from a hotel rooftop, narrated by journalists who had chosen to stay in the city even after being warned of the danger. The journalists, Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw, tried to communicate what it felt like to see these images, rating the power of each bomb blast. At times the burst of light as a bomb detonated made the screen go completely white. I couldn't keep my eyes off the television.
When the policewoman came downstairs she started watching too. She looked stunned, as though she'd never seen a television. 'They're bombing Baghdad,' I said. 'Wow,' she said.
As she took my statement about the jacket, her eyes cut back and forth between the notepad in her hand and the television.
I got the jacket back. One day I was walking down the hall at school and a kid passed me wearing the jacket. 'That's my jacket,' I said. 'No, it's not,' the kid sneered. One of the deans of the school was walking by and asked what the problem was. 'Look in the sleeves,' I told him, since my mother had written my name in black marker in each sleeve. Sure enough, when the dean looked, there was my name.
Things were like that then. Open and shut. Yes it is. No it isn't. Everything seemed good, clean, and orderly. I learned that there was such a thing as justice-I had witnessed it.
At night, I was learning that war could be humane and just. Footage from the noses of smart bombs allowed me to see with my own eyes that American bombers weren't dumping their payloads indiscriminately over cities, like the Germans did to Britain and the Brits did to Germany and we did to the Japanese during World War II. These were 'smart' bombs. This was a 'smart' war in all the various connotations of 'smart': intelligent; shrewd and calculating; amusingly clever; with a neat and well cared for appearance; fashionable and stylish; vigorous and brisk; causing a sharp stinging sensation.
Our history teacher didn't talk about the Gulf War. She didn't even pull down a map of the world and point to the Middle East. Then again, I suppose she had bigger problems to worry about-some kids in the class couldn't locate Illinois on a map.
Neither do I remember talking about the war with my friends, unless it was to ask whether we'd seen the latest awesome press conference footage-General Schwarzkopf standing in front of a television monitor narrating the flight of a bomb as it entered the chimney of a building or the window of a munitions depot.
I thought about the war the most when I was at band practice. That fall, the band director passed out the sheet music for Symphony No. 1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945), a piece by Daniel Bukvich dedicated to the firebombing and subsequent obliteration of the German city of Dresden. One look at the part in front of me and I could tell that this was unlike anything I'd played before. The parts were written aleatorically, meaning that, instead of notes on the staff creating a melody and countermelody, there were diagrams and instructions telling us to play our instruments in unorthodox ways to represent the bombing of the city. The trombones were to drone on a low B-flat to mimic the rumble of bombers approaching the city. The trumpets sounded the wailing air-raid sirens. Next the score instructed the entire band to frantically whisper the word firestorm over and over in German, to capture the panicked gossip that spread through the city as the first wave of bombers dropped jellied gasoline in order to prepare the way for the incendiary bombs that would ignite the city.
The trombone drone of the bombers continued as the flute began mimicking the sound of bombs whistling toward the earth. The percussion section commanded a battery of drums to conjure up the bomb blasts and shook thunder out of a sheet of metal. As Dresden burned, we blew air through our horns to create the violent winds, brought on by the rapidly rising heat, that sucked victims into the burning rubble of buildings and blew over structures weakened by the initial blasts. When it was all done, roughly 30,000 civilians had been killed, many buried alive in basement bomb shelters and then burned beyond recognition by the great fire that raged for weeks to come. After playing the piece, I always felt emotionally drained and distant, as though I had experienced something traumatic, felt the presence of a darker reality.
I approached the director and asked him if I could find some images that could be projected on a screen above the band while we played. This idea wouldn't have come to me without the live war footage I took in every night on CNN. I was not a technologically savvy kid. But hearing this music, I saw images.
At the public library I found photos from books on World War II: bombers in flight, bombs falling in a cluster, aerial views of the majestic city of Dresden. I found photos of the city on fire; photos of the smoldering, wrecked buildings; and, finally, photos of a wooden cart piled with scorched black corpses.
The audiovisual director made the photos into slides and I sequenced them to the music, so the image of bombers corresponded to the droning of the trombones, the falling bombs corresponded to the whistling of the flutes, and so on.
On the night of the performance, I stood behind the heavy black curtain at the rear of the stage with my finger on the button of the slide projector. I began with a picture of the city before the bombing and then toggled back and forth between the image of the bombers in flight and the cluster of bombs falling toward the earth in order to give the sensation of many bombers dropping many bombs.
I felt powerful, like the Great Oz, proud to be inspiring fear in this audience of parents and school administrators, perhaps disturbing their pat notions of war and its costs. In some ways I've been trying to get back to that feeling ever since-trying to find moments when what I'm hearing and what I'm seeing come together to reveal a disturbing truth.
I must confess, however, that at no point as I stood behind that curtain was I consciously thinking of the war in Iraq. Dresden was different, I told myself. Dresden was butchery, barbarity. The bombing of Iraq, as I saw on television every night for a few months, was clean, efficient, just.
David Griffith lives in South Bend, Indiana, and teaches writing at the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary's College. A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (2006) is published by Soft Skull Press, an eclectic independent publisher; www.softskull.com.