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April 15, 2005
Voices in Wartime
By Sheri LindenWith such euphemisms as "ultimate sacrifice" and "collateral damage" flying fast and furious, language often takes a direct hit in time of war. This bracing documentary celebrates the ways poets through the ages offer antidotes to the double-speak, restoring meaning to language with their protests and observations. Beyond its timeliness, "Voices in Wartime" should have a long life on DVD and in literature and history classrooms.
At a historic moment when, yet again, many people equate patriotism with an unquestioning acceptance of the official story, writer-producer-director Rick King shows how poets value and explore uncertainty -- how they dare to ask questions that look beyond the sanitized imagery and gung-ho rallying cries designed to mask doubt.
That essential clash between bureaucracy and art found perfect expression in February 2003, when poet Sam Hamill received an invitation to the White House. Laura Bush was hosting a symposium on three great American poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. Deeply troubled over the looming "countdown to Iraq," Hamill overcame his queasiness and decided to use the event to protest the administration's military plans. He invited other poets to contribute antiwar pieces to a Web site, and within hours he'd received 1,500 entries -- from established literary voices as well as self-described "ordinary" people. Almost as quickly, Bush canceled the symposium.
Thus was born Poets Against the War. As Hamill notes, it was "naive and illiterate" not to understand the political, engaged nature of the work of Whitman, Dickinson and Hughes or to expect contemporary poets to honor them with obedient silence.
Helmer King makes effective use of battle images, commentary by soldiers, historians and war correspondents and, above all, the words of poets. From Wilfred Owen's unparalleled evocations of World War I to Vietnam vet David Connolly's haunted remembrances to the work of contemporary writers from Nigeria, Colombia, India and Iraq, "Voices in Wartime" is a stirring testament to the search for meaning. As the late Arthur Miller, seen here in a clip from a New York event, insists, "We have to stop speaking in codes."