Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Every War Has Two Losers," a film by Haydn Reiss

It was the poet Shelley who wrote that "the poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world." Not much has changed since he wrote those words nearly three hundred years ago.

But, after watching among the most captivating minutes of video, one may certainly walk away with the sense that not merely by their words, but by their example poets change the world.

"Every War Has Two Losers" is a documentary based on the journals of midwestern poet William Stafford who declared himself a conscientious objector to World War II and, from 1942 through 1946, was interned at the Civilian Public Service Camps as a pacifist. The film has already aired on selected PBS stations, and features some of this country's finest poets, W.S. Merwin, Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, and actor Peter Coyote reading from Stafford's work.

Stafford, who was born in 1914, was the author of some 67 volumes of poetry, winner of the National Book Award in 1963, and a close friend of another legendary American poet, Robert Bly.

It is fair to say there is something in "Every War" for everyone who has either served, known someone who has served, has lost someone on the battlefield, or has had to face losing someone on the battlefield. There is something in this film, too, for anyone who thinks about what it means to do the right thing.

"Armies are the result of obsolete ways," Stafford says, and he is right, but those ways are not obsolete enough. They are still very much with us. Stafford's words resonate even more now, and his recognition that warfare doesn't solve the problem, but only creates more problems. Or, as Robert Bly rightly suggests, many more lives were lost in an attempt to put an end to the murderous agenda of a rogue nation, Germany.

Essentially, it is the arbitrary nature of assignations like "enemy" that is at the core of what Stafford examines when he asks whether setting up an adversarial relationship with another country requires making enemies of its inhabitants.

One has only to think back to the 2008 presidential debates to remember then candidate Obama's insistence that he is not against war, but only wrong wars. And, William Stafford asks whether going to war is ever the right thing. His are good questions, and as timely now as they were more than half a century ago. The DVD, which is available at the film's Web site, includes a second documentary that captures the Whitmanic comradery of these two American legends, Stafford and Bly.

Producer Haydn Reiss has done the right thing in bringing to light a thought-provoking, and sensitive portrait of the artist as an ageless dissenter. Time spent watching this film will be time spent wisely.