Libya & US

Libya and the United States:
What Happens When Sound Bites Don’t Work

John Peeler

One of the fascinating back stories of the U.S. response to the Libyan crisis is how it’s exposed fundamental splits on both Right and Left in this country.

Stereotypically, we expect conservatives to favor war and liberals to oppose it, but we’ve known at least since Vietnam how simplistic that is. In the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, we’ve certainly seen liberals split between supporters (Hillary Clinton, for example) and opponents (Barack Obama, for example) of the Iraq invasion. But conservatives have, with few exceptions (Ron Paul, for example) lined up solidly in favor of a muscular, militaristic response to world problems.

The revolt in Libya, the latest in the revolutionary wave in the Arab world, has posed the dilemma with particular sharpness because it is deceptively easy for Americans to agree that removing Qaddafi would be a good thing. An absolute dictator for over forty years, he has been reliably shown to have been a sponsor of terrorist attacks (most notably the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland).

We now have the emergence of a consistent, articulate conservative opposition to U.S. intervention in Libya, best exemplified by George Will (Washington Post, March 8, 2011), who raises no less than sixteen hard questions for those who advocate intervention. And this broadside comes in the wake of his declaration of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, last year (see my previous piece on this at Will is articulating what may be termed a traditional, or “paleo-conservative” viewpoint, consistently skeptical toward risky enterprises.

Standing opposed to Will and the paleo-conservatives are a great many neo-conservatives. Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, March 4, 2011) strongly advocates intervention to promote Qaddafi’s fall, and argues that the growing number of those who agree with him is testament to George W. Bush’s wisdom in declaring the “Bush Doctrine,” committing the U.S. to forceful promotion of democracy around the world.

On the liberal side we have a similar split. Senator John Kerry came out for imposing a no-fly zone over Libya (Washington Post, March 4, 2011), while Wesley Clark (Washington Post, March 11, 2011) argued that Libya is not central enough for U.S. interests to warrant intervention. Ross Douthat (New York Times, March 13, 2011) urges that we pay attention to the lessons of the Iraq intervention:

In reality, there are lessons from our years of failure in Iraq that can be applied to an air war over Libya as easily as to a full-scale invasion or counterinsurgency. Indeed, they can be applied to any intervention — however limited its aims, multilateral its means, and competent its commanders.
One is that the United States shouldn’t go to war unless it has a plan not only for the initial military action, but also for the day afterward, and the day after that. Another is that the United States shouldn’t go to war without a detailed understanding of the country we’re entering, and the forces we’re likely to empower.
Moreover, even with the best-laid plans, warfare is always a uniquely high-risk enterprise — which means that the burden of proof should generally rest with hawks rather than with doves, and seven reasonable-sounding reasons for intervening may not add up to a single convincing case for war.

Here Douthat is essentially echoing Will.

No wonder the hyper-cautious Obama is moving as if he were in a minefield that’s been covered with grease. Anything he does (including nothing) will elicit ferocious criticism from both opponents and supporters.

From what I read, he seems to be resisting a no-fly zone or other intervention, on grounds that real revolutions must win on their own. That’s a laudable position, and perhaps based on actual awareness of the decidedly mixed results of U.S. interventions in the past. An invasion on the Iraq model would bring down Qaddafi, but we could not guarantee a result we would like even if a democracy emerged (see contemporary Iraq). A careful and limited intervention in Libya might help bring down Qaddafi, but would not be able to assure that the resultant regime would be to our liking. Complete non-intervention would likely assure Qaddafi’s continuation in power, even though it seems clear that most of the people want him gone.

I arrive at the hesitant and ambivalent conclusion that we should avoid intervening publicly in Libya, because that would only burden the resultant regime with the perception of being our creation and puppet. But I hope that Obama is sending covert help, and I hope he can keep it covert. Ever since Reagan and the Contras, our leaders have had a habit of overtly bragging about what they’re doing “covertly.” This doesn’t do the beneficiaries any good. To take Don Rumsfeld’s name in vain, we need a few more “unknown unknowns.”


MacNamara’s Memoirs

I live in a small town, where,

In my backyard, grackles attack

Squirrels along the telephone wire,

Guarding their nests.  Elsewhere,

MacNamara’s released his reflections.

In this town, three or four men,

Whose eyes never seem to see,

Live, too, always on Market Street.

Viet Nam veterans.  No jobs for them,

Who once saw or did too much.

They wander past the shops or lounge

Against the drugstore, silent,

Listless, half-lost.  Some days one

Wheels a bicycle, never rides it.

The bombs all dropped, what can one say

To Robert MacNamara this spring

Except: come visit our town,

The grackles might interest you.

Karl Patten

From Touch: Poems


There is very little to say about this poem.  Many will remember that when Robert MacNamara published his Memoirs, he, who had such a major role as Secretary of Defense in promoting the war in Viet Nam, had very little to say about the consequences of that disastrous war, not merely about the millions of dead and wounded Vietnamese, but of the massive number of American casualties, including the thousands of American soldiers who survived but returned home broken in body and spirit.

I was angered by MacNamara’s book, but it took the very low-key tone of a few local images to express my anger, and, in fact, rather graciously extending a visit to our small town to him.  He never came, as far as I know.

P.S. Is it simply another example of American hypocrisy in high places that we denominate our war office the Department of Defense?  Surely it should be called the Department of Offence, for it only offends other people – and us.  Long ago, it was know as the War Department, surely more honest a moniker.


submitted by Karl Patten

A photograph.  Consider.

Three Russian soldiers,

Assault rifles waving

Up and on-the-ready,

Have flushed out a house.

One glances back over

A camouflaged shoulder

At the wide-open door

Into a blackness.

A woman approaches

That door from the left,

Head high in a bandanna,

A sandaled foot stepping

Forward, her straw broom

Firm in her right hand

Pointing down at the street.

From far away, we contemplate

Three and one, one and three.

The soldiers leave in fear.

She arrives as every day,

Will enter that blackness

After they have scampered

Off to the right,

To the next house and the next.

She knows where she is.

Do I miscalculate to say

That she and her straw broom

make present the future,

Their rifles the dirty past

— Even though bullet-holes

Pockmark the open wooden door

And the house-front above?

This photograph shows that

One is a higher power than three.

– from Spaces and Lines


This is a poem rather difficult to comment on because it is based on a photograph (which I no longer have), no doubt taken in the early part of this century.  I found the photo compelling and needed to write about it.  The difficulty comes from the fact that the picture is fixed, objective, but, obviously, I had thoughts and feelings about it, making it subjective.  Upon reading it aloud to friends I became aware that the objective/subjective was far from clear.

The first line, “A photograph.  Consider.”  is intended to meet that problem with its verb.  Then, in the first two stanzas I attempted to describe (represent?) objectively the picture.  Following that, I generalize for two lines, emphasizing the numbers.  In the next stanza I enter the poem subjectively, imagining immediately futures for the four figures, then stating: “She knows where she is,” unlike the soldiers of occupation.  Then I ask if the contrast between her broom and their three rifles, she is in spirit stronger and braver that the soldiers.  Finally, I leap to a generalization – “One is a higher power than three”—based on my own subjectivity.

I suspect that this was written after the US invasion of Afghanistan and before the invasion of Iraq.  Russian’s invasion of Chechnya certainly provided a parallel.  Our own occupying forces have, over too much time, allowed us to see how ignorant and mindless armies can be.  Might they have without question, but to my mind that is as nothing compared with strength of spirit.

Karl Patten

In the Park, V-J Night

“Fuck me, honey, fuck me, please,” Shirley

Asked, more than squirming underneath me

In the park, drunk, as I was drunk, both

Celebrating, if getting drunk fast

Is what you do when a war ends, not aware

At all of what two atomic bombs had done

To Hiroshima, Nagasaki, strange names only

Headlines, bold.

I wanted to, but didn’t dare.

The whole town was dancing in that park, all

Drunk, too, but they still had eyes, and I

Still had my own eyes, so couldn’t, didn’t.

Shirley dropped me a week later, wouldn’t

Come to the phone.  I guessed it was because

Her boy-friend was coming home from the Navy.

But some of her lovely honey still sticks on me

Drips, saying I made a mistake in the park

That night, in the welcoming exulting August

Grass, green, furry, warm, as Shirley was,

Not yet know “we won the war” by dumping

Fast sizzling, printable death (with echoes

Sounding still) on places packed with people,

And so easily, almost casually,

as the loud folks

In the park would have glazed on Shirley

And me, a couple of kids, doing what we didn’t.

Nothing to see.

Shirley and I were as torrid

And young as those bombs, but their flash was aimed.

(8/15/45 – 2/1/94)

from Touch: Poems

Commentary: As with many of my poems, this one came from sleep.  I awoke one morning hearing the voice of the first line loud and clear, a voice I had not heard for nearly fifty years, but authentic, it was Shirley’s voice, indeed.  And it cast me back to what had happened (or didn’t) on August 15th, 1945.

And that made me need to recapture the whole meaning of what “we won the war” meant in its whole.  Kids like Shirley and me – and I think everyone else in the park regardless of age – did not know what those two atomic bombs had done, we couldn’t have.  Yet in time we realized what monstrous attacks had done in our name.  Guiltless, in one sense, we are all guilty, and that black hand on our shoulders insists that nothing like that should happen again.


In corridor and street
they stalk me
Oblongs, oblongs, oblongs
In no place can I walk safe
from their flat boldness.
If I stand on the corner
of 3rd and Market
They fly, they wave,
they rattle on posts.
Oblong spirits, but tangible
spirits of man textures,
Paper, cotton, plastic, the junk
of sweatshops oceans away.

They never speak, can only honk.
Crippled, they are deaf and blind.

And, they would muffle me,
enshroud me, wrap
Their oblong selves around me,
silence me
With their stripes, stuff stars
down my throat,
Deny me breath to call them
what they are—
Emblems, something cheap and easy
to wave or sport
On breasts, suits, hats, SUVs—
to call them
Nothing but rags covering
a continental emptiness,
Nothing but flags,
red, white, and blue.

I thought it was a dream, a nightmare,
And, then I awoke, and it was true.
December 2001


As the date December 2001 indicates, this poem was written not too long after 9/11/01, the day that saved Bush from being a one-term president and from which one can date the beginning of the ending of our country as a democracy of responsible citizens.  And it has a particular place as an origin, the corner of 3rd and Market in Lewisburg, Pa.  That is where the Federal building stands, and for many years peace-loving people have held a vigil against war there, where the large flag rattles loudly against the metal flagpole whenever wind is blowing–which it always is.

Bush ruled by fear and flag, and the latter was everywhere that fall, as it still tends to be.  Our local Fourth of July parade is a massive display of militarism and “patriotism.”  A few years ago, the director of this obscene rite wrote to me and others, asking us to show flags.  I wrote back, saying that I could not wrap myself in the flag, which was a phony patriotism, cheap and easy.  I told him that I would agree to read the Declaration of Independence, which the day should celebrate, at the end of the parade, but he declined my offer.  Small flags are planted on the sidewalks for the parade, and when it was over I went out to pluck the one from my sidewalk and was struck to see that it was made from flimsy stuff made in China–cheap and easy.

This poem speaks for itself, but I must pay one debt.  On the day in 1967 when the people of peace marched on the Pentagon I had the good luck to pass by Dick Gregory, standing on a car, and chanting, “The flag is a rag.”  Unforgettable and true, and it found its way into this poem.  I present this to the Spilling Ink Co-op for David Hafer, who has an excellent, genuine sense of what patriotism really is.

Karl Patten
from Spaces and Lines

Fragment of a Battle

 (a drawing by Raphael at Windsor)

A blinded figure with an axe, fleeing,

Lurches away from where he hears more cutting.

What is in his mind was in his eyes before the

Weapon he had not forethought flashed, change body

And battle – enemies no longer of a color

Or phalanx of advancing shapes.

                                                                        Eyes wide open,

Bandaged, feet now have to choose a smooth terrain

To touch, to flee upon, to experiment with

Balancing what remains of his unscarred sturdy

Frame away from those noises, those rude prayers

His clear ears hear everywhere, find some safety –

No more attacking, no more scraping branches,

No more stumbling over lumps of others lying,

His reversed eyes weeping, no more attacking.

But his left hand still grips the axe, his forearm

Muscles swelling.  Why grip the axe, blinded, fleeing?


 Many years ago I saw this drawing by Raphael in an exhibit at Windsor Castle, England.  It entranced me, and I looked at it for a long time.  When I tried to buy a postcard or reproduction of the drawing, I discovered that Her Royal Highness apparently had no intention of sharing it with plebs like me.

 But the drawing would not go away from my sight, and I know that I had to write a poem about it, based on memory.  The man shown wears only a loincloth, chiefly, perhaps, so that Raphael could show his skill at musculature in drawing, but I also assume that he was imaging a Classical warrior; he certainly isn’t a Renaissance figure.

 Because of the Classical nature of the picture I chose to write in long “un-English” lines t might approximate a Latin hexameter.  Perhaps “suggest” is a better word, for one certainly can’t make that Latin line in English.

 But, of course, my point is in the final sentence: “Why grip the axe, blinded, fleeing?”  Obviously he is a completely disabled soldier running away from a conquering army.  Whatever use could he make of that axe?  For me, the drawing has contemporary meaning.  Why do nations insist on retaining useless weapons like nuclear bombs or other massive armaments, or why do they persist in fighting lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Karl Patten

“Just two wops in a jam.”

“That’s where Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted,”

My father said, driving past the Charles St. prison

In our new ’34 Ford.  That’s all.

Those strange names stuck as did the image

Of that gothic fortress at the base of the Pepperpot,

And even then I know “electrocuted” meant terror

Because I had shoved one of my mother’s hairpins

Into a wall-socket and blacked-out the house

In a shower of colors, blown every fuse.

Decades later, I read in a New-York reporter’s

1920 telegram from Boston to his editor:

“Just two wops in a jam.”

I celebrate them, anarchists and draft dodgers

Who know the state is the enemy,

Praise their simple acts,

The practice of going to streets and mill gates

To hand out raw sheets revealing how

Property is theft.


                                                Hollowed out workers

In shoe-factory towns have never wanted to investigate

The sources of their sorrows, their rages.

Two men tried for change, died for trying.

Quivering white-haired Massachusetts had to kill them.

Nicola and Bartolomeo, names no longer strange,

The unjust whiz of your shock still shakes me,

Burns into me, and I claim kinship

With both of you, “just two wops in a jam.”

You give me one way of saying “I am.”

From Touch Poems

By Karl Patten


The judicial murder of Sacco and Vanzetti shocked the world.  Many have written about this famous case; this poem is my own reaction, semi-autobiographical.  From my college days I knew about them, and they became heroes for me, but it was coming across that New York reporter’s vulgar telegram that pushed me into writing a poem about those two Italian anarchists, a celebration of them and for what they believed in.  Because of that they are true American heroes.  Thos they were executed for murder, they stoutly insisted on their innocence for seven years, and it was perfectly clear that Massachusetts killed them because they knew that “the state is the enemy.”

To say this today does not mean that I am a right-wing libertarian – anything but.  However, it is the state that makes wars (and we have not fought a constitutional war since 1941), and wars are lusciously profitable for capitalism.  To take a firm stand against war will make us stand against the state.  The everlasting horrors in the Middle East today were never chosen by the people, and when blood flows there our civil rights, social privileges, and thin wallets bleed here.

In the 1980’s Massachusetts pardoned Sacco and Vanzetti.

Karl Patten