Talk of War

    We were gathered on a backyard deck. The light was failing and a chill was coming on. We had been asked to share something we had written, preferably poetry, with a small group of friends, a “read-in,” if you will. There were only a few poets among us, however. After listening to several short and sassy poems, we were treated to an unfinished memoir that the group agreed was a novel waiting to happen. Then, a United States District Court judge and law professor took out a manuscript and read what might be called a playlet. It went like this:

    The year is 2014. Netanyahu and Obama are in conversation. Iran has dropped a nuclear bomb on Israel, and the country is largely destroyed. Netanyahu tells Obama that Israel is going to retaliate. Obama argues against it. Netanyahu says Israel has no choice. Obama begs him not to do so. He suggests that a place can be found where the Jewish people can be resettled. Netanyahu stands his ground. There is nothing Obama can do.

    We were silent when the reading was over. Eagerly, the assembled, a dozen and a half of us, moved indoors, as much, I am sure, to avoid commenting on what we had just heard as for warmth and light.

    Two days later, I was brought up short by another dark work of the imagination. A friend sent a link to a YouTube video: “Help Kickstart World War III.” Created by the Second City Network, which produces all kinds of satiric, and supposedly funny, videos — which I guess are modeled on the skits on “Saturday Night Live” — the World War III video stars a series of young adults who announce that they are supporting President Obama because they promised to do so in 2008 and he is “right all the time.” They ask viewers to contribute to the $1.6 trillion needed for World War III, which will be “social-media focused,” using “organic, grass-fed bombs,” and fought on “99 percent of the world.” Maybe it’s because I have already lived through a world war, but I wasn’t laughing. Could the video really have been viewed 2,472,204 times? Or is that part of the joke?

    My copy of the latest New Yorker magazine, with a Louis Menand book review calculated to cause alarm, arrived the same day. Mr. Menand, a Harvard English professor who is a brilliant contributor to The New Yorker, praises Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control,” calling it a “miracle of information management . . . covering more than 50 years of scientific and political change.”

    In detail after detail, the book proves, Mr. Menand writes, that “most of the danger that human beings faced from nuclear weapons after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to do with inadvertence, with bombs dropped by mistake, bombers catching on fire or crashing, missiles exploding, computers miscalculating, and people jumping to the wrong conclusion.” The title of the article, “Nukes of Hazard,” playing on the television series “Dukes of Hazzard,” was the only thing slightly amusing about the review.

    Given the terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi this week and the continuing Syrian war, there hasn’t been much to smile about in the news. Although we didn’t hear much poetry on the deck the other night, I couldn’t help remembering the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold: “[W]e are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night.” Written almost 150 years ago, it still strikes home.