"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Iraq war
“Paris is shooting all her bullets in the August night.” Those are the words with which Albert Camus opened “The Night of Truth,” the soaring essay from the collection “Resistance, Rebellion and Death” written during those hot nights in summer 1944 when Paris was liberated. “In this vast setting of stones and waters, all around this river that has reflected so much history, … once more justice must be bought with the blood of men. We know this fight too well, we are too involved through our flesh and our hearts to accept this dreadful condition without bitterness.”
The next night, Aug. 25, the Allies entered the city. Camus wrote, “In the most beautiful and hottest of August nights, the eternal stars over Paris mingle with the tracer bullets, the smoke of fires, and the colored rockets of a mass celebration. The unparalleled night marks the end of four years of monstrous history and of unspeakable struggle in which France came to grips with her shame and her wrath.”
The liberation of Paris. The fall of Mussolini, of Ceausescu, of Milosevic. The end of the Khmer Rouge, of Idi Amin. These are shining moments in the history of freedom, of mankind’s long and bitter and never completely achieved struggle to resist tyranny and evil, to make a world where torture and rape and murder and war and injustice and savage lust for power and all the other ancient, all-too-familiar demons are pushed back into the darkness. No one, whether on the left or the right, can look at the faces of those who have been liberated, whether in Paris or Bucharest or Phnom Penh or in the American South in 1865, without feeling one’s heart quicken: We did it, we won one.
“We” is not America, or France, or the Union Army, or Cambodia, or blacks, or whites, or Arabs or Jews: “We” is mankind. To stand in solidarity with humanity on those few occasions when it lurches forward is more than an honor, it is mandatory if you have a soul, like keeping faith with those you love.
And so, at this moment, as the Mordor shadow of Saddam Hussein, a truly evil man who, like a sociopathic murderous husband, killed everything that he could not control, lifts from the long-suffering people of Iraq, all of us, on the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans, America-lovers and America-haters, Syrians and Kuwaitis and Israelis and Palestinians, owe it to our common humanity to stop, put aside — not forever — our doubts and our grief and our future fears, and for one deep moment, celebrate.
Celebrate the 6-year-old boy — he exists, there are thousands of him, he is running down a street in Karbala right now holding a candy bar — who will not grow up in a world where his father, and his uncle, and his cousin are taken away by anonymous men one night and never come back.
Celebrate the young woman who will no longer be taken off the street by Saddam’s agents to a house where she will be gang-raped, and a film of the rape used to blackmail her into becoming an informer.
Celebrate the Kurd who can return to the house his grandfather built without being killed.
Celebrate a world that no longer contains a regime willing to torture small children to force their parents to confess.
Why should we celebrate? Because what happens to those Iraqis is more important than our political beliefs. Even if — especially if — we opposed this war, even if we are disgusted with and deeply suspicious of the U.S. administration, we should celebrate. Their fate matters more.
It is a strange celebration, and not an easy one. It is tinged with sadness, and for some of us with bitterness. The new Iraq is coming into being because of a war solely initiated and largely fought by my country, a war fought not for liberation but for other reasons, none of them convincing or good. It killed many thousands of people, almost all of them Iraqis, most of them innocent. To destroy the tyrant, we also had to destroy much or most of his wretched, doomed army — untold thousands of semiliterate peasants and poor young men from the cities, conscripts, decent men who might have become auto mechanics or teachers but never had a chance before they were sent out onto the killing fields outside Baghdad. We killed many, many civilians. And then there are the American and British dead, young men and women, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who would be alive today had the United States not invaded a foreign country that posed no threat to us.
And it is a celebration haunted by fear. Fear that celebrating at all might be the sentimental diversion of a fool. Fear that the new Iraq could slip into anarchy or a new tyranny. Fear that the United States will fail to rebuild the shattered nation. Fear that even if we do everything right in the months and years ahead, we have already sown the seed of hatred from which terrorism springs. Fear that the Bush administration will not act to save the Israelis and the Palestinians from their tragic death-grip by forcing Ariel Sharon to give up the occupied territories, while ending Palestinian terrorism. Fear that Bush, emboldened by this victory, will embark upon a series of imperialist adventures, few if any of which will have the laudable collateral effects of this one, and which will bring down upon us even more of the world’s hatred and contempt than it presently feels.
All of these regrets and fears are real. They are why those of us who opposed this war did so. Yet they are only part of the universe that is literally being born in front of us. And what we need to do is try to see everything. Yes, that means looking with unflinching eyes at not just the Iraqis we have freed from tyranny but those we have slaughtered. But it also means not just worrying about what could go wrong but acknowledging what has gone right.
If you have a conscience and a brain, this war is slowly but surely driving you off the deep end. In this most morally complex and ambiguous of conflicts, every judgment, attitude or emotion quickly turns into its opposite. Everything is conditional: from the beginning, long before the first bomb fell, what one should think about this war, from its concept to its reality, has been predicated not on the present, but on the future. This is a strained and frustrating and agnostic and deeply odd state of affairs. And for many of us who oppose the war, it has induced what almost might be called a kind of moral schizophrenia.
Actually, not everything is ambiguous. One thing at least is clear: post-invasion Iraq is not likely to be a worse place than it was under Saddam. This is not to say it will necessarily be pretty: to take just one example, the news that two rival Shiite clerics were hacked to death on Thursday at one of Islam’s holiest shrines is ominous. But short of a total collapse into ethnic cleansing and anarchy, it’s hard to argue that whatever comes next will be as bad as Saddam’s rule: It was simply too dreadful.
The larger question of the effect of the war on the region, America, and the world, however, is less clear-cut. And it is doubts about this question that have led many of us who oppose the war to that confused state of moral schizophrenia.
I have a confession: I have at times, as the war has unfolded, secretly wished for things to go wrong. Wished for the Iraqis to be more nationalistic, to resist longer. Wished for the Arab world to rise up in rage. Wished for all the things we feared would happen. I’m not alone: A number of serious, intelligent, morally sensitive people who oppose the war have told me they have had identical feelings.
Some of this is merely the result of pettiness — ignoble resentment, partisan hackdom, the desire to be proved right and to prove the likes of Rumsfeld wrong, irritation with the sanitizing, myth-making American media. That part of it I feel guilty about, and disavow. But some of it is something trickier: It’s a kind of moral bet-hedging, based on a pessimism not easy to discount, in which one’s head and one’s heart are at odds.
Many antiwar commentators have argued that once the war started, even those who oppose it must now wish for the quickest, least bloody victory followed by the maximum possible liberation of the Iraqi people. But there is one argument against this: What if you are convinced that an easy victory will ultimately result in a larger moral negative — four more years of Bush, for example, with attendant disastrous policies, or the betrayal of the Palestinians to eternal occupation, or more imperialist meddling in the Middle East or elsewhere?
Wishing for things to go wrong is the logical corollary of the postulate that the better things go for Bush, the worse they will go for America and the rest of the world. It is based on the belief that every apparent good will turn into its opposite. If this is true, then it would be better for bad things to happen to Bush. But who knows for sure that it is true? Perhaps pro-war leftist Christopher Hitchens was right when he spoke of the “cunning of history” — perhaps the genius of Historical Progress chose Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz to be its unlikely instruments. Dialectical pessimism is the dirty little secret of the antiwar camp — dirty because there is something distasteful about wishing for bad outcomes when the future on which those wishes are based is unknown.
I say that knowing that I will probably find myself going around in circles on this issue again.
It is possible that we who celebrate today will be forced to recant tomorrow. But that should not stop us. Nor should it be our concern. Those who opposed this war in part because they feared what it would do to the Iraqi people must now make every effort to protect and raise up those people. And to do that, they must pay attention to what is happening to them — the good, the bad and the in-between. This is the most compelling reason to celebrate the end of Saddam. Call that celebration a leap of faith, if you will — but you could also call it a binding contract, American to Iraqi, human heart to human heart. We smashed your country and we killed your people and we freed you from a monster: We are bound together now by blood. We owe each other, but we owe you more because we are stronger and because we came into your country.
The left’s role, now, must be to make sure that debt is paid.
In another piece from “Resistance, Rebellion and Death,” “Letters to a German Friend,” Camus wrote the following dialogue. “I told you, ‘I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.’ You retorted, ‘Well, you don’t love your country.’
… “When I think of your words today, I feel a choking sensation. No, I didn’t love my country, if pointing out what is unjust in what we love amounts to not loving, if insisting that what we love should measure up to the finest image we have of her amounts to not loving.”
America has embarked upon the riskiest, most dangerous gamble imaginable — and the risks of the war are small compared to those that are just beginning. There are many reasons to believe that the men who run our country desire the “greatness born of blood and falsehood.” But if we measure up to our finest image, if we steer our course away from injustice and reject imperial hubris, if we rebuild Iraq with the world’s help and without favor or self-interest, there is a chance that Camus’ ringing words, written as Paris was liberated, will apply not just to the City of Light, but to the cradle of civilization.
” … despite the suffering, despite the blood and wrath, despite the dead who can never be replaced, the unjust wounds, and the wild bullets, we must utter, not words of regret, but words of hope, of the dreadful hope of those isolated with their fate.
“This huge Paris, all black and warm in the summer night, with a storm of bombers overhead and a storm of snipers in the streets, seems to us more brightly lighted than the city of Light the whole world used to envy us. It is bursting with all the fires of hope and suffering, it has the flame of lucid courage and all the glow, not only of liberation, but of tomorrow’s liberty.”
Let it be so in Iraq — and let us all work to make it so.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)