Philip Larkin, that famously crotchety British poet of political incorrectness, knew a lot about a lot. He knew a great deal, for instance, about the general f***ed-up-ness of families, the shimmering mirage of the sexual revolution, and the creeping fear of old age and death.
But he never even conceived of drones.
This, at any rate, was the thought that flew irrelevantly into my head as I listened to President Obama discuss "peace in our time" in his second inaugural speech. (And this, mamas and daddies, is also why you shouldn't let your babies grow up to be English majors: they will fritter away their time writing columns, and find any excuse to name-drop famous poets).
But really -- what would Larkin have made of drones?
Consider "Homage to a Government," his 1969 elegy for the British Empire.
Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.
It's hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it's been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.
Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it's a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
(Mandatory disclaimer: I know, the British Empire really stunk for millions of people, so one shouldn't get all weepy about its demise. But it's just a poem, damn it.)
Military commentators (probably all former English majors!) love to quote this poem, because it is (a) a fine poem, objectionable though we may find British imperialism, and (b) painfully a propos as American imperialism moves into its death throes.
But Larkin's poem is inapplicable to our current situation for two reasons. For one thing, we don't have a hope in hell of leaving our children any money. We've already squandered it, both on soldiers and on ourselves at home. And for another thing -- if I may add another poet to the convoluted mix -- the American empire will be going out, contra Eliot, with a bang, not a whimper. Or rather, with many and many a bang -- because though we may lack money, we've still got a whole bunch of drones.
This is what we'll be leaving our children.
Drones, of course, constitute the weapons that dare not speak their name: officially, the president and the rest of the U.S. government still have no comment on the question of whether or not we might be using or not using drone strikes in certain unspecified countries. You know: covert is covert, even when it's sort of overt. So President Obama didn't say a word about drones in Monday's inaugural address. Instead, he alluded to our 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and our planned 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, assuring us that "A decade of war is now ending."
This was a crowd pleaser, as well as a somewhat less poetic variant of "Next year we are to bring the soldiers home/For lack of money. And this is all right."
And it is all right, because as Obama put it, "We, the people...believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war." This, in turn, is the president's polite way of acknowledging his suspicion that the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan only made trouble happen.
But it's also all right because perpetual war no longer requires soldiers -- because we, unlike Philip Larkin's Britain, are a nation proudly possessed of drones.
With drones, we can pretend to have peace while actually having perpetual war. We can bring the soldiers home, something the public is manifestly eager to do, but still make trouble happen in places a long way off.
And we will. Don't let the president's peculiar evocation of Neville Chamberlain fool you: we may withdraw from Afghanistan next year as planned, but we're about as likely to have "peace in our time" as the British were in 1938.