Iraq: A Haiku War?

Traveling Through a Tunnel

The Iraq war is winding down; I hope that there is light at the end of that tunnel. Wars seem to never end.

Thoughts of the Iraq war are affecting 73-year-old Richard Elster who is the main character in the novel Point Omega by Don DeLillo. Elster is a troubled neo-conservative “thinker” who once worked in the innermost ring of the Pentagon where the senior Pentagon officials have their offices. Elster was a “planner” who provided aid and support to the Bush Administration as the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz prepared for the US attack on Iraq on March 20, 2003.

In the summer of 2006, Elster is worried about the course the war has taken. He has abandoned Washington for the isolation of the California desert, but he cannot free his mind from thoughts of responsibility for the war.

Elster’s preoccupation with the Iraq war seems to have rendered him nearly incoherent. He is subject to fits of depression, and his once sharp faculties are diminished. When the reader first meets him, he is sitting in the living room of an isolated house near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. With him is a younger man, Jim Finley, who wants to make a reality movie featuring Elster.

Finley is the novel’s narrator. In the following extract from the novel, Finley sets the scene and then describes the Elster for us:

We were inside, it was late, he [Elster] wore the old rumpled trousers, a cruddy sweatshirt, his big dumb feet in dressy leather sandals.
[Richard Elster speaks.]
“I’ll tell you this much. War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for the plotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies.”
He chanted the words, he intoned liturgically.
“They became paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. They think they’re sending an army into a place on a map.”
He was not one of the strategists, he said unnecessarily. …
“There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.”
–Point Omega, p 28.

Jim Finley continues the narration:

Finally he [Elster] said, “Haiku.”

I nodded thoughtfully, idiotically, a slow series of gestures meant to indicate that I understood completely.

[Elster continued speaking.]
“Haiku means nothing beyond what it is. A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind. It’s human consciousness located in nature. It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count. I wanted a haiku war.’ He said. ‘I wanted a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things. This is the soul of haiku. Bare everything to plain sight. See what’s there. Things in war are transient. See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disintegrate.”
–Point Omega, p. 29.

Elster wanted a poetic war, a “war in three lines”, that would reveal the essence of war.

With the war winding down as the year 2011 ends, the essence of the war appears to be:
• 4800 US warriors dead,
• 150,000 Iraqis, civilians and warriors dead,
• Over $1 trillion spent by the US.

But, what of the poetic war? Re-phrasing Elster’s description of a haiku that was quoted above:

A pond in summer,

A leaf in the wind

DeLillo gives a plausible first and last line for a haiku, but what is the missing seven syllable middle line?

A Japanese poet, writing in Haiku style, summed up war in just seventeen syllables:

Ah! Summer grasses!
All that remains
Of the warriors’ dreams
–attributed to Matsuo Bashō (1644 –1694)


Bashō and DeLillo write of war from unusual angles. The warriors tragically pay the price for the mistakes made by the planners, but are war planners, perhaps, tragic characters also? In Elster’s case it is clear to me that he is a troubled man and tragic character.

The first and last chapters of the novella take place in a New York Museum where an exhibition of 24 Hour Psycho by Douglas Gordon is on display. In the video exhibit, the movie Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock is shown at 2 frames per second—taking 24 hours to show the film.

These two chapters bookend the story of Richard Elster and encourage us to look at him in slow motion or stop action. Perhaps we are meant to look at the Iraq war with the same lens—if we did that, what would we see?

Note: A photo essay by Douglas Gordon is on-line at the Guardian.

DeLillo’s novella is short (only 117 pages), and it is written in a minimalist style—few metaphors and sparse description. Much is left for the reader to puzzle over.

Putting DeLillo’s novella and Basho’s haiku aside, I am grateful that the Iraq war is coming to an end. I hope something nice is waiting for us at the other end of the tunnel.

Day 86: Point Omega, Don DeLillo (2010).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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