A Poet’s Meditation on Force

Army Cats book coverArmy Cats
by Tom Sleigh
Graywolf Press, 2011

In Army Cats, American poet Tom Sleigh takes on the topic of the 2007 Lebanese Civil War not as an excuse for wanton journalistic rubbernecking, but as a catalyst for a series of troubled meditations on the nature of “force” within contemporary culture.

Let me explain what I mean by force. To do so requires a look back at the groundbreaking work of philosopher and activist Simone Weil.

Writing in the first year of World War II, in an effort to show that Hitler’s rise to power was not the anomaly that other intellectuals claimed it to be, Weil composed one of the most famous meditations on violence ever written, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.”

Early in the essay, Weil defines what she means by “force”:

To define force—it is that x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to its limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all. This is the spectacle The Iliad never wearies of showing us.

Warfare for Weil is not a continuation of politics by other means but a grimly relentless process of dehumanization, unchanged since the time of Homer. Anyone who sees it otherwise is dismissed by the author as a “dreamer.” Weil does not care to offer a nuanced mediation on the role of violence in human nature, and she surely would not view technological progress as having done anything to change the state of things. (What better exemplifies Weil’s notion of force than an American drone—piloted many thousands of miles away by a twenty-two-year-old in California—unleashing its missiles on an al-Qaida safe house outside Karachi?)

Weil scholars often cite “The Iliad or the Poem of Force” as prefiguring the turn toward mysticism and spirituality that characterized her late work, but the basic stance of the essay is one of simple astonishment and disgust at the relentless magnitude of the human capacity for violence. In other words, Weil writes in the tradition of the Jeremiad rather than that of the epic.

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