At this moment, the world watches Ukraine. The Russian army has thousands, if not tens of thousands, of casualties. Photographs abound of dead, abandoned Russian soldiers; recovery of many bodies has simply not happened.
Stafford brings us to a place peaceful and real. He's at the Canadian border, the longest unfortified border. He indulges a bit of historical whimsy in his opening, anthemic lines. "This is the field where the battle did not happen, / where the unknown soldier did not die" has a grand sound and can move people to tears. After all, the US is psychically a war-torn country. The Afghanistan withdrawal was very recent, as decades were spent firing drone bombs and defusing IEDs. To hear there is not only the possibility, but the reality of a greater peace, that a place can be "hallowed by neglect and an air so tame"—I mean, I can't imagine how that isn't moving.
Still, did the US and Canada fight? Of course. The US tried to invade and conquer Canada in the War of 1812. The person who approved the war was no less than James Madison. It ended after thousands had died, the White House was burned, and the US nearly lost what is now the state of Michigan. Perhaps the only thing worse than the war itself is why it was fought: while war is a bad thing generally, this war was waged for exceptionally trivial reasons. The US simply wanted to own Canada. A combination of stupefying arrogance and greed shed blood at the border Stafford celebrates.
At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border (from poetry180) William Stafford This is the field where the battle did not happen, where the unknown soldier did not die. This is the field where grass joined hands, where no monument stands, and the only heroic thing is the sky. Birds fly here without any sound, unfolding their wings across the open. No people killed—or were killed—on this ground hallowed by neglect and an air so tame that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.
Alan Yan's "Poetry to the Brim" podcast discussed this poem at length, noting its formality and dependence on rhyme, its creation of a space where "what didn't happen" is paramount, and its call to a world without borders and heroes. I highly recommend listening to him. He got me to reconsider this poem and what it tries to achieve.
Strictly speaking, the poem itself is the imaginative space where peace resides. The poem is the field. Sure, "[t]his is the field where grass joined hands, / where no monument stands, / and the only heroic thing is the sky" is what Stafford witnesses. But his witness becomes an image, and that image we share divorces itself from reality. All of us know that the US/Canadian border has become more restrictive. It isn't militarized like some others, but is heavily patrolled by law enforcement. Refugees and asylum seekers do not fare well there.
This brings us to the larger question of how to conceive the scope of war. Stafford understands heroism and nationhood as related to monuments. "Monument" almost sounds unnecessary until one considers the specific problem. Historical memory comes from what we want to consider sacred. When there is massive suffering, loss of life, the miracle that we're somehow here, monuments emerge. They are markers of being. Because of them, some are remembered as heroes, a moral status is given to defending a nation. This is an important but narrow understanding of war. It cannot appreciate degrees of state violence. Either the state is all-encompassing, the only reason we are even here, or the state is nothing but violence and thus irredeemable.
It is true the state is the institution with a monopoly on violence. But it is also true some countries are always at war, far more than others. People in those countries are hard at work demonizing members of their family, neighbors, anyone who looks different, anyone who looks the same (can they be trusted?), scientists, celebrities, politicians. They see the world in terms of power and it is hard to get them to appreciate the building of trust. To put this as directly as possible: Russia isn't at war right now because Russians are thinking hard about security. A lot of Russians are addicted to their television sets and do not want to hear that the TV is wrong. They made the "effort" to watch it, they heard the official-sounding man say "Ukraine bad," and that's it. They have the truth. If this sounds to you like the United States of America, yes, it is the same thing. The violence I am speaking of is a war with reality. The specific power people want is to say they're right and everyone else can go to hell. "Birds fly here without any sound, / unfolding their wings across the open" is a majestic, subtle reply to them, but too majestic, too subtle for what we're dealing with. I read Stafford's lines and hear the sound of a New York Post alert breaking the peace.
Strangely, a way to stop this horror is national renewal. The problem: How can I convince you to care about other people? A nation can certainly welcome immigrants, treat guests lavishly, address the general welfare, celebrate the peace they have with others, and work for shared progress. Gandhi and MLK are ultimately political figures. They do point to higher, transcendent values, but their work and recognition within a nation are not incidental or only oppositional. Even the prophets asked for national renewal. The reason is not that the state is the be-all-and-end-all. Maybe one day it will be transcended. The deeper reason is that as a practical matter, recognizing other people is a political act, which we know to be true because purposeful neglect of others is one of the most destructive forces on the planet. The "field," the "birds," renew in their own way, creating a place of peace. We must renew in ours, but that is a matter of analogy, not literally doing as plants and other animals.
Birds unfold their wings across the open, but we don’t fly. More importantly, we join hands: grass doesn’t. Without justice, there cannot be lasting peace. In Hesiod, the age of Kronos is when the golden age occurred; all was peaceful and there was no war. But one had to be ruled by Kronos, who dealt with the concepts of freedom and change by swallowing his children.