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New Year’s Day 2005, at the Window

Only the date distinguishes the day.
I’m looking back and inward, and I see
How habit scores its ever deeper track
Each year across the country of my years.
There go the footprints of a private man
Of middle age, to whom life has been kind.
I earn well, eat well, take my holidays.
I’m loved within the circle of my friends,
Unknown beyond. Beyond, I’m one of those
Whose task it is to populate a world
Which others make. Which is the stronger force.


The stronger force flows from America.
Two months ago, its people cast their votes
And most preferred stupidity and might
To lead their nation at a time of war.
They chose the men who, once upon a time,
Had been their present enemy’s best friend;
Who’d raised him up; who’d done a deal with him
Which paid and armed him while he gassed and shot
His citizens; who’d looked the other way;
Who’d thought, ‘He’s not a loony with a beard.
At least he wears a business suit. At least
Iraq is not Iran.’ And that was fine.

Fast forward 20 years. A day of blood.
A new sensation for America:
Invasion of the homeland. Death close up.
The murderer is not available
But righteous retribution will be swift.
A scapegoat must be sought. Who is to hand?

Stupidity and might had just the man:
Their former payroll thug, who long ago
Had ceased to play the part assigned to him;
Who’d made them wish they’d never done that deal.
His crimes were now embarrassing: why not
Pin one crime on him that was not his own?

                 The children of America
Flew out to bomb the evil-doer’s land,
Requiting death in bringing greater death
Until the land was free of him. Each time
The carriers of death in freedom’s name
Were killed themselves, stupidity and might
Spoke to the nation in a solemn voice:
‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the families
Of heroes who will not have died in vain.’
At times like these, they found democracy
A useful word to say. The folks at home
Would know their children’s deaths had been the price
Required of them to build a better world.
They could continue to salute the flag,
Repeat the wish, ‘God bless America!’
In pride and grief. Stupidity and might
Then led the singing of the battle hymn

In which I joined. My taxes did their bit,
With Britain’s little wagon firmly hitched
To boss America’s avenging star.
My country’s children went along to kill
And to be killed themselves. I helped to burn
A baby and to amputate a limb.


I want true liberty to put down roots
In all the places where it is not yet.
I doubt the blood we’ve spilled will speed its growth
In countries which have felt our wrath. I fear
The opposite: theocracies of old
And newer thugs will take their chance to thrive,
Glad of our dreadful gift: a cause for war.

How could I not prefer to see Iraq,
Instead of counting corpses, counting votes?
Alas, the papers will be totted up
Before the bodies. That is not the choice.
Our leaders urge us to acclaim, in unison,
The latest convert to democracy.
Let my voice sound one of the jarring notes.


The short day closes, and the sky has cleared.
I’m looking out and upward. Lines of birds,
Impelled, unhurried, hold their homeward course.
High up, from west to east, a vapour trail
Marks and divides the blotting-paper air.


America and Britain, you will pay a price
Above the one you think you’ve settled on. Beware.

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by the author