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Notes for a Piece about War

Author: John Steinmetz

John Steinmetz, War Scrap

For violin, cello, piano, and percussion

Commissioned by Jack and Florence Irving for Pacific Serenades

Composed with assistance from the Ragdale Foundation

First performances: Feb. 5, 6, and 8, 2000, by Pacific Serenades in Tarzana, Pasadena, and Los Angeles

Released on CD "War Scrap: that we may have peace" from Pacific Serenades

program note by John Steinmetz


In 1994 I visited Laos with my wife and 5-year-old daughter. We had been drawn there by a photograph of a fascinating archaeological site, but I was startled and deeply affected by 20-year-old evidence of the war that Americans once fought there in secret. Flying into Xieng Khoang province in northern Laos, we saw a landscape pockmarked with bomb craters, and we learned that Laos is the most bombed country, per capita, in the history of warfare. According to our guidebook, America dropped more bombs on Laos in the early ’70s than in all of World War II. There are plenty more statistics: in all, ten metric tons of bombs dropped per square kilometer, about half a metric ton for every person in Laos. That’s an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. For this we taxpayers paid about 2 million dollars every day.

These statistics would have been too huge to comprehend if I hadn’t seen remnants of the bombing. Bomb casings were everywhere, used now for fences, for the stilts that hold up houses and rice sheds, made into large tools, planters, and curbs. In Phonsavan, the provincial capital, we saw piles of war scrap—rusting airplane wings, shell casings, bombs, rifles, and machine parts—ready to be sold off to the Vietnamese, the Thais, or the Chinese, to be melted down and made into other things. I visited a scrap yard, where men were weighing piles of metal and heaving it into a truck, while I poked into the piles around them, looking at rusty, twisted metal. In one area were projectiles: shell casings, bombs, and missiles. In another area, sharp, jagged chunks of rusty shrapnel. Another pile was miscellaneous parts I couldn’t recognize. I saw guns, helmets, a huge Rambo-type gun, wings, gears, wheels. Not all of it was American; my guide found a hand grenade that he said was Russian, and apparently some of the stuff is Chinese.

For twenty years the Lao people have been dragging these things out of the forest, plowing them up in their fields, dragging them out of the way. I would have thought that twenty years would be enough time to clear the metal out, sell it off, and melt it down. But judging from the piles we saw, there is plenty left.

Our guidebook says that still, several times a month, somebody—a farmer ploughing or a child playing—is injured by a newly-discovered bomb. Tourists were advised to keep to well-worn paths, for fear of stumbling on explosives.

The type of bomb that most haunts me is a “cluster bomb.” These were dropped from airplanes in huge cases that opened in midair to release hundreds of fist-sized bomblets that scattered over a large area and, when exploded, sprayed pellets and jagged shards. The purpose was to injure the enemy rather than to kill him, the theory being that a maimed soldier would be more costly for the other side than a dead one. Plenty of civilians got maimed as well.

In documents Laos was never referred to by name. Because it was a secret war, fought without the discussion or approval of our citizenry, the rules of war could be ignored. Bombs were dropped on civilians, on temples, on ancient monuments. Pilots turned back by bad weather over Hanoi would dump their bombs on Laos before returning to base in Thailand.

I felt a complex stew of emotions about these things: anger, embarrassment, grief. Looking at the bomb craters, some of which still had nothing growing in them after twenty years, I imagined that some huge and terrible monster had gone rampaging through the countryside, leaving these footprints. That “monster,” I realized, had come from our country. By 1994 the monster was long gone from Laos, and I wondered where it had gone. I wonder what it is up to now.

Since that visit I have thought about what I saw there, and I have tried to understand how a country that thinks of itself as a peace-loving, positive force in the world, can do such things and keep them secret from itself. I became curious about our national psyche, about the psychological situation that keeps a people in denial about their violent acts. American violence in Laos is only one episode in a violent history; is there anything we can do as individuals to reduce the chances of our country doing such a thing again?

Two angles on this question underlie War Scrap. One is the ancient idea that we human beings suffer from blindness about ourselves. We are too good at losing sight of those parts of our natures that we hate or fear. It’s a bit of folk wisdom that looking at what you hate in other people gives clues to what you hate about yourself. Apparently nations are similarly blind to the darker sides of their national character. In America, our very idealism may make it hard for us to see our nation’s violent streak.

The second angle is also ancient: that art can help us bring up difficult and painful truths and examine them. In some cultures the arts provide ways to give expression to those scary, violent parts of human nature through painting, mask-making, dance, and theatre, through impersonating demons and war gods, through enacting mythic battles. In our culture the popular arts are full of violence, but I suspect that these don’t help us much because we take part only as passive observers. In some cases the popular arts may actually be enflaming our violent streak while deepening our blindness toward it.

War Scrap presents ten brief snapshots of feelings, images, and ideas having to do with war. The snapshots don’t show Laos, although they come from my experiences there, and some spring from specific images, like the Vietnam vet we met in Laos who still sometimes finds shrapnel rising to the surface of his skin. In other movements you will hear grief, violence, innocence, aggressive energies, and even a clown scene making fun of the attempt to stop the “monster.”

America is certainly not unique in its capacity for violence, but our tremendous power means that our national psychoses can be enormously amplified and sent around the world to do great harm. Music can’t end war or transform a country’s character, but I hope that these few minutes spent listening to music will help in some small way.

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