Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Gary Wills’s Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State; Elizabeth Arnold’s Effacement.


The longest hostage episode involving American citizens is not the 444 days of captivity that began on November 4, 1979, at the US Embassy in Tehran. It’s an episode that started four decades earlier and has shown no signs of resolution, and that has unfolded not on the fringes of American power but at its very center. In 1939 President Roosevelt secretly authorized research on an atomic bomb, an order that led to the establishment of the Manhattan Project–a massive undertaking unchecked by Congress–and soon enough to the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "A desirable peace cannot come from such an inhuman application of force," warned the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi in a report about the second-generation weapon President Truman wanted to build after learning that Stalin had acquired the Bomb.

Garry Wills agrees, but the argument he makes against the Bomb’s inhuman force in his intrepid Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (Penguin Press; $27.95) does not concern its terrifying technology. Wills instead describes the political fallout: the myriad ways democratic governance has been weakened by the secretive national security processes that arose with the invention and keeping of the Bomb and that remain concentrated in the executive branch, immune from legislative or judicial scrutiny. No one but the president can push the button. "He doesn’t have to call the Congress," Dick Cheney noted–correctly–on Fox News in 2008. "If the President has the sole authority to launch nation-destroying weapons," Wills writes, "he has license to use every other power at his disposal that might safeguard that supreme necessity…. To challenge his authority anywhere is to threaten the one great authority."

Bomb power is imperial executive power, and we are hostage to it. Bomb power is a force employed by man and a force that enslaves man, a force before which human flesh melts and a force whose weight deforms politics: every day an all-day permanent emergency. Wills deplores the harsh interrogation techniques endorsed by the Bush administration, but he does not define them as rogue policies. He views them as the exercise of an imperial presidency, and not unprecedented. They are the pure products of postwar America, even though no one pushed the button.

* * *

One of the epigraphs in Elizabeth Arnold’s Effacement (Flood; paper $14.95) is a passage from George Oppen’s poem "Blood From the Stone": "To a body anything can happen,/Like a brick." Recalling his service as an infantryman in France in World War II, Oppen suggests how the use of force reduces a person to a body–a nameless thing. In Effacement, her third volume of poems, Arnold writes about bodies that have suffered gross insults or disfigurement, and while one of the forces of effacement is war, others are cancer, death and the oblivion of time: "anything physical keeps ending/forwards or backwards." Arnold explores these big themes on an intimate scale. The poems are often meditations on a person’s persistence in misfortune, on attempts to defy effacement and rise above it, even in defeat. Several poems concern Henry Tonks’s medical illustrations of British soldiers who suffered grave facial wounds in World War I. In "XV." Arnold writes of an illustration in which one man "can’t close his mouth/because he doesn’t have a mouth," but "In the eyes, there is a face." In Tonks’s delicate hand Arnold detects a gentle form of effacement: "The way a genius mind turns into something/other than a self."

A similar sensibility informs Arnold’s spooky, beautiful poems and their surge of contradictory forces: hanging phrases, absent conjunctions, enjambments across stanza breaks, sentence fragments fragmented further by enjambments, lines given body by the weight of nouns more than the pulse of verbs. Elemental and unsparing, quiet and startling, Arnold’s supple syntax is a source of gravity and vertigo. It is an acute expression of a mind’s awareness of the tragedy of effacement: in burning through it, we gain a keener sense of our predicament. Here is "XLI.":

You can see more as a soul,
darkness speeding into darkness.

Earth’s harder.

Like a spacecraft on reentry,
the body has to

burn its way through the sky’s lens.

Effacement offers a language of survival refined from poetry’s perishable rewards.


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