Ojai Festival 2011- Music in the Time of War Symposium

Ojai Music Festival 2011

Music in the Time of War

Mark Danner and Peter Sellars with Ara Guzelimian


Ara: It's a very great treat to welcome back and welcome to Ojai these two wonderful gentlemen.  Peter Sellars first came to Ojai in the 1992 festival, is that right?  And that was a year where we worked together on a memorable production of Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, which was the first and only time Pierre Boulez worked with twin rappers.  [Laughter.]  I'm not making this stuff up.  

Just out of curiosity, I need other witnesses.  Who was here and saw that?  There you go.  If you're sitting near one of those hands, ask them about it.  It's also remembered as the one and only year where an entire pickup truck was a stage prop on stage in Libbey Bowl, and no, that did not contribute to the need for a new Libbey Bowl.  [Laughter.]  So Peter, welcome back.

Peter: Thanks, Ara.  Thanks.

Ara: It's great to be with you here.  And Peter immediately suggested the company of Mark Danner, one of the great journalists and askers of difficult questions, and chronicler of difficult things in our time.  At a time when journalism seems to be diminished, Mark is a rare and shining example of somebody who digs deep and forces us to think very hard rather than just soak up some sort of small predigested tidbit, and so it's a very great treat to be with these two gentlemen.  

I kept telling them you don't need me because they have so much to say to each other and to continue their dialogue, but Peter and I go way back.  Peter kept saying, no, no, come sit with us.  So I happily will sit with you and contribute when you need it, but I turn it over to the two of you about what's to come.

Peter: Well, I think one of the great things about the Ojai Festival is all of us sitting together, and that's a really moving and powerful gathering of people in a very powerful place — a very powerful place in which to gather which has incredible history of moral and spiritual inquiry in this valley.  And so it's a powerful place to speak in and to speak from.  And I did want to invite Mark here, and I also want to have the pleasure of talking with Ara because it's a pleasure.  But I think we should just plunge right in, Mark, and I would just say go.  [Laughs.]

Mark: Thanks, Peter.  

Peter: I mean, I can ramp you up, but I have a feeling you're pretty ramped up.

Mark: Thank you.  Thanks very much.  Well, I should say, first of all, this is a conversation that, between Peter and I, has been going on for, God, 34 years.  I met Peter — Peter was the first person I met at college.  I want you to think about that — [laughter] — for a moment.  [Laughs.]  Yeah.  I was from Utica, New York — I am from Utica, New York, and I arrived at Harvard, where I knew no one, and Peter was the first person I met.  And I had dinner with him at the home of our common freshman advisor, which was supposed to make me more comfortable, I think.  And Peter had just returned from Moscow.  And this was '76, when people just didn't get on a plane to Moscow very often.  And he had been studying puppetry at the, what, Royal…?

Peter: The State Central Theatre, the Obraztsov Theatre in Moscow.

Mark: The Obraztsov Theatre in Moscow, of course.  And very few people from Utica seem to have done that.  [Laughter.]  And I do recall, Peter, at one point in the dinner, leaning back and saying, "Ah, I have imbibed overmuch."  [Laughter.]  And I said to myself, what am I doing here, exactly, and how can I get back from where I came from?  

But things did look up from there, so this is a conversation that has been going on a long time.  And I'm enormously happy and excited to continue it here at this incredibly beautiful place, this happy place, and I want to thank Tom Morris, Jeffrey Hayden, Ara and others, and of course also the divine Dawn Upshaw.

Peter: Yes.

Mark: Yes.  Who is here somewhere for…  Yes, please, applaud.  [Applause.]  [Laughs.]  I am, among other hats I wear is a professorship at Bard, where I teach with pride, and my heart swelled with pride last night during that sublime, just sublime performance, and I was so happy.  I'm not usually a nationalist kind of Bard, Bard kind of guy, but I felt like standing up and cheering, they were so good.  Okay, that's the happy part of my presentation.  [Laughter.]  

We're here on this bright, beautiful, sunny day in this orange tree laden place, all of us happy, and happy to be here, to talk about war, of which three are being fought by our country as we speak.  It seems a remarkable, incredible thing, and one wonders whether a similar discussion and similar distance between us here and wars being fought could have happened during the Civil War, the music of which, of course, highlights George Crumb's sublime piece, which we'll hear this evening.  

But the fact is that as we speak, there are 50,000 Americans still in Iraq.  A half dozen of them died just a few days ago.  Didn't make the front page in most of the country, and didn't make many newscasts at all.  They were just killed by a rocket as they sat in their barracks.  A hundred thousand are in Afghanistan, still fighting, and we're told that a few are supposed to start coming home next month, in July.  Between three and five thousand perhaps will head home.  But 30,000 have been added to their numbers since President Obama has been in office.  

And finally, we've acquired, in the current administration, a third war, or sometimes called, in Washington, a half war.  Some people say we're fighting two and a half.  I'm not quite sure what that means or what the humor is, but people then chuckle.  Two and a half wars.  And that is, of course, against Libya.  And this is a war that President Obama can claim as entirely his own.  

I was thinking about this discussion today and I thought, if anything, we should begin with some words of President Obama, very eloquent words, I think, which I wrote, actually, to Peter when he suggested this conversation.  And I talked about the moral mission of the United States, a moral mission that's inscribed in "mine eyes have seen the glory," which is part of tonight's program, and was the—

Peter: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is the first song in George Crumb's song cycle—

Mark: Exactly.

Peter: — "The Wings of Destiny," which we will hear tonight performed by Dawn Upshaw.

Mark: "In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the seas, 

With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me, 

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, 

Our God is marching on."  

There's a war song.  A war song.  God and morality and war.  Now our President, whose eloquence has been much noted, two months ago.  

"It's true," he told us, "That America cannot use our military whenever repression occurs, but that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right.  To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader, and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings, under such circumstances, would have been a betrayal of who we are.  Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries.  The United States of America is different.  And as President, I refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

These words resonated with me.  My career as a writer has covered a bunch of wars, I guess a half dozen or so now, and that line about images of mass slaughter and mass graves referred, we are told, to something rather specific, Srebrenica, which was a massacre that occurred in Bosnia in 1995, and the perpetrator of which, just a couple of weeks ago, was finally arrested, Ratko Mladic, a general who's been on the run in Serbia for 16 years, which generally means that they haven't wanted to arrest him.  He finally has been arrested, and he now is a rather feeble man, ill, and he'll go on trial.  

The U.S. stood by and watched that happen.  That was a safe area protected by the United Nations, Dutch troops.  Eight thousand men and boys were murdered basically under their eyes and under the eyes of the international community.  So President Obama essentially tells the nation, well, this can't happen again in Benghazi, in Libya, therefore we must go to war.

You'll remember — now, I wrote a lot about that massacre, and its resonance and its horror has been used before, notably before the Iraq war, when similar words were in the mouth of George W. Bush, who asserted a moral mission for the Iraq war, and a majority of the country, if we're to believe polls at the time, agreed with him.  

Most shocking for me, many of my colleagues agreed with him.  Indeed, I think it's not an exaggeration to say that the intellectual elite of the country, in its majority, supported the Iraq war, a war that we now know to be, among other things, fought supposedly to destroy and rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to have existed.  It's a question how, actually, the history books will deal with that.

Suffice it to say that moral mission cuts both ways.  We hear it again and again.  And many of my colleagues with whom I covered the Bosnia war, which was an excruciating experience.  You know, you were…in Sarajevo there was no water, there was no heat.  You were there in the wintertime.  You climbed up the 15 or 14 floors in a cold dark staircase to your room where there was no water or no shower, all the rest of it, and you were a reporter complaining about these things.  

And meanwhile, the people in the city not only have no water, but they have no bread.  They have to stand around spigots to collect water in bottles which were, and those groups of people were a favorite target of Serb snipers, who fired at them, killed them, and favored killing children, because children were, in a sense, the more lucrative targets, which is to say, if you're trying to create terror, you want to kill people who will instill the most terror in the population, and children were the most prized.  

And up above, as this was going on, you saw NATO war planes, including American war planes, circling and circling and circling and circling and looking down.  And so you said to yourself, my god, what are those planes there for, and how can this injustice go on, and why shouldn't we do something?  Is this who we are, to use Obama's phrase.

Eventually, after 125,000 died, the United States and NATO did intervene and stopped the war, but after the first post Cold War genocide took place.  Not long after that, the U.S. had occupied — excuse me, before that, in the last months of the first Bush Administration, the U.S. had entered Somalia to ensure the delivery of food to the starving.  George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell let it be known that this never would have happened had they intervened in Bosnia.  In other words, this was, in a sense, a kind of product of their guilt at watching these atrocities happen.  

A couple of years later, in '94, the Rwanda massacre began.  The Canadians wanted to intervene, to do something to stop it.  The United States, suddenly obsessed with mission creep because of what was going on in Somalia, prevented the Canadians from acting, and we had our second genocide of the post Cold War world.  

So when the time came for George W. Bush to cheer on the invasion and the occupation of Iraq, a lot of my colleagues in the world of journalism and writing and intellectuals, as we seem collectively to be known, were very willing to accept his arguments that the U.S. should act in favor of human rights to rid the world of a horrible tyrant and to liberate the Iraqi people.  

And one of the reasons I came out and publicly argued against the war in a series of debates with Christopher Hitchens, Bill Kristol, Michael Ignatieff and others was because I was so shocked that so many people I know were supporting this war.  But to them the message was just as clear as it was to President Obama in talking about Libya.  That is, the United States must act to prevent people from being killed, to prevent atrocities, to prevent mass graves, must act before those mass graves are filled.

So I guess my point of departure here is rather a moral conundrum that's summarized very well and eloquently by our President, but also in the song that everyone here has sung, and everyone here knows very well, but in fact poses this: in the name of Jesus Christ and God and freedom we must march off to battle and do a substantial amount of killing.  And of course the war that that hymn was written for was America's bloodiest.  It saw the death of 600,000 Americans, slightly more, I think.  So my point of departure, Peter.  It's your turn.

[End of recording.]

Deeply passionate about music, politics and theater, Peter Sellars and Mark Danner discuss how " the moral concerns of the U.S. as a polity and a great power must stem, ultimately, from a grounding in the humanities."

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