Dan Chiasson, in his review of Guantánamo detainee poetry, questions how much of a hand the government had in crafting the poems, which were heavily vetted and translated by “linguists with secret-level security clearance”:
Given these constraints, a better subtitle might have been “The Detainees Do Not Speak” or perhaps “The Detainees Are Not Allowed to Speak.” But the best subtitle, I fear, would have been “The Pentagon Speaks.” To be sure, it’s hard to imagine a straightforward propagandistic use for the lines “America sucks, America chills, / While d’ blood of d’ Muslims is forever getting spilled”; but you can’t help suspecting that this entire production is some kind of public relations psych-out, “proof” that dissent thrives even in the cells of Guantánamo. (Does that sound paranoid? Can you think of another good reason the Pentagon would have selected these lines out of thousands for publication?)
Yes, that sounds paranoid. I can also think of another good reason: the Pentagon doesn’t care that much about poetry. I’m reasonably certain they’re also censoring a lot of benign material that could be published without concern for national safety, but what does get through is because 1) dissent, does in fact thrive even in Guantánamo and 2) there are lawyers working hard–and a judicial system that recognizes their right–to defend their clients and publicize their client’s imprisonment. Chiasson, however, definitely sees government handiwork:
You have to be in the mood for some death-defying Orwellian back-flips, then, to read “Poems From Guantánamo.” When Martin Mubanga, an “athletic kickboxer” and a “citizen of both the United Kingdom and Zambia” (the poems come with extensive biographical notes, often more evocative than the poems themselves) refers to “hard-core detainees like you an’ me” — is this a case of the Pentagon’s missing the irony or, more likely, has the Pentagon deemed that analogy so absurd as to reveal a dangerous criminal mind-set? Since the poem, written in an absurd ersatz-gangsta patois, possesses exactly zero literary interest, what is a reader to do besides try to locate the governmental cunning in clearing it for publication?
I’m getting tired of references to Orwell for all things Bush administration related. Look, the detentions at Guantánamo are illiberal, contrary to Constitutional protections, and do little more than besmirch what little reputation the US has left. But every government action is not part of some intricate calculation to serve the whims or impulses of the State. The Pentagon doesn’t miss the irony, it just likely doesn’t care. Releasing the assorted verse of detainees doesn’t affect the Pentagon one iota because there isn’t much that can be said about Guantánamo that hasn’t already been said by numerous legal scholars, Tony Blair, John McCain, and Colin Powell, to name only a few. If no one is surprised that detainees are writing “America sucks” after years of imprisonment without trial, why should the Pentagon want to censor it?
And if one needs any further proof that the military doesn’t care about poetry, defense department spokesman Jeffrey Gordon makes it clear:
As with prisoners within the American justice system, he argues, there are constraints on their first amendment rights. “I don’t think these guys are writing poetry like Morrissey,” he continues.
Morrissey? C’mon, they can’t even identify a poet.