The Birds of War

birds of war.jpg

Dominic Nahr/Magnum Photos

Mombasa, Kenya, 2012

“Seer of misery! Never a word that works to my advantage!”
                             —Agamemnon to the augur Calchas in the Iliad, Book 1

Is it to be war? It would seem so, now and for the foreseeable future. Yet the future seems, increasingly, unforeseeable, as the seers with furrowed brows, convened around the tables at CNN or PBS, predict the most extraordinary and contradictory things. Can the campaign against ISIS succeed without American “boots on the ground”? Well, yes and no. Can the Iraqi army become a reliable fighting force? That depends. Will the fickle American public—whipped into war fever by videotaped beheadings and an obscure group called Khorasan, apparently determined to attack the US from secret cells near Aleppo—still support the war when the November elections arrive? We’ll see.

When the Romans, those unsentimental warriors, considered launching a war in some far-flung locale on the margins of empire, they didn’t dilly-dally around with military experts. They consulted augurs, professional birdwatchers, who read, in the zigzag flight of birds, the course of the future, as clearly as words on the page. Such practices linger in our language whenever we “inaugurate” a president or find a course of action “auspicious.” Why shouldn’t we, like the Romans, take our bearings from the flight of birds? Would our expectations differ significantly from those of the so-called experts?

I myself have found that a few quiet minutes on the patio, facing the open fields and the cloud-infested sky, give me a clearer sense of the future than the morning newspaper. Just yesterday, as the fog was lifting from the beaver pond, I watched as a nuthatch, methodically working his way head-down along the bark of a locust tree, suddenly flew directly at me, swooped upward at the last second, and then returned to the locust. In the distance, I could see a red-tailed hawk, an augur’s delight for its imperious demeanor, skimming over the recently mowed pasture, eyeing the slaughter of mice and snakes by the blade of the harrow.

Closer than the stars, more responsive to climate change than the signs of the Zodiac, surely these birds were trying to tell me something.

Is there a modern defense of augury? Entering the Tomb of the Augurs in Tarquinia, D. H. Lawrence, as he described it in Etruscan Places, imagined how the vivid wall paintings might have come into being:

The artist must often have seen those priests, the augurs, with their crooked, bird-headed staffs in their hand, out on a high place watching the flight of larks or pigeons across the quarters of the sky. They were reading the signs and the portents, looking for an indication, how they should direct the course of some serious affair.

I thought of my nuthatch, whose menacing flight matched something in my own somber thoughts. Or that augur Emily Dickinson, the congressman’s daughter, always attentive to the behavior of birds. Could she have been thinking about the executive branch when, during the Civil War, she contemplated that “prompt executive Bird,” the blue jay, “Sitting a Bough like a Brigadier/ Confident and straight”?

Beware the self-confidence of men in high places, she seemed to be saying.

“The science of augury certainly was no exact science,” D. H. Lawrence concedes, as though someone had rashly suggested that it was.

But it was as exact as our sciences of psychology or political economy. And the augurs were as clever as our politicians, who also must practise divination, if ever they are to do anything worth the name. There is no other way, when you are dealing with life.

Something in Lawrence’s phrasing struck me as familiar, a note I’d heard in some other writer’s musings. And then I had it. In his brilliant essay, “On Political Judgment,” Isaiah Berlin argues that effective statesmen never rely on overarching theories or the systematic crunching of data. Instead, they have a second sense, a gift or an “eye,” that can’t be reduced to the so-called laws of political science. (Was a science ever so unscientific as politics?)

We speak of the possession of a good political eye, or nose, or ear, of a political sense which love or ambition or hate may bring into play, of a sense that crisis and danger sharpen (or alternatively blunt), to which experience is crucial, a particular gift, possibly not altogether unlike that of artists or creative writers.

Summon the augurs! Berlin quickly adds, however, that he means “nothing occult” in his formulation.

And yet, don’t the very words and phrases that swoop through his description suggest nothing so much as birds and winged insects, as he himself recognizes?

The gift we mean entails, above all, a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data, too many, too swift, too intermingled to be caught and pinned down and labeled like so many individual butterflies. To integrate in this sense is to see the data… as elements in a single pattern, with their implications, to see them as symptoms of past and future possibilities, to see them pragmatically—that is, in terms of what you or others can or will do to them, and what they can or will do to others or to you. To seize a situation in this sense one needs to see, to be given a kind of direct, almost sensuous contact with the relevant data….

I thought of the augur Calchas, in the Iliad,


the clearest by far of seers
who scan the flight of birds. He knew all things that are,
all things that are past and all that are to come.

The great classicist M. I. Finley claims, however, that political judgment, “what we should call judgment,” doesn’t figure in Homer. “The significant fact is that never in either the Iliad or the Odyssey is there a rational discussion, a sustained, disciplined consideration of circumstances and their implications, of possible courses of action, their advantages or disadvantages.”

And yet, what Calchas was capable of seemed, to my eye, much like what D. H. Lawrence and Isaiah Berlin were trying to get at in their own evocations of visionary leaders: a sense of the drift of things, both inner and outer, of tendencies, of patterns emerging from, in Yeats’s words, “what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Have our leaders today lost this gift? Is there hope for them, and hence for us—hope of the kind that Dickinson referred to when she called it “the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul”? Can we reasonably hope that during the harrowing months and years to come, our leaders will be neither technocrats nor poll-watchers, neither demagogues nor PR operatives, that their antennae will be attuned to something more than self-interest or party politics?

Can we reasonably hope that they will tell us what they see, and not what they want us to see? Among the many warnings Blake assembles in his “Auguries of Innocence” (that marvelous poem in which he speaks of the ability, augur-like, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”), is this:

We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye.

Isaiah Berlin recounts a story about Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, who presided over the British Empire when it policed the world with some of the same confident (or, in Obama’s case, fatalistic) swagger as American leaders today. Salisbury was asked on what principle a leader decides to go to war. He replied that when deciding whether he should take an umbrella, he looked up at the sky. Despite the prognostications of CNN, and the panels of confident retired brigadiers, there is as yet, as Berlin notes, no “reliable science of political weather-forecasting.”

Is there, then, any reason for hope? Indeed there is. Berlin concludes, disarmingly, “there is always the part played by pure luck—which, mysteriously enough, men of good judgment seem to enjoy rather more often than others.”

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