American Football

American Football — by Harold Pinter

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.

We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
They suffocated in their own shit!

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust.

We did it.

Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.

Pinter, of course, is talking about US military triumphalism in the wake of the Gulf War ’91. The story behind the poem is equally damning of the US-UK penchant for smothering the ugliest realities under sanitized euphemisms.

“Blowing up the Media” article in Index on Censorship, vol 21 No 5 May 1992, reproduced in Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998 page 214

I started to write this poem on the plane going to the Edinburgh Festival in August 1991. I had a rough draft by the time we landed in Edinburgh. It sprang from the triumphalism, the machismo, the victory parade, that were very much in evidence at the time. So that is the reason for “We blew the shot out of them.” The first place I sent it to was the London Review of Books. I received a very odd letter, which said, in sum, that the poem had considerable force, but it was for that very reason that they were not able to publish it. But the letter went on to make the extraordinary assertion that the paper shared my vies about the USA1s role in the world. So I wrote back. ‘The paper shares my views, does it? I’d keep that to myself if I were you, chum,’ I said. And I was very pleased with the use of the word ‘chum’.

So I sent it to the Guardian and the then literary editor came on the telephone to me and said, ‘Oh dear.’ He said, “Harold, this is really … You’ve really given me a very bad headache with this one.’ He said, ‘I’m entirely behind you myself, speaking personally.’ This is my memory of the telephone conversation. ‘But,’ he said, ‘you know I don’t think … Oooh, I think we’re in for real trouble if we try to publish it in the Guardian.’ Really, I asked innocently, why is that?

He said, ‘Well, you know, Harold, we are a family newspaper.’ Those words were actually said. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I was under the impression you were a serious newspaper.’ And he said, ‘Well, yes, we’re also a serious newspaper, of course. Nevertheless things have changed a bit in the Guardian over the last few years.’
I suggested he talk to some of his colleagues and come back to me in a couple of days. Because, I said, ‘I do believe the Guardian has a responsibility to publish serious work, seriously considered work, which I believe this to be. Although it is very hot, I also think it is steely. Hot steel…’ He called me in two days and said, ‘Harold, I’m terribly sorry, I can’t publish it.’ He more or less said, It’s more than my job’s worth. So that was the Guardian. I then sent it to the Observer.

The Observer was the most complex and fascinating web that I actually ran into. I sent the poem not to the literary editor, but to the editor himself. A couple of days later, he called me and said that he thought it should be published. He thought it was very testing. Probably going to be quite a lot of flack, he said. But he thought it should be published, not on the literary pages, but on the leader page. It was a truly political poem, he said. So I was delighted to hear that. He’d send me a proof, which he did

The next Sunday nothing happened. And then the following Sunday nothing happened. So I called the editor. He said, ‘Oh dear, Harold, I’m afraid that I’ve run into one or two problems with your poem.’ I asked what they were. ‘In short, my colleagues don’t want me to publish it.’ Why not? He said, ‘They’re telling me we are going to lose lots of readers.’ I asked, Do you really believe that? Anyway, we had a quite amiable chat. He said, ‘I want to publish it but I seem to be more or less alone.’ I then said, Look, the Observer, as a serious newspaper, has in fact published quite recently an account of what the US tanks actually did in the desert. The tanks had bulldozers, and during the ground attack they were used as sweepers. They buried, as far as we know, an untold number of Iraqis alive. This was reported by your newspaper as a fact and it was a horrific and obscene fact. My poem actually says, ‘They suffocated in their own shit.’ It is obscene, but it is referring to obscene facts.

He said, ‘Absolutely right. Look, I want to publish the poem. But I’m running into all sorts of resistance. The trouble is the language, it’s the obscene language. People get very offended by this and that’s why they think we are going to lose readers.’ I then sent the editor of the Observer a short fax, in which I quoted myself when I was at the US Embassy in Ankara in March I985 with Arthur Miller. I had a chat with the ambassador about torture in Turkish prisons. He told me that I didn’t appreciate the realities of the situation vis-a-vis the Communist threat, the military reality, the diplomatic reality, the strategic reality, and so on.

I said the reality I was referring to was that of electric current on your genitals. Whereupon the ambassador said, ‘Sir, you are a guest in my house,’ and turned away. I left the house.

The point I was making to the editor of the Observer was that the ambassador found great offence in the word genitals. But the reality of the situation, the actual reality of electric current on your genitals, was a matter of no concern to him. It was the use of the word that was offensive, but not the act. I said I was drawing an analogy between that little exchange, and what we were now talking about. This poem uses obscene words to describe obscene acts and obscene attitudes.

But the editor of the Observer wrote to me and said he couldn’t publish, with great regret. ‘I’ve been giving serious thought to publication of your poem on the Gulf War. As you know, my first instinct was in favour, despite warnings by senior colleagues that many readers would be offended … I admit to having cold feet.’
Recently an Observer columnist spoke of his paper’s rejection of the poem and referred to his editor’s concern ‘for its shortcomings as a piece of verse’. But nobody ever said, ‘We don’t think this poem is good enough. It is not a successful piece of work.’ Nobody has actually said that.

I then sent the poem to the literary editor of the Independent, saying I hadn’t sent it to him in the first place because I did not think the Independent would publish it. But now that everybody had turned it down, the London Review of Books, the Guardian and the Observer, perhaps I was wrong about the Independent! To cut a long story very short, the literary editor wanted to publish it but he felt he had to show it to the editor. The editor sat on it for a few days and then made no comment except to say the Independent was not going to publish the poem. And I’ve never had any explanation. Nothing. It was simply No.

I did send it to the New York Review of Books, just as a laugh. The editor thanked me warmly for but said he was afraid they couldn’t use it. So I did not waste any more time. I heard that a magazine called Bomb, a very well-produced publication in the West Village, might be interested, and indeed they published the poem.
It was finally published in Britain in January 1992, by a new newspaper called Socialist, with a limited circulation. But as far as national newspapers go, in Holland it was published in one of the main Dutch dailies Handelsblad – in no uncertain terms, too, with an article written by the editor about the rejection in England. And it was published in Bulgaria, Greece and Finland.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

2 thoughts on “American Football”

  1. Thanks for re-posting this.

    Great example how it is not just pictures which are sanitized and censored in times of conflict.

    This could be one of the ways in which Fisk’s “normalisation of war” has become standard in the West.

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