For many people with souls of iron or rot, last night’s U.S. military strike against Syrian forces—which Donald Trump authorized in retaliation for the recent, deadly chemical weapons attack that killed more than 70 civilians—was a stilling moment, shaking even the most fervent sabre-rattler with its portent of new war, arriving swift and seemingly without forethought. For these simple-minded creatures, it was just a terrifying reminder of the fraying thread that civilization balances on, now more than ever.
But Brian Williams—a man who sees things no one else sees, particularly in the fog of war—stared deeply into that sudden hail of missiles launched at Syrian airfields by U.S battleships, whistling their way toward destruction and certain death for everyone they encountered. And in them, he saw the beauty. As those 60 Tomahawks rained down upon the Levant, Williams’ own soul welled up with poetry, and—with the awed and lyrical grace of W.B Yeats—he shared that poetry with MSNBC viewers, soothing them with his gentle pleas to look at “the beautiful pictures.”
“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,” Williams mused over footage of these magnificent missiles heading off to kill someone. Then, realizing that even his own tongue had failed to capture the true grandeur of a bombing that more prosaic minds had clumsily dubbed an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law” and “dangerous,” and which resulted in the deaths of six servicemen and nine civilians—including, Syria claims, four children—Williams turned to the words of the late Leonard Cohen: “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”
Of course, some might quibble with using the quotation from “First We Take Manhattan” on the grounds that Cohen once described it, as The Washington Post reminds, as “a terrorist song,” sardonically looking at the heedless, nihilistic advance of violent extremism. But on the other hand, as Brian Williams reminds, it’s also really pretty-sounding. Sometimes you have to ignore the context and admire the beauty in a single turn of phrase, or the lingering curl of smoke behind an explosive.
Unfortunately, there are still some philistines out there who are beyond the reach of poetry or even of the Tomahawk, which can be launched without a pilot from up to 1,500 miles away:
“They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield,” Williams argued of these mad roman candles burning, burning, burning bright, their wicks extinguished far too quickly by the cruel and unceasing winds of this world, leaving behind only a puddle of wax and “huge material damage” and a bunch of dead children. Oh beauty, how fast you fade! How swift your awesome flicker across the firmament! You come in as rashly as a reversal of foreign policy, roaring like a long-range low-altitude subsonic missile, yet you leave as quietly as the soft stillness following a cluster of munitions incinerating vehicles and buildings! Alas, not even the Bard Williams can capture your grace, though he may try, for some reason.
Williams then asked his guest, “What did they hit?” but the guy just started saying some drily conventional things about Syria’s military structures and potential casualties—apparently, not much of a poetry guy. Shame.