In “On Keeping On” Mr. Keller gives us one fighter pilot’s simple code for life. Prof. Krugman looks at “Austerity, Italian Style,” and says the country is trapped between comics and delusional Eurocrats. Here’s Mr. Keller:
When I heard the story of John Borling’s poems, I thought of Samuel Johnson’s quip about a dog that walks on its hind legs: it doesn’t matter whether it is done well; the surprising thing is that it is done at all.
Borling’s poems were tapped out in code, letter by letter, on the walls of a wretched cell in Hanoi during his six and a half years as a prisoner of war. Borling and his fellow captives committed the verses to memory and, 40 years after his release, they have been compiled in a book.
It doesn’t matter that “Taps on the Walls: Poems From the Hanoi Hilton” will probably not be taught in Ivy League English lit classes. His poems were spirit-lifters, mental calisthenics, acts of defiance and a way of improving the odds that his memories would make it home to his wife and daughter, even if he did not. That it was done at all says something heartening about the human spirit.
Captives at the Hoa Lo prison, the notorious North Vietnamese prison and torture mill known to its inmates as the Hanoi Hilton, communicated using a popular alphabet grid:
1. A B C D E
2. F G H I J
3. L M N O P
4. Q R S T U
5. V W X Y Z
You tap the number of the row, then tap the number across to reach the letter you want. So “poem” is (3,5) (3,4) (1,5) (3,2). For the letter K, use C or (2,6). Sometimes the verses were passed along in syncopated coughs; or a captive sweeping the prison corridor would scratch out the code with strokes of his bamboo broom. But mostly they were tapped on the walls. With practice, and using shortcuts, they could rap out up to 40 words a minute, Borling told me. If the inmates were caught tapping — and they were often caught — they were beaten.
After their first few years of isolated torment, the Hanoi Hilton captives were allowed to mingle, and they kept the verses alive by reciting them together.
I’m a great believer in the power of poetry — I once suggested poetry readings as a form of therapy for our sclerotic Congress — and so is Borling. Of course the tappers also shared intelligence about their captors, reminiscences of family back home, jokes and lots of prayers, but Borling said that for military men — men of “armored heart,” he writes in the introduction to his book — poetry in particular entailed an opening of emotional channels that was painful and bracing. It forged bonds that helped the captives withstand the physical and mental agonies meant to break them. (The Hanoi Hilton made John McCain, one of Borling’s fellow captives, an ardent critic of torture, which he argues with some authority is not only evil but ineffective against a fortified will.)
The poet laureate of the Hanoi Hilton was freed at the end of America’s war in 1973. During his recuperation at Clark Air Base in the Philippines he bought a cassette recorder to get the verses down. He came home to a White House welcome, then settled back into his marriage and a military career that saw him to retirement with the rank of major general.
In 2004 Borling ran as a moderate Republican — by then, already a hopeless task — in the primary race for a vacant Senate seat from Illinois. The election was a spectacular pileup that saw the Republican nominee sidelined by allegations that he had dragged his wife to sex clubs. In search of a replacement, Republican leaders passed over Borling and settled on a right-wing carpetbagger. The ultimate winner was the Democrat, a newcomer named Barack Obama.
For his next act, Borling launched a campaign called SOS America that advocates a year of mandatory military service for all young American men. The conscripts would drill in small units, would augment the volunteer military, and could be called up later to assist with natural disasters. Borling sees it as a character-builder as much as a public service. He persuaded a congressman to introduce the idea as legislation, but it has gone nowhere. He scolds himself for getting distracted: “I should drop everything and work on this full time.”
This column began as an excuse to tell you the story of those poems, tapped through the walls of purgatory. It’s a pretty fine story unadorned. But I find it hard to resist reaching for a slightly bigger point.
Viewed one way, as Borling will be the first to tell you, his life is a series of defeats. Shot down over Vietnam, he dragged his broken body to a road, planning to hijack a ride to freedom — but had the misfortune to flag down a truckload of North Vietnamese troops. Much later he threw himself into that Senate race, only to suffer the political handicap of being too sane for his own party. His attempt to rally Americans under the banner of mandatory service has been, in his words, “a blazing failure.”
He is amiably self-deprecating about his book, published at the urging of former comrades to mark the anniversary of their release. “Twenty-five percent doggerel,” he said of his work, adding that the rest has been likened by friends to a kind of pre-hip-hop, fighter-jock rap. All he asks is that “people will be a little gentle with it.”
“Life is made up of all kinds of approximations,” he said, summing up. “You do the best you can under the circumstances.”
Sometimes the best you can do is extraordinary, even heroic, but more often you are lucky if it is barely enough. It seems to me Borling’s life is a tribute to the underrated virtue of perseverance — of just keeping on, and finding contentment in the effort.
Borling told me one of the readings that stuck with him from the humanities courses he took at the Air Force Academy was Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus.” In it Camus argues that, in an absurd world, the poor hero condemned by the gods to roll a rock up a hill for eternity, always falling just short of the top, was ultimately a happy man. In recognizing and accepting futility, Sisyphus finds peace. In Borling’s variation, Sisyphus and the rest of us reach the top, but the outcome is pretty much the same.
“My view is that our job is to get the rock up and over the hill,” Borling said. “And once you do, the rock rolls down the other side, and what do you see? You see another hill. The essence of life is really just pushing rocks.”
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Two months ago, when Mario Monti stepped down as Italy’s prime minister, The Economist opined that “The coming election campaign will be, above all, a test of the maturity and realism of Italian voters.” The mature, realistic action, presumably, would have been to return Mr. Monti — who was essentially imposed on Italy by its creditors — to office, this time with an actual democratic mandate.
Well, it’s not looking good. Mr. Monti’s party appears likely to come in fourth; not only is he running well behind the essentially comical Silvio Berlusconi, he’s running behind an actual comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose lack of a coherent platform hasn’t stopped him from becoming a powerful political force.
It’s an extraordinary prospect, and one that has sparked much commentary about Italian political culture. But without trying to defend the politics of bunga bunga, let me ask the obvious question: What good, exactly, has what currently passes for mature realism done in Italy or for that matter Europe as a whole?
For Mr. Monti was, in effect, the proconsul installed by Germany to enforce fiscal austerity on an already ailing economy; willingness to pursue austerity without limit is what defines respectability in European policy circles. This would be fine if austerity policies actually worked — but they don’t. And far from seeming either mature or realistic, the advocates of austerity are sounding increasingly petulant and delusional.
Consider how things were supposed to be working at this point. When Europe began its infatuation with austerity, top officials dismissed concerns that slashing spending and raising taxes in depressed economies might deepen their depressions. On the contrary, they insisted, such policies would actually boost economies by inspiring confidence.
But the confidence fairy was a no-show. Nations imposing harsh austerity suffered deep economic downturns; the harsher the austerity, the deeper the downturn. Indeed, this relationship has been so strong that the International Monetary Fund, in a striking mea culpa, admitted that it had underestimated the damage austerity would inflict.
Meanwhile, austerity hasn’t even achieved the minimal goal of reducing debt burdens. Instead, countries pursuing harsh austerity have seen the ratio of debt to G.D.P. rise, because the shrinkage in their economies has outpaced any reduction in the rate of borrowing. And because austerity policies haven’t been offset by expansionary policies elsewhere, the European economy as a whole — which never had much of a recovery from the slump of 2008-9 — is back in recession, with unemployment marching ever higher.
The one piece of good news is that bond markets have calmed down, largely thanks to the stated willingness of the European Central Bank to step in and buy government debt when necessary. As a result, a financial meltdown that could have destroyed the euro has been avoided. But that’s cold comfort to the millions of Europeans who have lost their jobs and see little prospect of ever getting them back.
Given all of this, one might have expected some reconsideration and soul-searching on the part of European officials, some hints of flexibility. Instead, however, top officials have become even more insistent that austerity is the one true path.
Thus in January 2011 Olli Rehn, a vice president of the European Commission, praised the austerity programs of Greece, Spain and Portugal and predicted that the Greek program in particular would yield “lasting returns.” Since then unemployment has soared in all three countries — but sure enough, in December 2012 Mr. Rehn published an op-ed article with the headline “Europe must stay the austerity course.”
Oh, and Mr. Rehn’s response to studies showing that the adverse effects of austerity are much bigger than expected was to send a letter to finance minsters and the I.M.F. declaring that such studies were harmful, because they were threatening to erode confidence.
Which brings me back to Italy, a nation that for all its dysfunction has in fact dutifully imposed substantial austerity — and seen its economy shrink rapidly as a result.
Outside observers are terrified about Italy’s election, and rightly so: even if the nightmare of a Berlusconi return to power fails to materialize, a strong showing by Mr. Berlusconi, Mr. Grillo, or both would destabilize not just Italy but Europe as a whole. But remember, Italy isn’t unique: disreputable politicians are on the rise all across Southern Europe. And the reason this is happening is that respectable Europeans won’t admit that the policies they have imposed on debtors are a disastrous failure. If that doesn’t change, the Italian election will be just a foretaste of the dangerous radicalization to come.