combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006

Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage

Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
Jonathan Swift ["A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately entered into Holy Orders" (1721)]

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?

"Hey Joe, there's going to be a fight tonight. Down along Parson's creek. I'm going. Are you?"

Soon a crowd begins to gather. This is more than going to see a movie or a play. More than mere curiosity is drawing the audience for the excitement is palpable. People begin milling about, making comments, urging one then the other. Will it become a melee? Is this a riot in the making?

Conflict, by its very nature, has strong physical and emotional aspects, with bodily responses preparing for fight or flight. War, the ultimate conflict, exacerbates these reactions, for in the midst of battle, the outcome is literally life or death. That awareness will often produce a high that makes the mind sharp, the body tense and ready. That very tension can also bring about some serious introspection, for nothing tests one's values faster than looking into the face of death. Yet within this charged atmosphere, how can one be sure of outcome, let alone belief? What is a just war? ... a good death? Will I be spared? What better way to express these evolving thoughts than through poetry, a form that is short, simple and emotional.

The world of literature is replete with writings from the battlefield: terse orders from military brass, simple poetry written in the trenches and scribblings from terrified civilians while crouching in bunkers. Such writings might be seen as sentimental, jingoistic or even propagandistic. Still, as a human expression of feeling, these poems reach out to us in the quiet of our living rooms at home to provide an enlightening perspective on the experience of war.

Ancients like Caesar and Alexander the Great wrote about the glories of war, as did Shakespeare in his history plays. The Iliad, by Homer, is a war poem. Some of America's finest poets have served the military and written about it, from Whitman as a medic in the Civil War to James Dickey as a pilot in World War II. And few poets can match those from Great Britain during World War I, writers like Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke or Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose Charge of the Light Brigade depicted the Crimean War of the 1850s, taking this conflict outside the realm of government spin to show the people at home what war was all about. But as the power and devastation of war as seen by the common man or woman, it is the citizen soldier or the innocent civilian whose writings are most compelling.

In literature, one expects a beginning, middle and end. The same might be said about the human response to events such as a war. And like in literature, sensibilities can change, going from initial patriotism followed by the awareness of war's brutality, and finally, realization of tragedy and death. Most of these poems are penned anonymously. Under conditions not clearly understood, when sweat and adrenaline have drained the body to numbness, or when the enemy is momentarily quiet, a brief poem scrawled on a scrap of paper might be one of the few vehicles that allow raw emotions to collect and purpose to re-ignite. It can begin as a quiet prayer as one soldier asks, "Lead us on, O Lord, as the night closes in. / We ask for strength to open our eyes and thank / You once again." Or as Sergeant James W. Hill writes in his poem, The Hill, "... God is my companion and I pray that / He protects who watch like me, / Until the time that peace will come ...."

It doesn't take many days under fire for these prayers to be followed with reflection about the reason for being there in the first place. Is it love of country? Duty? Excitement? One enlistee entitled his poem, The Answers, declaring that "I would rather lose my life here / fighting for what I believe / than have the enemy cross the ocean / to the country, where I live." Another, repeats his lines over and over to underscore their meaning: "Freedom ... / to end a war that should not have started / to bring joy to the broken-hearted. / I'm here to fight for Freedom ...." Then there is the soldier embarking into battle who writes, "... can this be for real? / Can a young man such as I / be sent to war to kill or die?" The response being indubitable, "To keep men and country free." Reading this, one can picture a young airman or soldier, carrying a forty-pound backpack and sweating profusely in Viet Nam or Iraq, suddenly awestruck at the enormity of his commitment. He or she might be barely out of high school and for the first time away from home. Here, in a foreign land, what is seen and felt is so unfamiliar and unexpected that homegrown values and reason are a welcome touchstone, providing a sense of church, school and home. Although lacking in poetic diction and cadence, its sincerity cannot be denied. Even with dissent swirling around the Viet Nam war, many soldiers held firm, one commenting, "Rid this country now of hostile force, / and the world will be on the right course. / So push away your feelings, do your job this year; / if for nothing else, so your son doesn't come here."

Yet, with reality setting in, feelings can be overwhelming, especially when the soldier's initial commitment was intense. Our country trains the most powerful armed forces in the world. Yet no training can totally prepare anyone for the first experience in battle. The rush of emotions can be overwhelming. Fortunately, these feelings can be expressed in a poem. One such soldier uses anger to disguise the grief over a fallen comrade.

I'll hate you to the day I die.
You made me hear my buddy cry.
I saw his arm, a bloody shred.
I heard them say, "This one is dead."
He had the guts to fight and die;
He paid the price-But what'd he buy?

It isn't only death that prompts a poetic response. The widespread action of World War II saw colossal destruction of land and property, arousing horror and guilt. In The Beautiful Ruins, SSG Charles E. Butler, begins, "Do not be proud that you destroy the cities." He ends by saying,

If this is to be done,
Let it be done without the shame of pride,
That in an hour to come our unbelieving
Sons, judging us, must say: The cities died;
Our fathers did this; but they did it grieving."

On a more gentle level, we see poems of love and loneliness, a common theme as thoughts of home give the soldier reason to fight, reason to survive.

We are Bewildered and weary,
Lonely to the point of madness,
And if we shout and curse
Through our quiet dreams,
Forgive us.
We are merely looking for a way to go home.

Perhaps a high school memory of a Robert Frost poem prompted another soldier to send the following to his sweetheart, its simplicity making it all the more touching.

The night is endless, dark and deep.
Tears fall each night before I sleep.
My arms reach out to hold you near,
And fall back sadly because you're not here.
In a seeming answer, someone else writes, "But if I don't come home once more, / God's promise to let us meet at Heaven's door."

Fortunately, wars do end and soldiers return to waiting arms, leaving those at home to cry out their grief for the maimed and the dead, this so beautifully expressed in the familiar Civil War song, a poem set to music,

Where are the legs with which you run,
When you went to carry a gun?
Indeed your dancing days are done
Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.
It is a cry of pain and sadness that reaches out to all.

A later war, on the other side of the ocean, left others to grieve, this time at the devastation of the atom bomb.

The dust arose and sank and the roads were trackless,
The whole great city was one fallen ember,
Poison dust – and those who lived were luckless –
In Hiroshima this was a day to remember.

No one likes war, least of all the military. Yet when inevitable, the experience cries out for expression, its pain somewhat mitigated, its empathy enhanced, through sharing. However simple, awkward or fey, its articulation can encompass the human condition like nothing else. If at the same time it is a learning experience, so much the better.

Twenty years we can look forward with hope
Citizen, politician, even the next pope.
To find the right answer to war's timely call,
By not rushing in making horrors of all.

In years past, poems might have been scribbled under caissons, within trenches or inside bombers by the light of the moon. Today's service personnel have laptops and digital cameras to record their experiences. Yet war has changed little on the front lines. Men and women die or are maimed and their stories cry out for articulation. Today's conflicts will be recorded and read by our children. But by then we can pray, as in the preceding poem, to look forward with hope.

What you must know is how man reacts. Weapons change but man who uses them changes not at all.
George S. Patton

contributed by Beth Staas

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones