Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage
Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a
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
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,
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.
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."
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.
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,
It is a cry of pain and sadness that reaches out to all.
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.
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