Sunday, June 22, 2014

Lesson for politicians and military leaders: Never talk to poets

On Thursday evening, CNN's "The Sixties" aired its segment on the Vietnam War. In real time in Washington, D.C., Vietnam War veteran and POW John McCain was beating the war drums, this time for our re-involvement in another quagmire, Iraq. All week chickenhawks such as Dick Cheney had been screeching about Pres. Obama losing Iraq. President Obama staged a press conference is which he said he was sending advisers to help the Iraqi army turn back the attacks by ISIS, basically a bunch of zealots dressed in white pajamas fighting an unconventional war in the desert.

Chris and I watched the one-hour history of our involvement in Southeast Asia. Kennedy sent advisers to Vietnam and Johnson, intent on following in the slain president's footsteps, did likewise. Nobody wanted to be accused to being the one who lost Vietnam to the commies. The "domino theory" was first espoused by Ike in a 1954 speech. "The Sixties" showed a black-and-white TV news clip of dominoes set on a big floor map of Southeast Asia. The newscaster tips the first domino and the rest of them fall, one by one. If Vietnam goes, so goes Laos and Thailand and so on. Soon, little guys in black pajamas would be prowling the suburbs of Denver and Dallas and Detroit.

So we sent millions of young men from Denver and Dallas and Detroit to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. And for what?

You tell me.

It's a long story, I know. It keeps playing out in myriad ways in our own politics. The war was fought in pitched battles in Vietnam and on the home front. It left lasting scars. We made some attempts at healing in the 1970s but then along came Ronald Reagan and his Cold Warriors. We fought proxy wars with the Soviets all over the globe, rebuilt the military and then the new century arrived and Bush and Cheney launched a whole new wave of foreign misadventures.

We'll soon mark the 100th anniversary of "The Guns of August," those missteps that launched the first global war. Farmers in France and Belgium are still digging up unexploded artillery shells. Trench lines can be seen from space. Historians have spent the last 100 years explaining the slaughter to us. As is often the case, we have to rely on the poets and writers to get at the gut-level experiences if war. This is "Does It Matter" from 1918 by Siegfried Sassoon:
Does it matter? — Losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you needn't show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting,
And gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter? — Losing your sight?
There's such splendid work for the blind,
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering,
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter? — Those dreams from the Pit?
You can drink, and forget, and be glad,
And no one will say that you're mad,
For they'll know that you fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.
And Randall Jarrell's "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner" from 1945;
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Here's "Facing It" from fellow CSU grad and Vietnam vet Yusef Komunyakaa:
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
Carolyn Forche wrote a scary and much anthologized prose poem, "The Colonel," about the proxy war in El Salvador. Forche went to El Salvador in the late 1970s as a poet and a fan of Claribel Alegria but ended up being a campaigner for human rights. Members of the military junta thought she was a CIA agent working as a poet, which may have led to her being invited to dinner with high-ranking military officers. It was during one of these dinners that Forche had the following encounter:
WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground. 
This comes from Forche's interview with Bill Moyers as recounted in the 1995 book, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets:
Moyers: Had I reported that incident as a journalist, I would have been quite literal: who, what, when, where, and why. What's the relationship between these facts as a journalist would report them and the truth that you're trying to reveal?
Forché: Some writers whom I admire very much say that facts often have little to do with the truth. What I was trying to do with this piece, as I finally allowed it to be in The Country Between Us, was to acknowledge that something important had actually occurred. But the poem also contains a truth about the brutality of that situation which seems to reach deeply into people. When I came back to the United States and began reading the poem, I noticed that some people were very moved by it and others were very angered by it. And some people simply didn't believe it, they said it could not have happened. There was a fierce denial and yet several years later a reporter for The Washington Post interviewed soldiers in El Salvador and they apparently talked about the practice of taking ears and all of that. In fact, one of these soldiers read the news story about his practice of taking ears and was so proud of the story that he actually clipped it out and laminated it and carried it in his wallet. Because now he was famous, you know, for this.
Moyers: That's what can happen to a journalist's account. But the poem is a condemnation.
Forché: It is a condemnation. As a journalist, maybe you wouldn't have been able to use the obscenity, and perhaps you wouldn't have been able to quote him directly. But more than that, I don't think it would've happened to you because I don't think the message was intended for the press. It was intended for a quiet communication back to Washington, and unfortunately they told the wrong person. They told a poet.
Moyers: Lesson for politicians and military leaders: Never talk to poets.
Forché: Never.
The colonel in the poem also had the reputation for warning Catholic priests that were targeted by right-wing death squads. So it goes...

Each war spawns more war poems. The launch of the "shock and awe" campaign in Iraq caused poet Sam Hamill to put out a call for protest poems for a web site and later an anthology called "Poets Against the War" (later "Poets Against War"). I made a modest contribution to the web site collection. I'm not a poet, you see, but poetry does focus the imagination and the anger. 

Now that chickenhawks are squawking about returning to Iraq, it's only fitting that I end with this poem by Iraq War veteran and University of Oregon M.F.A. grad Brian Turner:
The Hurt Locker   
Nothing but hurt left here.
Nothing but bullets and pain
and the bled-out slumping
and all the fucks and goddamns
and Jesus Christs of the wounded.
Nothing left here but the hurt.
Believe it when you see it.
Believe it when a twelve-year-old
rolls a grenade into the room.
Or when a sniper punches a hole
deep into someone’s skull.
Believe it when four men
step from a taxicab in Mosul
to shower the street in brass
and fire. Open the hurt locker
and see what there is of knives
and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn
how rough men come hunting for souls.
Some samples from 100 years of poetry about war. No non-U.S. voices were included, although their numbers are legion. I'll save that for a future post...


RobertP said...


Powerful words. The best I have seen anywhere for a long time.

Kansas City is home to the National WWI Memorial and they are remembering the start of the war 100 years ago. I think the director gets it right:

To mark the week leading up to the centennial of the assassination that sparked World War I, a lone bugler will play taps each night at sunset from the deck of the Liberty Memorial.

“It is our objective for it not to be a large, patriotic type of thing or celebration but instead a somber ceremony … to acknowledge the beginning,” said Matt Naylor, president and CEO of the museum

Read more here:

Michael Shay said...

"A somber ceremony" -- that's sounds right. I'd love to go to that museum next time I get to KC.