T.S Eliot once asked, “how much reality can humankind handle?” One may now ask how much war can humankind handle? Maybe more than we expected, particularly if the reality of it remains abstract and blanketed in ideology. Poetry removes that blanket, and exposes us to the cold of war. The chill is all yours and the blanket can be draped back at anytime..yet the shivers remain.
The following poem is referencing a use of chemical weapons on a fellow soldier in World War 1, the ‘war to end all wars.”Somewhat bizarre that 100 years later the topic is back on the table in Syria and in the souls of the elected officials and military leaders of America. Their decision tree tonight and the days to come, may well define the balance and equanimity of this nation for decades to come.
With social media now permeating all our waking hours, the citizenry often mimics little Pentagon’s. The commentary is ubiquitous and the ME-dia, (funny how that could almost be Latin..”through ME”), give their obsequious, obsessive need for ratings and dollars over to any one with a confabulated resume who will speak the same message for 24 /7 cable news. Few have ever been to war. Never have there been so few of our members of Congress and the Senate that have ever served in the Armed Forces. Fewer of our citizens have ever served than the last 100 years.
So how will we ever grasp the meaning of war..just or otherwise, if not through the eyes of “old eyes and grey souls,” of the soldiers who have bled and served in harms way.
The phrase, “old eyes, gray souls,” is the title of a book of poetry by former Army Platoon Officer in Vietnam: Bill Black. A few more of his poems will follow.
The next selection is the poetry of a former Marine mortarman Pete Bourret, who served with the 7th Marines in Vietnam in 1967-68
There will be more poems to follow, in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War, to be held in Scottsdale,(named after General Winfield Scott) on October 5th at Scottsdale Hotel Resort.
“DULCE ET DECORUM EST(1)”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest(3) began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots(4)
Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
Dim, through the misty panes(10) and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,(11) choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.(15)
8 October 1917 – March, 1918
“Old Eyes, Grey Souls” by former Army Lt.Bill Black
The old man was sad as he walked away/ He should not have seen what he saw today/ He hoped this group would escape it some way/ He knew it well from days gone by/ He knew the anguish would not die.
The young guys were still sitting where/ no talking just drinking he could swear/ They each remembered some personal,”there.”/ They were easy to tell from the other guys/ They were the young guys with old eyes.
His own,”there” had been along a riverside/ In an area so low it had a high tide/That had colored rust brown from the blood/ From the bodies from friends that had stood/ As part of a team,his buddies on each side.
Their lives and times were shaped in a way/ That if they mentioned the place few could say/ That they had heard or knew of the place/ Or what the group went through/ A look, a word, a face/ Or a scene was it took for the memory to race.
So they sat with a stare, so far away while memories replay/Places and days they wish would go away/ The eyes mirror a soul locked on a scene from that day/ Tears that they could not cry were frozen behind old eyes/ Chilled from the depths of the souls already grey.
The old man sighed as he remembered other guys/Who looked this way as their nightmares flowed into the day/Long lost, dead but never escaping the way/ The eyes showed their souls/ So young in years but already grey.
“Existential Angst ” by former Marine mortarman Pete Bourret
Stars everywhere/ Cricket chatter/ Cold beads of sweat/ meet my hand/ as it roams the geography of my face/ The thought is back/ Someone in the darkness wants to kill me.
“The Secret Law of Physics” by Pete Bourret
Mortar round exploding….shrapnel racing…tirelessly..aimlessly..endlessly…through dozens of Decembers/ Until the grunt’s child feels the burning metal shards of yesterdays war/ made unfairly present by daddy’ s sentence in his prison of pain.
Shrapnel has no ears/ to hear a child’s whimpering under the covers.
Shrapnel has no eyes/ to see the vacant stare of a childhood stolen.
Shrapnel has no lips to count the thousand smiles that never were.
Shrapnel only has perpetual velocity/ And too much time on its hands.
This one is not a poem but very poetically written and startling when you look at the author and the time in history it was penned.
by Smedley D. Butler, Major General, United States Marine Corps, 1936 Two time recipient of the Congressional Medal Honor
“Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken from the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. There they were remolded; they were made over; they were made to ‘about face’ , to regard murder as the order of the day.They were put shoulder to shoulder, and through mass psychology, they were entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years, and trained them to think nothing at all of killing or of being killed. Then suddenly we discharged them and told them to make another, “about face.” This time they had to do their own readjusting without mass psychology, without officers aid and advice, without nation-wide propaganda. We didn’t need them any more. So we scattered them about without any speeches or parades. Many too many, of these fine young boys are eventually destroyed, mentally, because they could not make the final, “about face, alone.
General Butler is referring to the men of World War 1! Now knowing what we do about head injuries, many of these men had been permanently clocked, in the trenches of France, from artillery fire. And we just thought grampa was a little, “touched.” How sad, we never really knew. And now the signature wound of the War on Terror is traumatic brain injury. And it is permanent. Sort of like a collective slow drip form of torture.
Again, not really a war poem, but one that always fit the bill for me and my battle buddies.
“Oh many a peer of England brews/ livelier liquor than the Muse/ And Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s way to man/ Ale man, ale the stuff to drink/ For fellows whom it hurts to think/ Look into the pewter pot/ Too see the world as the world’s not/ And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past; the mischief is that it will not last.”
“The dogs bark the caravan passes.” Carry on!