I have no serious quarrel with W. S. Di Piero's fantasia on the topic of war poetry ("Fat," October 2003). My own views, though, are completely divorced from Hollywood films, except ironically. I served in front-line forces in Germany in WWII with men who, like me, were utterly bewildered to find themselves in that terrible situation. Having no thoughtful way to articulate their danger, their predicament, their fear, their resolution, they gratefully fell back on the hack writers of film scripts and would utter from time to time, in the studied tones of Van Heflin in a then popular flick, "If a bullet's got your name on it, that's it." This kind of factory-made fatalism seemed to give many of them a sort of pre-packaged comfort. (There were a few other such commonplaces.) It was reliable because others (like Van Heflin) had said it out loud, and it passed muster with large audiences. It also made them feel they were part of a singular experience worthy of a Hollywood film. In much the same way Ronald Reagan, while president, used to appeal to the "reality" of films as precedents for his views and decisions.
There are at least a few nearly uncontestable truths regarding this issue, some of them disheartening. Of these one is that very good war poetry can be written by someone who has never experienced battle first hand. Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is a prose instance, but poems by Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman could be called in evidence; as could poems by Yeats, Housman, Hardy, Marvell, and Shakespeare. The story goes that James Dickey grotesquely exaggerated the extent of his combat experience. But that, in the end, has little if any bearing on the quality of his war poems. This is not a pleasant truth. Some experiences are so devastating or traumatizing that we feel they ought to be spoken of only by those who have experienced them first hand, who have earned the right to speak by the forfeiture of enormous suffering; and that anyone else is simply exploiting their horror for personal literary advantage. Seamus Heaney observes, regarding Sylvia Plath: "A poem like ‘Daddy,' however brilliant a tour de force it can be acknowledged to be, and however its violence and vindictiveness can be understood or excused in the light of the poet's parental and marital relations, remains, nevertheless, so entangled in biographical circumstances and rampages so permissively in the history of other people's sorrows that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy." I find myself agreeing with this, and indignant at Plath's appropriation of the Holocaust. Yet I know that, having myself been a distant witness to that vast suffering, I have little better title to write about it. Yeats wrote well and wisely about war in "Easter, 1916,"and just as well and wisely in refusing to write such a poem in "On Being Asked for a War Poem."