Eleanor Wilner thinks the NEA should cut Operation Homecoming and spend the funds on veterans who enroll in "colleges and bona fide writing programs," but veterans' benefits already exist for that. Operation Homecoming is a much more modest effort, though it has the potential for populist good not unlike the Favorite Poem Project. Some of Wilner's expectations seem a little mixed. She would like for poetry to be an "antidote to the violence and divisive language of war," but she cites Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who says that the "poet's task" is "to make us feel the full weight of the bodies hidden behind the rhetoric."
I agree with Wilner that the denotative language of the military becomes denaturing and neutralizing, but there are unavoidable reasons for that. And I agree that life for one still in the service is not an ideal context within which to write imaginatively, but it can be done and has been done. Two kinds of language under consideration here are that of poetic thinking and utilitarian thinking, the first a will-less willing that uses language to explore and expand our world, the second a use of language meant to dominate situationsin the military to survive combat.
Eleanor Wilner's reluctance to greet returning soldiers with poetry leaves those people still in the utilitarian world, where they have just risked their lives. Her suspicion is that Operation Homecoming is a PR tool for the Pentagon, and she quotes an elevated Kevin Bowen who says that we may be facing "propaganda." Early in her piece Wilner inoculates her argument against "unassailable shields," referring to the government's apparent purity of motive. It appears no one's position is entirely unassailable. Bruce Weigl, whom Wilner cites, believes veterans "are far too close to the war to trust their own immediate responses." Just whose responses should they trust?
People enlist in the military out of trust, or innocence. Whichever cause, we are the ones for whom they risk their lives. I can't imagine a little poetry will hurt. A large percentage of those who enlist have economic reasons. For many of them poetry may seem a luxury, but it is just a part of the education they have not yet been able to afford. Why not afford them a little now?
As to being in the service"under orders" as Wilner exaggerates one can still think. Wilner believes the context of the military inhibits language. So would discontinuing Operation Homecoming. Life in the military will inhibit some people and modify some of what is written; it also will be the stimulus and material for what is written. One part does not preclude the other. Meanwhile, we should ask who will read those who have risked their lives if not their fellow citizens? Wilner describes herself as an "observer of the current chasm between public rhetoric and the language of experience," but her public position is opposed to a program that would encourage veterans to use "the language of experience."
Is Operation Homecoming intended to promote art, meant for social and personal therapy, or meant as PR for the government? Is a government that can be voted out of office wise to be worried what its soldiers, their families, and the voting public think? Yes, to all of these, and that is what our system requires. But no one's "propaganda" is weakening anyone's questions. Wilner's reservations and accusations are proof of that. For now, it may take more trust than some can give to make something good out of Operation Homecoming. Wilner thinks "sponsors," "context," and "timing" are wrong. But where there is trust, it will be good to take seriously the stories of those who have returned from trauma having done what their elected leaders voted they do. Few will disagree with Wilner's generalizations. But, self-inoculated or not, what she does under the level of generality is pit our need to recognize the horrors of war against the needs of those returning from that horror.