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Essay

When Yellow Ribbons and Flag-Waving Aren't Enough

An ex-soldier's take on recent war poetry.
Introduction
After serving tours of duty in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Nathaniel Fick thought it was time to go back. On his way to teach troops in Afghanistan, he looks at recent war-themed collections of poetry and sees how they stack up.

Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues, Harbor Mountain Press, 42 pp., $10.00.

Randall Jarrell, Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 115 pp., $16.00.

Kent Johnson, Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, Effing Press, 44 pp., $7.00.

Dunya Mikhail, The War Works Hard, trans. by Elizabeth Winslow, New Directions Publishing, 79 pp., $13.95.

Brian Turner, Here, Bullet, Alice James Books, 71 pp., $14.95.

* * *

I first flew into Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001, near midnight, with a rifle by my side and no passport in my pocket. At 24 years old, I commanded a Marine Corps infantry platoon, spearheading the attack against the Taliban after September 11. My men and I had all joined a peacetime military, and that night we were self-consciously aware of heading into combat for the first time. Nearly six years later, on a sunny afternoon, I’m again soaring over the Hindu Kush range. This time, I’m on an Indian Airbus, sipping sparkling water and reading war poems.

After two combat tours (we did another in Iraq in 2003), I left the military to study for a master’s degree in public policy and an M.B.A. Now I live with my fiancé in Boston. We host dinner parties, grow herbs on the windowsill, and go walking in the park on Sundays. It’s four years and 10 lifetimes since my last ambush patrol, and I’ve been invited back to the fray to teach at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy, a school set up to train Afghan and NATO troops on the finer points of fighting insurgents. For some reason, I’ve agreed to come.

The bag at my feet is filled with military manuals, but I prefer the poems, thinking they may be my last chance to reflect for a while. War’s intensity is a great catalyst for reflection, but few combatants can afford the luxury. Most real thought must wait until the shooting stops. I wish I could say I took strength in combat from poetry or prayer or love, but I didn’t. I was concerned with more prosaic things: studying maps, planning missions, and cleaning weapons. When I had a few minutes free, I slept.

I do, though, remember two encounters with poetry during my first trip to Afghanistan. Late one evening, while camped in the desert near Kandahar, one of my marines called me over to listen as he read aloud from a book of Kipling’s verse:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
He laughed, and so did I, mainly because it didn’t seem very funny at the time.

The second poem, Alastair Reid’s translation of “The Just,” by Jorge Luis Borges, was mailed to me by a friend. I tacked it to the wall in our temporary command post, between a map of southern Afghanistan and a roster of my platoon, because it was that most precious of possessions in a combat zone: a reminder of normal life at home:
A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wished.
He who is grateful for the existence of music.
He who takes pleasure in tracing an etymology.
Two workmen playing, in a café in the South, a silent game of chess.
The potter, contemplating a color and a form.
The typographer who sets this page well, though it may not please him.
A woman and a man, who read the last tercets of a certain canto.
He who strokes a sleeping animal.
He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for the existence of Stevenson.
He who prefers others to be right.
These people, unaware, are saving the world.
Like Kipling and Borges, Randall Jarrell is a poet known even to the Tom Clancy crowd, so I let down my tray table and open his Selected Poems first. I dimly associate his name with the image of a dead bomber crewman washed from his turret with a hose. Despite this subliminal familiarity with Jarrell’s work, I find that my current circumstances lend new meaning to “Eighth Air Force”
If, in an odd angle of the hutment,
A puppy laps the water from a can
Of flowers, and the drunk sergeant shaving
Whistles O Paradiso!—shall I say that man
Is not as men have said: a wolf to man?

The other murderers troop in yawning;
Three of them play Pitch, one sleeps, and one
Lies counting missions, lies there sweating
Till even his heart beats: One; One; One.
O murderers! . . . Still, this is how it’s done:

This is a war. . . . But since these play, before they die,
Like puppies with their puppy; since, a man,
I did as these have done, but did not die—
I will content the people as I can
And give up these to them: Behold the man!

I have suffered, in a dream, because of him,
Many things; for this last saviour, man,
I have lied as I lie now. But what is lying?
Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can:
I find no fault in this just man.
This is how it’s done: This is a war . . . Along with the manuals, my bag holds ballistic goggles and a holster to carry a concealed pistol. Six weeks ago, it held accounting textbooks. One of war’s more jarring traits is that it sweeps normal people into its maelstrom and carries them along to places they never imagined they’d be. I clearly remember munching a granola bar one morning in Iraq when my Marines saw a man sneaking toward us with an AK-47. After giving the order to shoot him, I went back to my breakfast.

Kent Johnson, in his collection Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, takes these contrasts even further. In his title poem, even the most sadistic abusers do indeed troop in yawning. Five corn-fed American guards at Abu Ghraib greet their Iraqi prisoners: “What’s up, Ramal, I’m an American boy, a father, two children, graduate of Whitman High,” or “Hi there, Hajaz, I’m an American girl, former Vice-President of the Heartland High Young Democrats and Captain of our Regional Championship pom-pom squad.” After the innocent introductions, each fictional soldier cuts to the chase: “But I’m going to fuck you in the ass now with a fluorescent light tube, you sorry-assed, primitive thug,” and “Look at the camera when I talk to you, asshole, or I’ll go get the dog.”

The proclivity for wanton destruction is hardly a phenomenon of modern warfare. Johnson’s opening poem, “Mission,” describes a force of Greeks setting sail from Pylos for Asia, stopping along the way to write poems and rest near a waterfall.

We spoke in low voices of the beauty around us, of the dark, darting trout,
and of the strange, haunting songs in the towering trees. We spoke of time, and
friendship, and truth. Then each of us drank deeply from the pool.

Aided by the gods, we stormed Smyrna, and burned its profane temples to the ground.

How many American platoons have relaxed in the shade, playing cards, then said a prayer together, gone out on patrol, and killed a dozen people in an ambush? It’s not good or bad. In war, it just is, and always has been.

Don’t believe, however, that combat isn’t deeply felt by warriors. Consider U.S. Army Sergeant Brian Turner. He distilled his year in Iraq into a haunting book of poems titled Here, Bullet. Turner initially kept his work to himself because he didn't want his men to think he was writing about “flowers and stuff.” One of my favorites is titled “Ashbah,” Arabic for “ghosts.”
The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,

unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice

sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,

how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,

leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.
Having walked Iraq’s streets by night and felt that dawn wind bending the palms, I get lost when I read Turner’s verse. His words are worth a thousand pictures, and they take me right back. My memories are mostly sentence fragments now, rather than chapters, or even paragraphs. A boy with a bellyful of bullets. Birdsong in the palms. The taste of fear, like a penny on your tongue. Flames in the night sky. More than mere scene-setting, Turner captures the feel of the place, the sheer forlorn emptiness of it.

Jim Webb (now the junior senator from Virginia) begins his classic Vietnam novel Fields of Fire with a lament from an anonymous general to newspaper correspondent Arthur Hadley: “And who are the young men we are asking to go into action against such solid odds? You’ve met them. You know. They are the best we have. But they are not McNamara’s sons, or Bundy’s. I doubt they’re yours. And they know that they’re at the end of the pipeline. That no one cares. They know.”

Soldiers and Marines today know it as well. Yellow ribbons and flag-waving aren’t much. Even aboard a commercial flight on a bright day, I know it too. If, in two hours, a bomb goes off on the airport road, or if, tonight, a lucky mortar round falls into the camp, no one will cry except my family. Despite the very real comradeship and teamwork, soldiering is, in the end, the loneliest of professions.

Maybe this explains the solemn solidarity that exists between warriors and civilians who’ve lived through war. They have more in common with each other than with their counterparts who’ve only known peace.

Sinan Antoon studied at Baghdad University before moving to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. We stood on opposite sides of a chasm: I was a combatant, and he was a civilian. But Antoon understands war’s egalitarian nature: that it often doesn’t matter which end of the gun we’re on.

In “A Prisoner’s Song,” Antoon writes of a POW returning from captivity after the Iran-Iraq war:
from the distant fog
after communiqués had withered
and cannons stopped spitting
he returned
soaked with the “there”
his silence an umbrella
under our ululation
he passed by us
through us
to his old room
No family member of a returning combat veteran can read those lines and not recognize, viscerally, the silence of the “there.” Antoon touches another universal theme in “Sifting,” a poem of but 12 words:
my eyes
are two sieves
sifting
in piles of others
for you
A husband scanning a crowd of refugees for his wife? Maybe a sister seeking her brother in a line of captured soldiers? Or how about a young Marine at a checkpoint? He’s desperately searching for the tell-tale bulge of a suicide vest, a nearly hopeless task since he’s looking not for a known face among strangers, but for a phantom among shades.

Like Antoon, Dunya Mikhail fled Iraq in the 1990s. The title poem in her collection, The War Works Hard (winner of a 2004 PEN Translation Fund Award), turns President Bush’s oft-repeated phrase on its head.
How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
. . .
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
achieves equality
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters,
accustoms young women to waiting,
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures,
builds new houses
for the orphans,
invigorates the coffin makers,
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.
As the plane drops toward the runway, into surface-to-air missile range, I realize the poems have indeed prompted reflection. My heart’s beating faster, and I’m thinking of Turner’s wind, Antoon’s sifting eyes, and Mikhail’s working war.

They remind me where I’ve been, and make me wonder why the hell I’ve come back.

Homepage photo by Matthew Doherty.
  • After studying Classics at Dartmouth, Nathaniel Fick served as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. His combat memoir, One Bullet Away, was a New York Times bestseller, and was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by The Washington Post.

Essay

When Yellow Ribbons and Flag-Waving Aren't Enough

An ex-soldier's take on recent war poetry.
  • After studying Classics at Dartmouth, Nathaniel Fick served as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. His combat memoir, One Bullet Away, was a New York Times bestseller, and was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by The Washington Post.

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