“I sing of arms and the man.” – the ghosts of war – adapted from War, Literature, and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities

“I sing of arms and the man.” – the ghosts of war – adapted from War, Literature, and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities – Cover Story

Philip Appleman

It’s easy to forget (and always sad to reflect) that male poets have traditionally been shills for the warriors: Homer marveling at Achilles’ butchery; Vergil celebrating Aeneas (Arma virumque cano …); Chaucer admiring his “verray parfit gentil knight”; Shakespeare’s Henry V come to glory in an aggressive foreign war; Lovelace going off to battle singing, “I could not love thee, dear, so much,/Loved I not honour more”; Milton’s heavenly heroes blasting the serried ranks of fallen angels with thunder, lightning, and sulphurous hail….

And so on, right down to A. E. Housman’s penning–far too late in history to be credible–

I did not lose my heart in summer’s even,

When roses to the moonlight burst apart.

When plumes were underfoot and steel was flying,

In blood and smoke and flame I lost my heart.

I lost it to a soldier and a foeman,

A chap who did not kill me–but he tried,

Who took the sabre straight and took it striking,

And laughed, and kissed his hand to me, and died.

Too late to be credible because Housman (1859-1936) lived to cross the line between those older poets, who could still pretend to believe in the noble and heroic swordsman, and the younger poets for whom the weapons of mass destruction had long since made mano a mano heroism all but irrelevant, replacing it with more and more impersonal and wholesale long-distance killing machines: the cannon, the bomber, the guided missile, the nuke.

Not to mention the poison gas, still in surreptitious stockpiles today, even though “outlawed.” When the British poet and soldier Wilfred Owen, just before he was killed in action, looked about him at the trenches of World War I and wrote a poem about a gassed comrade, he incorporated a remark by the Roman poet Horace: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”–It is sweet and becoming to die for your country.” The poem concluded:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

That’s a far cry from Housman’s gallant handkisser, because–as warfare became ever less personal and ever more devastating; as the consciously targeted victims became the civilian populations as well as the armies; as the rationale for going to war became more arcane and disputable (shifting, say, from specific border disputes to slippery notions of “national honor”)–the focus of poets’ attention had long since switched from the swaggering warriors to their hapless victims.

Too late then to cheer the noble swordsman on the white horse. The democratic and humanistic notion that ordinary citizens should not be arbitrarily or whimsically dragooned as cannon fodder for the benefit of political, religious, or ethnic disputes gradually became one of our accepted truths, and so most wars became harder and harder to justify to “civilized” people. After the vast horror of World War I, only an overwhelmingly persuasive sanction could bring a whole nation together to support a major war.

Which is where I came in. In the fall of 1941, after two years of devastating war in Europe (and years more in Asia), U.S. citizens were seriously divided over our potential role in that conflict. Some were for armed intervention against Hitler, but many others were for neutrality and against any “foreign entanglements.” On December 7 the Japanese effectively put an end to that argument. We may have known little or nothing about Hitler’s death camps, and we may have been willing to deplore discreetly the distant Rape of Nanking, but we understood backstabbing well enough, and bombs sinking our battleships, and Americans killed in action–all in “peacetime.”

So began our four years of the last “Good War.” We were all in it together–no dissent allowed and rarely even considered. We did our best in that war: there was a lot of painful losing at first, and then, by the time I turned seventeen and eagerly enlisted in the Aviation Cadet program in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943, some painful winning. By the time I was activated in 1944, our troops were already in France. Later, in August 1945, at an army air base in Boca Raton, Florida, my buddies and I heard for the first time about the atomic bomb–and the PX sold great quantities of 3.2 beer.

The good guys had won, the bad guys had lost. Who wanted to argue then about the morality of using bigger bombs or instantly wiping out whole cities? All that mattered at the moment was that we were suddenly, quite unexpectedly, free, at peace, able to get on with our lives. After all, we had seen our army’s “motivational” films on the tyranny of the Nazis, the viciousness of the Japs: they deserved what they got. It had been a “Good War.”

And what did our poets have to say about that? Not much. Big guys fighting other big guys, honorable cause, final crowning success clearly made in heaven: the stuff of B movies, not of good poetry. Look through the anthologies of that time: the best poems came not in grand sweeping periods, a la Homer or Milton, but in poets looking at small, specific, personal things, as in Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” or Dylan Thomas’ “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”–fine poems, but few of them. The war had been too good for the poets; it caused physical pain in massive doses but didn’t twist the national psyche into knots, didn’t relentlessly bludgeon us with anguish of moral choice. We were in it together, 100 percent, no questions asked.

Twenty years after my army discharge, my wife and I were on sabbatical in Mexico, writing. By then we had traveled and studied in a lot of places, including Southeast Asia, where we had become fond of the people we met there. And we had lived in France while its armies were being endlessly defeated in Vietnam–French second lieutenants being killed faster than St. Cyr could produce them. Our little Mexican radio brought in wavering stations from Texas, and one day in 1965 it crackled out the shattering news that President Lyndon

Johnson had ordered the escalation of our small war in Vietnam by half a million U.S. troops. I was incredulous and devastated; the future was as clear to me at that moment as on a billboard: we were going to bleed profusely and commit terrible atrocities–and then, for the first time in our history, lose a war.

For what? “The national interest,” “the domino theory,” “national honor”–for eight more excruciating years, we were flimflammed and hoodwinked and harangued and preachified–but nobody could ever explain with any credibility why we were fighting a war in Vietnam.

Of course, this wasn’t a new thing in history. Stephen Crane, brooding about the U.S. Civil War, had written in 1895:

There was crimson clash of war.

Lands turned black and bare;

Women wept;

Babes ran, wondering.

There came one who understood not these things.

He said: “Why is this?”

Whereupon a million strove to answer him.

There was such intricate clamor of tongues,

That still the reason was not.

But its being commonplace, even traditional, was no consolation.

Meanwhile the dying escalated. The shock of My Lai stripped away our mask of innocence. New phrases entered our vocabulary: body count, body bags, pacification, peace with honor. And the dying went on and on: by the end, 58,000 Americans. Nobody knows how many Vietnamese, but certainly millions; we prided ourselves on our military body counts, but dead civilian gooks didn’t count at all.

For what? If the senior citizens and the veteran diplomats and the elder statespeople couldn’t figure it out and articulate it, how could a high school senior? “Go,” said some patriotic parents, “Do your duty.” “Get into college on a draft deferment,” said others, “Let somebody else do the dirty work.” “Try for conscientious objector,” a few were advised. “Head for Canada,” many said, “Save your skin.”

In the 1960s, I was in my forties, teaching at Indiana University and trying to help my students sort it all out. But how? What if I said, “Sure, go to Canada”–ten years later, would they still think I’d done them a favor? And what if some eighteen-year-old was academically hopeless, and I failed him, and he lost his college deferment? He could be dead in six months. Education had become a hostage of the military.

One thing I knew: killing peasants somewhere on the other side of the world was not patriotic, not moral, not (if there is any sense in even talking about such a concept) even legal. The wrong war, the wrong justification, the wrong strategy, the wrong tactics. The French in Vietnam had taught us how to go down to ignominious defeat, as senselessly and brutally as possible; we followed their script.

Sterile politics, sterile world view, sterile killing fields–but, oh, what a fertile field for poets. The moral anguish that had been bypassed in World War II was an inescapable byproduct of this gratuitous adventuring, this nouveau colonialism, this aggression. By the late 1960s it seemed that all the poets in the United States were speaking and acting their outrage, individually and collectively. We wrote with furious pens, published in the newspapers, read to roaring audiences, marched in the streets in protest. Later, when Bill Ehrhart was organizing an anthology of Vietnam literature, he found over 5,000 antiwar poems.

In the end, did it make any difference? Cynics said no, but we knew better. What our country needed wasn’t more politicians and their hired guns telling us the war was good for us. What we needed were passionate voices to speak out and remind ourselves of what we already knew: that war should always be a last resort, not just “politics by other means”; that our hearts could tell us truths that colonialist politicians would not; that a bully is a shameful thing, whether a person or a nation. To defend our true national honor against the lies of the politicians, we needed to make those truths traumatic, painful: to bring the war home. We needed to realize ourselves and to declare to others that (as Pogo sagely advised us at the time) the enemy was us, that every pitiful victim of this devastation was our victim. “The poetry,” Wilfred Owen wrote just before he was killed, “is in the pity.”

Poets, rarely in the public eye, quickly fade from attention, but they leave their traces behind. Some of my own poems are reprinted here, all of them written during or soon after the Vietnam War. Other poems, by many outraged voices, can be found in anthologies of or about the period–such as W. D. Ehrhart’s Carrying the Darkness or Ehrhart and Jan Barry’s Demilitarized Zones or Vince Gotera’s To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired. Surveying this scene, the historian H. Bruce Franklin wrote:

When the men in the White House and the Pentagon made the decision to send

Americans to fight in Vietnam, they probably never gave a thought to the

literature that might be produced by the U.S. veterans of what we now call

the Vietnam War. How would these men have responded if someone had

whispered in their ears that this literature would constitute one of the

few great American achievements of that war?

So forget Homer and Milton for a while and read those anthologies–and weep. They are the black wall of the Vietnam Memorial, dripping blood. Better than any other history, they tell us what it’s really like to endure–and be responsible for–a Bad War.

Philip Appleman received the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association in 1994. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1944 to 1945 and in the U.S. Merchant Marine Corps in 1946 and from 1948 to 1949. He is the author of three novels, including In the Twelfth Year of the War; a half-dozen nonfiction books, including the new third edition of the Norton Critical Edition, Darwin; and seven books of poetry, including New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996, from which the above poems are reprinted. This article is adapted from War, Literature, and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group