Operation War Anthology:
Bring It All Back Home?
by John Bradley
Prophets are not those who speak of piety and duty from
pulpits-- there are few people in pulpits worth listening to.
The prophets are the battered wrecks of men and women who return from Iraq and find the courage to speak the halting words we do not want to hear, words that we must hear and digest in order to know ourselves. These veterans, the ones who who dare to tell the truth, have seen and tasted how war plunges us into barbarity, perversion, pain and an unchecked orgy of death. And it is their testimonies, if we take the time to listen, which alone can save us.
These thoughts on war come from Chris Hedges, in his essay "A Culture of Atrocity." I open with this excerpt as it defines what a war anthology of any kind should at least attempt to do--tell truths to the public about the ongoing war(s), especially truths not given in other media, and to address the essential barbarity of war, regardless of our best intentions.
I'm not so sure even this truthful witness by our veterans can "save us," but I do agree with Hedges that it's essential for us to listen. How else can we claim to "support our troops," as so many Americans profess to do? How else not to repeat the same mistakes, over and over? Mistakes which our veterans, in one fashion or another, usually pay for.
One source of the testimonies of our veterans has been and continues to be war anthologies. I'd like to discuss two recent collections, though they offer vastly different perspectives on the wars our nation is engaged in. What sort of image of war do these anthologies create? Do they "dare to tell the truth," to use Hedges's phrase, or at least dare to reveal some of the disturbing, dirty truths our veterans have learned?
Even before its publication, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families created a stir. The title of an essay by Eleanor Wilner captures the central controversy: "Poetry and the Pentagon: Unholy Alliance?" Her essay should be read in full as it eloquently voices the concerns of many. How can a soldier still in the military, often on a base or aircraft carrier, without time to begin to unravel his or her experiences, write honestly about war? How can the presence of the Pentagon and Boeing, a defense contractor and a sponsor of the program, not have any affect on the writing? What is the NEA doing sponsoring writing that's facilitated by the Pentagon and a defense contractor?
Wilner quotes a Pentagon official who was asked to comment on this situation and the problems it poses: "I don't have any concerns," states Principle Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Charles S. Abell to the Washington Post. "We tend to remember those things which are good." Mr. Abell certainly hasn't read the work of Tim O'Brien, Yusef Komunyakaa, or Brian Turner, a poet of the Iraq war., to name just a few veterans whose memories encompass much more than the good times. Vietnam veteran and poet Kevin Bowen even uses the P-word: "Most alarming to many of us," Operation Homecoming threatens to move the NEA into the business of supporting the generation of propaganda . . . ."
All this even before an advance copy of the anthology rolled off the press.
"It's not a book about politics but about particulars." More P-words. Dana Gioia, Director of the NEA, offers this statement in his Preface to Operation Homecoming. I'm sure it's meant to calm the waters. How can writing by veterans be accused of being political propaganda when each piece only addresses one moment, one incident, one isolated particle of war? Unfortunately, his statement is challenged by the very first work in the book.
Although Operation Homecoming contains, much to its credit, "eyewitness accounts, private journals, short stories, and other writings," such as email by veterans, I wish to focus solely on the poetry. The anthology contains thirteen poems and one song lyric. The opening piece, written with hanging indentations, resembles a prose poem, so I will include that, bringing the total, in my more expansive reckoning, to fifteen poems.
That opening prose poem, by Gregory S. Cleghorne, undermines Gioia's profession of the absence of politics. The first chapter is entitled "And Now It Begins," with the subtitle "Heading into Combat." It's not clear if either of these are the title of Cleghorne's piece, or if they are simply chapter titles. Regardless of the confusion over title, the prose poem's placement raises the specter of politics, and we're only on the first page.
Cleghorne writes about the World Trade Center Towers, contrasting the awe he felt while viewing the architecture of the Towers as an eleven-year-old with the dreadful scene he now witnesses: ". . . a man in a tattered and burned white business shirt stands in a broken window with flames licking at him . . . I see someone let go, briefly flying." It's a horrifying image, one that does explain the origin of our nation's war in Afghanistan.
But the opening poem also performs a political function--it leads readers to assume that the 9/11 attacks were the basis for both our war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Many Americans still believe that we were attacked on 9/11 by Iraqis, and President Bush is still insisting that Al Qaeda in Iraq is made up of "the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th," a political fiction he needs, and needs us, to believe. The "particulars" in this prose poem also lend themselves to be used as propaganda.
All thoughtful war literature, certainly, is about much more than "particulars." Even probing accounts of "The Good War," as WWII is often called, enter the realm of politics. Clint Eastwood's The Flags of Our Fathers does a masterful job revealing the politics behind the iconic image of the marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, an image that seemed for decades about a particular, not a political, incident. And political intrigue continues to swirl around the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, who first was declared by the Pentagon and Bush as a war hero killed by the Taliban. Then he was a hero killed by friendly fire. Now there are hints that his death may have been due to "fragging," that is, he may have been murdered by his brothers-in-arms. Politics and war seem nearly inseparable, as nations use war not just for military purposes but also for political and ideological reasons. "Particulars" can't disarm the politics in art that deals with war. (Just ask filmmaker Ken Burns, who faced stinging criticism from minorities who felt left out of his World War II documentary The War.)
While Gioia denies that there's any political content in this anthology, editor Andrew Carroll takes the opposite approach. In his introduction he warns the reader that some of the writers in the anthology "voice staunchly antiwar opinions." While contradicting Gioia, Carroll assumes that "patriotic" writing is not political, while viewing antiwar writing as so political it may offend. Though muddled, Carroll's statement acknowledges what Gioia cannot: that literature carries political resonance. Despite Carroll's warning, however, most of the poetry in Operation Homecoming feels quite safe.
The closest any poem in this anthology comes to questioning war is the song lyric "In the Hangar," by Sandi Austin. One line is repeated three times in the song: "Stuck in this sandbox for too many days." That's it. That's the harshest complaint about the war in Iraq in any of the poems. In a note following the lyric, Carroll tells us that "Austin wrote the song after having spent only six weeks in Iraq. She had almost ten more months to go." The note can be read as a humorous aside--she thinks it's bad now; wait until she's done her ten months in Iraq--though no doubt Carroll does not intend his words to be read as criticism of the war.
Still, the reader wonders what Austin might be writing after her ten months. Or even after ten years. Maybe then she'd use a term stronger than "sandbox" for Iraq. The issue of distance and war writing is one that Carroll himself brings up in his introduction. He notices how great war writing has come "years, if not decades" after the veteran's return home, and he supplies a list of authors who required that distance: Ambrose Bierce, E. E. Cummings, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, Tobias Wolff. I'm not so sure this helps his argument.
Carroll tries to counter this historical precedent for distance with two factors: the quantity--"a towering, ten, thousand-page stack"--and quality of the submissions he received. Most of the anthology's poetry, however, does not support Carroll's insistence that veterans do not need distance from the war to shape their reflections. The one exception tellingly focuses indirectly on war, and by doing this tells us far more about the cost of war for our soldiers than Gioia or Carroll wish to acknowledge.
These words--bitterly honest--could be mistaken for those of a veteran of one of many earlier wars. Ryan Alexander, in "The Cat," narrates the tale of a cat he befriended in Mosul who later brings him one of her dead kittens. He follows the above stanza with these equally moving words:
The evil, the innocent,
her baby and
I thought I should say a prayer and bury
It's the tone that sounds so familiar, the weariness expressing both numbness and an inability to deaden a deep sensitivity. It says everything about the Iraq war, while never directly commenting on it. It's the voice of a veteran who has seen too much, and who knows too much about death. It's a shattering poem.
this poor little thing,
but I did for it what will be done for me.
I laid it in the burn can amongst the ash
and said I'm sorry.
Yet, if "The Cat" quietly conveys the effect of war on a soldier, other poems in Operation Homecoming seek to reinforce patriotic stereotypes. "The Virtual Soldiers," by Allen Caruselle, for example, reads like an updated version of "The Ballad of the Green Berets," the song made famous by Barry Sadler in the early years of the Vietnam war. Here's how Caruselle sees himself and his fellow soldiers: "Silicon knights out to save the world / From the newest threat of terror and disorder." Again, the reader can't help but wondering, what might this poet be writing years from now? Will he still be defining himself as a "knight," given the shoddy care many of our Iraq veterans have been receiving? In a war where the public seems more interested in Angelina and Paris and Britney?
Another example of a safe poem is "Brotherhood," by Dena Price Van den Bosch, who extols the selflessness of soldiers who "crawl one hundred meters / under fire / to reach their brother / with no guarantee / they'll return." While I have no doubt soldiers have and will continue to sacrifice for their fellow soldiers, and it is a clear demonstration of their bravery, this poem also reinforces how we want to see our soldiers. Van den Bosch's portrait fails to take into account how the "brotherhood" lied about Pat Tillman's death, claiming he was killed by enemy fire. It fails to account for what occurred in Abu Ghraib, or at Haditha, where women, children, and even a handicapped Iraqi civilian were (allegedly) massacred by our soldiers. Instead "Brotherhood" gives us more of the pristine innocence of "The Ballad of the Green Berets." Surely the topic deserves more depth.
I remember an interview with David Maraniss, author of They Marched into Sunlight, a fascinating account of October 1967, both in the jungles of Vietnam, and at Madison, Wisconsin. Maraniss recalled an anguished Vietnam veteran he interviewed who was still haunted by the memory of listening to a fellow soldier crying out in pain. Pinned down by Viet Cong snipers he could not see, the surviving soldier was unable to rescue his wounded comrade, whose dying agonies he had to listen to for hours. This memory still tortures the veteran. The simplistic "Brotherhood" does not begin to convey his anguish.
If you've read or heard Brian Turner read his poem entitled "Eulogy," then you know this veteran has much to tell us about the effects of war. As he explained before his reading the poem on NPR, he was listening to an officer read the names of "fallen angels," soldiers who had died in Iraq. But the officer left out the name of PFC Miller. Miller committed suicide in Iraq, and apparently that disqualified him from being remembered as a "fallen angel." So Turner composed his elegy to remember Miller: "It happens on a Monday, at 11:20 A.M., / as tower guards eat sandwiches / and seagulls drift by on the Tigris River." The poem goes on to show Miller finding, with his death, "what low hush there is / down in the eucalyptus shade, there by the river." Though the language of the poem is lush, this intensifies the need for the act of self-inflicted violence.
Tellingly, "Eulogy" was not one of the poems editor Andrew Carroll chose for Operation Homecoming. We do, however, have three of Turner's poems in the anthology--"Asbah," "The Baghdad Zoo," and "The Hurt Locker"--but these three poems omit not only the instance of a U.S. soldier's suicide in Iraq, but also Turner's compassion for Iraqis. Instead, we have lines like these, from "The Hurt Locker":
Believe it when a twelve-year-old
Certainly all of the above is true of this guerilla war, but where is "In the Leupold Scope," where we look, through the eyes of an American soldier, with compassion at an Iraqi woman hanging laundry on her roof? Or where we witness, in "2000 lbs.," the damage done by a suicide bomber to Iraqi civilians?
rolls a grenade into the room.
Or when a sniper punches a hole
deep into someone's head.
Believe it when four men
step from a taxicab in Mosul
to shower the street in brass
I don't know which poems Turner submitted to Carroll for the anthology. Maybe Turner selected only those three poems, and it would be unfair to blame the editor for his editorial timidity. Still, given the breadth and complexity of Turner's full collection of Iraqi war poems, Here, Bullet, we know what Operation Homecoming could have been, had the editor wanted to do more than present "Support Our Troops" poetry.
Despite its problems, one aspect of the poetry in Operation Homecoming that it succeeds at is portraying the emotions of those on the "home front." In his introduction, Carroll includes this brief poem (though he does not include it formally in the anthology, and thus I did not include it in my count), entitled "Emily, Updated":
Playing on Emily Dickinson's "hope is the thing with feathers," Kathy Roth-Douquet conveys the fears of a civilian who has a loved one in a helicopter in Iraq. This poem, with its reminder of inadequate body armor as well as inadequate ground and air armor provided for our soldiers, is yet another example of the unavoidability of politics in war poetry.
is the thing
The torment that a civilian must live with can also be found in Sara Lisagor's "To Colonel Lisagor." While trying to dislodge her dog's "tooth-rotten toy" stuck under the car, she thinks of her father: "I see you, eleven hours / away, hunched over just like me. / You curse under your breath, / scanning beneath your Humvee / for traces of a car bomb." The poem communicates both the sense of a task shared that unites daughter and father, as well as the gulf between them due what could await her father under his Humvee.
Even when the poetry in Operation Homecoming overcomes the patriotic halo that Dana Gioia and Andrew Carroll install, reminders of it seep through some of the titles in the anthology. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the section of the book titled "Hearts and Minds." Do Gioia and Carroll lack a sense of history? Or are they asking us to ignore the disastrous application of this term in the Vietnam war?
Perhaps they've never read Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, the anthology their section heading evokes. Edited by three Vietnam veterans--Larry Rottman, Jan Barry, and Basil T. Paquet--the publication of this anthology in 1972 caused many Americans to see the war in an entirely different way. Raw and moving, the poems in this book demolish the credibility of the title phrase, still used by generals and politicians. Larry Rottmann's "S.O.P." lets us see the practice as opposed to the propaganda:
To build a "gook stretcher," all you need is:
If Gioia or Carroll read even a few of the poems in this book, could they use the phrase "Hearts and Minds" without cringing?
Two long, strong ropes,
And one elastic gook.
Those who believe that our soldiers treat the civilians of Iraq with respect--the only way a counterinsurgency can ever be successful--will want to read "The Other War," by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian. Based on interviews with fifty Iraq veterans, this article documents horrors against Iraqi civilians so commonplace that soldiers don't bother to report them and their officers don't bother to investigate the incidents.
These words by Sergeant Mardan about his enemies would certainly sound familiar to Larry Rottman and the veterans in Winning Hearts & Minds: "You can't tell the difference between these people at all. They all look Arab. They all have beards, facial hair. Honestly, it'll be like walking into China and trying to tell who's in the Communist Party and who's not. It's impossible." This could be spoken by a veteran of the Korean War, or the Vietnam War. Somehow, we keep having to relearn the same sad lessons.
Years from now, I foresee American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars putting together a new Winning Hearts & Minds, one that will contain poetry by veterans who will speak passionately and honestly about the true nature of war, its cost on both soldiers and civilians. Its poetry will no doubt reveal many of the same truths about war that the poets of the Vietnam War do in Winning Hearts & Minds and in W. D. Ehrhart's Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War, another outstanding war anthology. Until that time we have Operation Homecoming, an anthology defeated by its own internal contradictions.
Whatever will be said about Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak--and some Americans will probably have vile terms for it--this anthology cannot be accused of playing it safe. Editor Marc Falkoff, lawyer for some of the detainees in Guantanamo, deserves admiration for his courage in presenting these poems. The anthology--translated into English by unnamed assistants--serves as a startling counterpoint to Operation Homecoming in letting us hear from those we call our enemy. It also shows what an anthology of war poetry can do--challenging our assumptions and exposing our hypocrisy.
You need to know a little about the authors in the anthology. Flagg Miller, a linguistic and cultural anthropologist, offers this fascinating footnote to his informative essay "Forms of Suffering in Muslim Prison Poetry," which puts the writing into cultural context. This footnote cites Joseph Margulies, Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, as its source:
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stated that the Guantanamo detainees are "among the most dangerous, best- trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth." The validity of such a claim is questioned by the Pentagon's own personnel at the base, some of whom have estimated that, at best, only a few dozen of the
Further doubt about Rumsfeld's claim comes while reading the bios of detainees in this book who were released from Guantanamo without any charges. One wonders: Why would they grant freedom to such "vicious killers"? Did these detainees ever receive an official apology of any kind? Financial compensation for physical and emotional trauma? Or were they simply released without comment, while we pretend that nothing unusual ever happened to them?
five hundred detainees have any connection with terrorism.
The twenty-two poems here--the Pentagon has withheld many other poems by the detainees as they allegedly present a danger to national security--chill the blood. They almost all, regardless of the quality of the verse, are pleas for dignity. These lines from Ibrahim Al Rubaish's "Ode to the Sea" addresses an unseen and indifferent observer of all that goes on in Guantanamo:
Were it not for the chains of the faithless, I would have dived into you,
And reached my beloved family, or perished in your arms.
These pleas for dignity--whether to God, unseen judges, or us--stem from the degradation these detainees have endured. Here's Falkoff's description of their treatment:
They had been subject to stress positions, sleep deprivation, blaring music, and extremes of heat and cold during endless interrogations. They had been sexually humiliated . . . . They were denied basic medical care. They were broken down and psychologically tyrannized, kept in extreme isolation , threatened with rendition, interrogated at gunpoint, and told their families would be harmed if they refused to talk.
In other words, they were tortured. By the nation that claims to be fighting for the very rights it denies these prisoners. We owe it to ourselves, if not to the detainees and their families, to be honest about what we have done and are doing to these captives we refuse to treat like prisoners of war. And so, denied all other avenues of redress--at times even daily prayer, according to Falkoff--the detainees turned to poetry.
The poems may sound naive at times, but they often reflect a deeper faith in humans and human rights than Americans do. Here's one example, from Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif's "Hunger Strike Poem":
Where is the world to save us from torture?
The short biographical note to the poem informs us that Latif was "kept for a time in an open-air kennel exposed to the elements, causing further deterioration to his health." Given the conditions described in the poems and in the bio notes, hunger strikes and suicide attempts seem a logical response. Such is the world of Guantanamo, conveniently located off American soil, and out of mind.
Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?
The quality of the poems vary greatly. Some of the poems sound polished, as if the writer has literary experience, such as this short poem, "Cup Poem 2," by Shaikh Abdurraneem Muslim Dost. (The title most likely refers to where the poem was written--on a styrofoam cup. Falkoff notes in his introduction that the detainees often composed with a pebble on a cup, when they were denied paper and pencil.)
Handcuffs befit brave young men,
The emotional detachment in this short poem almost sounds playful, contrasting sharply with the resentment and depression found in many of the other poems. There's also that sly reversal taking place, where handcuffs become the jewelry of the brave.
Bangles are for spinsters or pretty young ladies.
A much less polished poem, Martin Mubanga's "Terrorist 2003," showing the influence of rap, lacks Dost's distance and subtlety:
America sucks, America chills,
This poem, with its voice of bravado and street language, refers to prisoner bargaining, a technique noted in several poems:
While d' blood of Muslims is forever getting spilled"
An' them says to me, we can make your life sweet,
Despite the posturing of the poet, or perhaps because of the transparency of the posturing, this poem must be considered effective. The poet somehow has retained his pride, or at least a shadow of it. And that's a small miracle.
Give you all the things you ever wanted to eat.
All you got to do is practice deceit,
An' everything a go be really neat.
"I was humiliated in shackles. How can I now compose verses? How can I now write?" wonders Sami Al Haj, in "Humiliated in the Shackles," and yet he cannot stop composing. He must write for the very reason he questions his ability to write--his humiliation. The writers of these poems find the act of writing poetry a balm, as Ariel Dorfman observes in his Afterword. He notes the same sort of comfort was found by Chileans imprisoned and tortured by Pinochet's thugs. They, as well as countless other captives, have "used poetry to redeem their wounded dignity."
It is this act that readers of Poems from Guantanamo may find oddly inspiring. As well as depressing, as it is our country providing the "inspiration" of Guantanamo for these poems of witness.
Is it simply the act of witnessing injustice that makes these poems so much more compelling than most of the poems in Operation Homecoming? No doubt some of the writers of this anthology also turned to poetry to "redeem their wounded dignity." This brings us to a larger question. What exactly is the purpose of a war anthology? Is it to provide comfort for those on the front and those in the "homeland"? To reassure us that we are indeed the forces of good and that the ones we fight, and those we suspect of helping those we fight, are "bad guys"? If so, Operation Homecoming is quite successful. Or is it to ask probing questions about our tactics and our purpose? To unearth disturbing truths about the war? To question how we portray the enemy and even how we portray ourselves? If so, Poems from Guantanamo must be called a successful war anthology, as ironic as that phrase sounds.
When Chris Hedges calls veterans "prophets" daring "to speak the halting words we do not want to hear," he had no idea that his words would aptly describe the poetry of the detainees in Guantanamo. I hope I'm not misusing his words or offending our veterans. One of the reasons I'm horrified by the treatment of the Guantanamo detainees is that I fear other nations or militias may subject our veterans to the same treatment we inflict on the prisoners of war we insist on calling "detainees." And these captors could use the exact same language, the same excuses and rationalizations. Somehow this gets lost in Jack Bauer-like scenarios of waterboarding detainees to "save American lives."
I'm left with this thought on war poetry. It may not "save us," as Hedges' believes, but we desperately need it for truths few of us want to hear, or can find anywhere else.
Texts Referred to in This Essay:
Carroll, Andrew, ed. Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. Random House, 2006.
Ehrhart, W. D., ed. Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War. Texas Tech Univ. Press, 1989.
Falkoff, Marc, ed. Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, University of Iowa Press, 2007.
Hedges, Chris. "A Culture of Atrocity." Truthdig.com, June 18, 2007.
Hedges, Chris, and Laila Al-Arian. "The Other War." The Nation. July 30/ August 6, 2007.
Maraniss, David. They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and
America, October 1967. Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Rottman, Larry, Jan Barry, and Basil T. Paquet, ed. Winning Hearts & Minds:
War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. McGraw-Hill, 1972.
Turner, Brian. Here, Bullet. Alice James Books, 2005.
Wilner, Eleanor. "Poetry and Pentagon: Unholy Alliance?" Poetry, October 2004.