"They were going to look at war, the red animal – war, the blood-swollen god."

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Poets of the Great War: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen

In Literature, poetry, Uncategorized on March 9, 2011 at 10:57 am

Manuscript of "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfrid Owen. Rough draft with suggested revisions by Siegfried Sassoon. (Scroll down to read finished poem.)

Two great British war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both served as army officers during World War I, experiencing first-hand the horrors of trench warfare at the front and, in the case of Owen, gas attacks. Sassoon and Owen met when hospitalized for shell shock (now called post-traumatic stress disorder) in Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh.  The poems reprinted at the end of this post, Sick Leave by Sassoon and Dulce Et Decorum Est by Owen, were written at Craiglockhart. Sassoon served as a mentor to the younger Owen, encouraging him and suggesting revisions to some of his poems.

Dubbed “Mad Jack”by his men for the boldness of his exploits under fire, Sassoon came to believe that the war was an unconscionable slaughter that must be stopped.

Siegfried Sassoon. Photograph: George C Beresford/Hulton Archive

IN 1917, while back in England recovering from a shoulder wound, Sassoon, already a decorated war hero and published poet, wrote a letter of protest to his commander, Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.  With the support of prominent pacifists, including philosopher Bertrand Russell who would later go to prison for anti-war activities, Sassoon had the declaration read out in the British House of Commons and printed in the London Times.  The result was a political firestorm. Sassoon was threatened with court-martial and military execution until his friend, writer-soldier Robert Graves, successfully argued that Sassoon was mentally unfit due to shell shock, or “war neurosis,” and should instead be sent for treatment to Craiglockhart.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1917, by Glyn Warren Philpot. Fitzwilliam Museum, England.

At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a brilliant young lieutenant who had been hospitalized after surviving numerous horrendous combat experiences, including being trapped in a trench under heavy fire for several days with the remains of a fellow officer.

Wilfred Owen

Owen was a great admirer of Sassoon’s poetry and the two became friends.  Both men felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to the soldiers they had left at the front, a feeling expressed by many soldiers today when they leave a combat unit. Although both Sassoon and Owen could have avoided being sent back to action, each insisted on returning to the front. Sassoon, wounded a second time and sent home, tried fiercely to prevent Owen from returning to battle.

Owen was killed in action on November 4, 1918, a week before the Armistice. He was 25.

Ors Communal Cemetery in France, where Wilfred Owen is buried (click for image website)

Sassoon’s poem, Sick Leave, conveys the overwhelming pull of bonds of love and guilt formed on the battlefield. Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est describes a poison gas attack and gives a bitter twist to Horace’s ancient line (much-quoted by jingoistic writers of the time): “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Sick Leave
by Siegfried Sassoon

When I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm, –
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
“Why are you here with all your watches ended?
From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the line.”
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
“When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”

Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
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

Story by Melissa Cooper

Note: Pat Barker’s extraordinary novel, Regeneration, tells a fictionalized version of the meeting of Owen and Sassoon. Regeneration is the first book in a trilogy about the Great War that includes The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road.

War is Kind

In Literature, poetry, Stephen Crane on March 4, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Stephen Crane once wrote, “I understand a man is born into the world with his own pair of eyes and he is not at all responsible for his vision – he is merely responsible for his quality of personal honesty. To keep close to this personal honesty is my supreme ambition.”

Known for his war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, and his extraordinary short stories, Crane also wrote poems. In 1899, he published War is Kind and Other Lines, his second book of poetry.  He died of tuberculosis in 1900 at the age of 27, following a short life packed with adventure and hard work.

War is Kind by Stephen Crane, 1899. (Click photo to go to website.)

War is Kind

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches
Raged at his breast, gulped and died.
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Swift blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

War Primer by Bertolt Brecht

In Literature, poetry, Uncategorized on February 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm

War Primer by Bertolt Brecht

A morning visit to my neighborhood independent bookstore, BookCulture (a great store – go visit at 112th Street east of Broadway), yielded a surprising find: War Primer by the great poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. I hadn’t even known of the existence of this extraordinary document, but since the over-sized hardcover volume was marked down from $60.00 to $14.99, I promptly bought a copy.

By 194o, already many years into his long exile from Hitler’s Germany, Brecht had begun to clip photos of war from newspapers and magazines, and to write terse and fierce four-line poems to accompany the images. He mounted the photos and poems on paper, creating what he called “photo-epigrams.”

Young sufferers of war in Russia, France, Greece and Sicily

You, in your tanks and bombers, mighty warriors,
You that in Algiers sweat, in Lapland freeze
In scores of battles you have been victorious
See whom you’ve conquered. Hail your victories!

War Primer is a collection of these photo-epigrams, which Brecht worked on as he and his family moved from country to country, “changing countries more often than our shoes,” trying to stay ahead of Hitler’s invasions.

"Exhausted Soldiers"

Those you see lying here, buried in mud
As if they lay already in their grave–
They’re merely sleeping, are not really dead
Yet, not asleep, would still not be awake.

In 1941, Brecht lived in Sweden, Finland and Russia before arriving in the United States, where he would remain for six years.  Throughout World War II and its aftermath, Brecht continued to work on War Primer, while writing some of his greatest plays, including Mother Courage, The Good Person of Setzuan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. He completed War Primer in 1947, the same year he testified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC).

The day after his HUAC testimony, Brecht left the U.S. for Switzerland.  In 1949, after fifteen years of exile, he finally returned to East Berlin.

That’s how the world was going to be run!
The other nations mastered him, except
(In case you think the battle has been won)–
The womb is fertile still from which that crept.

(Kriegsfibel was published in Germany in 1955. It was published in English as War Primer in 1998.  John Willett translated and edited; Libris is the publisher. A small stack of the books remains at Book Culture. What a find.)

Here, for good measure, is a poem of Brecht’s that has served me for years as a mental talisman:


Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has happened. And the water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again.

What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.

J.D. Salinger and War

In Fiction, Literature on February 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm

How did I miss the impact on J.D. Salinger of his experiences as a soldier during World War II?  As a teenager, I read pretty much the entire small canon, from Catcher in the Rye to the stories about the Glass family to Nine Stories.  Most of the stories, I haven’t read since, and until a few days ago, if you had asked me how the war affected Salinger’s writing, I would have said, essentially, “Huh?”

But the experience of combat was a central experience in Salinger’s life that permeates much of his work.

Salinger in 1943 in the Air Corps

I recently re-read two stories written in the mid-1940s, For Esme with Love and Squalor and A Perfect Day for Bananafish, as well as four or five early, still-uncollected stories about soldiers. I was knocked out by the portrayal of the suffering of young combat veterans after the war. Both Seymour Glass in Bananafish and Sergeant X in For Esme would be diagnosed today with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  At least, one hopes they would be so diagnosed.  Sadly, Seymour’s suicide fits right in with the frightening epidemic of suicides among young service members today.

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (Bantam paperback)

As a teenager reading for “universality,” I saw Seymour and Sergeant X as engaged in existential battles for purity and truth, battles that existed somewhere above the fray of concrete human experiences.  The war was merely background color.  Now it seems crystal clear that the characters’ experience of war and its aftermath is essential to the action and meaning of both stories.

American soldiers in the Battle for Hurtgen Forest in Germany

In a 1945 letter to Esquire magazine, Salinger wrote from Germany:

“I am twenty-six and in my fourth year in the Army. I’ve been overseas seventeen months so far. Landed on Utah Beach on D-Day with the Fourth Division and was with the 12th Infantry of the Fourth until the end of the war here. The Air Corps background for This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise [a story Esquire published] comes naturally because I used to be in the Air Corps. Have also been in the Signal Corps. Am also a graduate of Valley Forge Military Academy.”

Salinger’s yearbook entry Valley Forge

The straightforward biographical information in the letter gives no hint of the effects on Salinger of having fought in some of the bloodiest, most intense battles of the entire war. His division saw thousands of casualties as they fought their way through the Normandy landing, the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge.

D-Day Landing on Utah Beach, Normandy (click to visit image website)

In August, 1944, Salinger had been among the first American troops to enter newly liberated Paris.

Allied troops enter Paris

In April, 1945, he may, according to his daughter Margaret, have helped to liberate Dachau, an experience that shocked and devastated young American soldiers completely unprepared for the horrors of the death camps.

A few months before he wrote to Esquire, Salinger had checked himself into an army hospital in Germany for psychiatric treatment. He was suffering from “battle fatigue,” the lingering effects of which he depicts in heartbreaking detail in A Perfect Day for Bananafish and For Esme With Love and Squalor.

Bananafish takes place at home, as Seymour Glass, deeply alienated and in despair, struggles to resume civilian life in shiny, post-war America, where his fellow citizens, including his young wife, are hell-bent on putting the war behind them and careening head-long into the material pleasures of prosperity.

In For Esme, Sergeant X has just been discharged from an army hospital, despite his overwhelming mental anguish and inability to function.  He can’t read or concentrate, his writing is illegible, and his hands shake so much he can’t roll a sheet of paper into the typewriter to write to a friend at home. His face jumps with nervous tics, and he occasionally feels his mind “dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack.”  He opens a parcel sent by Esme, a little girl he met before he went into combat. In it, he finds a letter and “a lucky talisman”: a shock-proof watch that had belonged to Esme’s deceased father. Holding the watch, its face cracked in transit, he feels suddenly sleepy and hopeful that he “stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac – with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

In both stories, the war does not end for its warriors, just because combat is over.  They carry it with them out of the battlefields and into their futures.  Many of today’s veterans also struggle mightily with post-combat “reintegration” (as the Army calls it) into civilian life, as the incidence of PTSD clearly indicates. But the problem doesn’t lie only with veterans or even with the inadequate response of the armed forces to the challenges faced by service members. The problem is rooted in the painful intersection of war and peace, in the uncomfortable meeting-point between returning warriors and civilians.  We send young men and women off to fight, but we shy away from understanding what we are actually asking them of them. What do the words “combat”, “fight” and “war” actually mean, in the week-to-week, day-to-day experience of soldiers?  What are the effects on the bodies and minds of the fighters? What are the effects on a country that turns away?

We are still not willing to face the consequences of war. They, our veterans, have no choice.

story by Melissa Cooper

Below are links to three of Salinger’s early, still uncollected stories about soldiers:

The Last Day of the Last Furlough: (Saturday Evening Post, 1944)  The first story in a trilogy featuring Babe Gladwaller.  Babe and his friend, Corporal Vincent Caulfield (older brother of Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield), prepare to deploy overseas.

A Boy in France: (Saturday Evening Post, 1945) Spending a miserable night in a rain-soaked foxhole on the front lines, Babe finds solace in thinking about home and re-reading a letter from his little sister.

The Stranger (Collier’s, 1945)  Vincent has been killed in the war and Babe, now home in New York City, visits his buddy’s former girlfriend to give her one of Vincent’s poems

J.D. Salinger: A Life is a new biography by Kenneth Slawenski that details Salinger’s war experiences. I have not yet read it, but you can read Michiko Kakutani’s review in the daily New York Times here and Jay McInerney’s Sunday Book Review here.

“Words in the Dust”: Soldier-novelist tells story of Afghan girl

In Afghanistan, Fiction, Literature, Women on January 27, 2011 at 2:58 pm

While deployed to Afghanistan in 2004-2005 as a combat engineer, National Guardsman Trent Reedy met Zulaikha, a 12 year-old Afghan girl with a severely deforming cleft lip. After getting to know her and her family, Reedy and his fellow soldiers pooled their money and arranged for the girl to have corrective surgery at an American military base.  Reedy’s recently published first novel, “Words in the Dust,” imagines the girl’s life.

The book, which is told from the point of view of the young girl, is aimed at the young adult market, which seems to mean junior high school and up.

According to a recent article in the L.A. Times, Reedy joined the Army fresh out of high school and went to Afghanistan full of anger at the attacks of September 11.  His understanding of the Afghan people began to change when he watched two small Afghan children playing in the street, while he was on guard duty.  “The boy was pulling a box with a piece of yarn, and the girl was just pulling a piece of yarn,” said Reedy. “These were their toys. It was that day that I thought, ‘They’re not the enemy.’ If anything, these people were more of a victim of Al Qaeda and the Taliban than I am. You can’t keep the anger up looking at those little kids.”

Reedy’s ability to forge a friendship with Zulaikha was limited by the strict rules governing interaction between the sexes.  Still he was struck by Zulaikha’s yearning to achieve an education and learn to read.  He promised her that he would tell her story, telling the L.A. Times, “It was a mission I absolutely had to accomplish, no matter how long it took or how ridiculous it sounded that a white guy from Iowa would write it.”

In another interview, Reedy said, “It’s never been more clear that we need more understanding about the people of Afghanistan. We’ve been in Afghanistan for nearly a decade, and we need to understand who these people are. I was amazed by the people I met in Afghanistan. I owe my life to the Afghans.”

Reedy, who taught high school English for four years after his return from Afghanistan, is now working full-time on his second book. He plans to rejoin the National Guard, and to keep writing. “I miss the Army,” he said, but added “I couldn’t stop writing, if I wanted to.”

I look forward to reading “Words in the Dust” soon.

Story by Melissa Cooper

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Memoirs by Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Part One

In Literature, Memoirs on January 25, 2011 at 10:25 am

I’ve never been a reader of memoirs. Novels are more my speed.  A good novel, I’ve felt, is as true – no, truer – to life than nonfictional accounts constrained by fidelity to facts.   But while few novels have yet to come out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of memoirs by veterans keeps growing.  So I started reading memoirs.  I wasn’t looking for great literature, nor did I find it. With each book, I was looking for a window into the experience of war and home-coming from the point of view of a warrior.  That, I found.

This post gives mini-descriptions of five of the finest memoirs I have read so far.  I’ll write about others in a future post.

The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education by Craig Mullaney

Fascinating reading for a civilian trying to understand what makes a brilliant and idealistic young man choose to be a soldier in a time of war. Mullaney, a Rhodes scholar and Army Ranger, served in Afghanistan and Iraq. His book is carefully written, earnest and thoughtful. Mullaney conveys the extraordinary responsibility that young lieutenants carry as they lead men into battle and make  life-or-death decisions while barely out of college. He is currently Senior Advisor at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), advising on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War by Brandon Friedman

Terrific, harrowing and well-written book by a former infantry officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Friedman confronts head-on the clash of his boyhood dreams of war with the reality of experience. “When I got out of the Army, I was done,” Friedman said in 2010. “I didn’t want to deal with anything anymore.” Friedman is now a Truman National Security Fellow and Director of New Media at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq by Paul Rieckhoff

Powerful, emotional account of a brash young lieutenant facing the realities of leading men into combat in Iraq, despite his doubts about whether the war was just.  Fierce and driven, Rieckhoff has gone on to found and lead IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America), a lively, forward-thinking and increasingly powerful organization that supports our newest veterans and their families.

Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Clint Van Winkle

A Marine sergeant writes of the bonds formed in combat, and of his difficult return home after fighting in Iraq.  Frank, courageous and brutally honest account of a veteran’s estrangement from civilian life and his terrifying struggle with PTSD.  Van Winkle is also a filmmaker; click to watch his documentary,  The Guilt.

Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo by Benjamin Tupper

A captain with an Embedded Training Team (ETT), Tupper spent a year in a remote outpost in Afghanistan, training, patrolling and fighting alongside the Afghan National Army.  Tupper maintained a blog during his deployment, some of which was recorded in the field and broadcast on National Public Radio. Essentially a compilation of short blog posts, the book is full of vivid and surprising details.

Story by Melissa Cooper