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

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

In Uncategorized on November 10, 2012 at 6:37 pm

In honor of Veterans Day 2012, I’m copying a post I wrote two years ago for Veterans Day 2010.

Out walking the dog

Looking like they’d wandered into a Mondrian painting, these vets were part of a crowd of soldiers and veterans that gathered at Madison Square Park for last Thursday’s Veterans Day Parade.  The sky was a cloudless blue and the morning bright and mild.

Vets of every description gathered before the parade

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Remembering the Dead: Indiana War Memorial Plaza

In Uncategorized, War Museums and Memorials on April 29, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I’ve become fascinated, and sometimes horrified, by the ways we choose to remember our wars and the men and women who died fighting them.  During a recent ten-day stay in Indianapolis to work on my play, Red Badge Variations, or The Red Animal, at the Bonderman New Play Prize and Symposium at Indiana Repertory Theater, I played hooky to explore the city’s War Memorial Plaza and Museum.

I’ll write about the Museum in a future post; today I want to show you the plaza.

Spring had popped during the past week, and Indy’s gorgeous flowering trees hovered like low-lying clouds along the pathways.

 The park is dotted with simple and moving memorials to Indiana soldiers who died in wars of the last century.  Oh, there are a few grandiose, martial eagles

and death-worshiping sarcophagi, such as this gloomy, star-studded shrine.

But I was deeply moved by the memorials to soldiers who died in Vietnam, World War II and Korea,

and particularly by excerpts from soldiers’ letters home that are cut into the stone, followed by the date of death. There is a home-spun quality to the beautifully selected letters with their sometimes idiosyncratic spellings.

 Some soldiers convey hard-won insights.

Others write of the brutal facts of life at war.

And others convey a bravado all the more poignant for its transparency.

By allowing the letters to stand as is, without comment or correction, these memorials remind us of the irreplaceable individuality of the soldiers we send into battle, and of the ripples of suffering that each death sends out into the world.

As of today, the death toll for American service members in our current war in Afghanistan stands at 1,540.

Story by Melissa Cooper

Tim Hetherington 1970-April 11, 2011

In Documentaries, Journalism, Movies, Uncategorized on April 20, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Tim Hetherington. Photo by Matt Stuart, Vanity Fair

Photojournalist Tim Hetherington was killed today in Libya, where he was covering the conflict from the rebel front lines of the besieged city of Misurata.  He and three other photojournalists, Chris Hondros, Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown, were hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. It is not clear at the time of this writing whether Hondros or Martin will survive their wounds.

Hetherington’s powerful images exposed the terrible consequences of conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Darfur and Liberia. among other places.  Hetherington also worked with author Sebastian Junger to film, direct and produce Restrepo, an extraordinary Oscar-nominated documentary film about a platoon of U.S. soldiers in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, an area that was considered among the most dangerous places on earth.

Hetherington and Junger lived alongside the soldiers in a remote combat outpost for about ten months in total. Before going to Afghanistan, Hetherington had spent a great deal of time covering conflicts.  But most journalists who are embedded with troops stay for a period of days or weeks.  Sharing the difficult day-to-day life of the platoon over a period of months allowed Hetherington and Junger to develop a deep understanding of individual soldiers and  their experiences of war and loss.  In an interview with Lauren Wissot of The Filmmaker Magazine Blog, Hetherington speaks of the choice to focus their exploration not on politics but on “the experience of the people who are fighting the war.”

Hetherington was also struck by the “interpersonal relationships between soldiers.  Take a small group of soldiers, platoon size, train them together, put them together in extreme circumstances and they will kill and be killed for each other. That is the heart of the war machine. And that’s really what our film became about.”

Hetherington’s death, like most combat deaths, was essentially random.  Had he been a few feet in one direction or another, he might have survived Wednesday’s attack, as he had survived others.   But while Hetherington’s death is a terrible, meaningless waste, his life’s work was brave, important, and full of meaning – and that work required that he put himself in harm’s way.

According to the New York Times, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, called Hetherington’s death “a devastating blow to the human rights community. His work has raised the visibility of many of the world’s forgotten conflicts. May the legacy of his exceptional photographs serve to inspire future generations.”

So watch Restrepo.  Visit Hetherington’s website.   Take a look at Infidel, his 2010 book of portraits and interviews of American soldiers.  And try to think in new ways about war, and the suffering it causes.  I don’t know what it means to “think in new ways about war.”  I only know the old ways fail us over and over again, while the death tolls continue to rise – in Afghanistan, Libya and around the world …

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 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.

Welcome to the Red Animal Project

In Research, Uncategorized on January 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

“They were going to look at war, the red animal – war, the blood-swollen god.”                – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Animal Project is a new blog and a new play, The Red Animal, by Melissa Cooper.

The U. S. has been at war for almost a decade. Two million Americans have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, some of them many times. Yet the war and the people who fight it remain largely invisible to many Americans. By exploring the experiences of combat soldiers at war and at home, The Red Animal (both play and blog) aims to spark questions, combat stereotypes, promote understanding of soldiers as individuals, and contribute to a national discussion about war and warriors that is way overdue.

The play, The Red Animal (inspired by Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage), tracks five young American soldiers through a year’s deployment in a remote part of Afghanistan.  Writing the play led to a year of wide-ranging research, following the philosophy:

Cast a wide net and see what you catch.

The Red Animal blog is a place to share what I’ve learned from news reports, novels, memoirs, blogs, plays, poetry by soldiers, films, documentaries, art work, videos by soldiers, private discussions and public events.  I’ll post links to stories that may include such wide-ranging topics as how Stephen Crane’s love of sports impacted his war writing, the latest research on traumatic brain injuries and writings by soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I’ll also write about the process of developing a new play, as The Red Animal moves toward its first productions (check Calendar for upcoming events and News for updates).

I’ll post a couple of times a week, so check back or subscribe by email (bottom right of the blog) to be notified of new posts.

I welcome comments and suggestions. For more information, check out What is The Red Animal Project? and About the Writer.

Thank you for visiting The Red Animal Project!