A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
the burnt torso of a monk
an enemy monk
tonight a cigarette glows
in the dark and is crushed
I’ve been asked to teach a course in American history. The professor got sick, so I inherited, as it were, a syllabus not of my own making. It’s a good syllabus, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t have chosen these readings.
I have to teach The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. An excellent novel by a great raconteur. I perfectly understand why someone would choose it when teaching the Civil War.
I just don’t like any book that purports to tell, as one critic put it, “what war is about.”
Can someone tell me what death is about? Can anyone really imagine being dead? How can the mind fantasize its own nothingness?
Perhaps the worst part about such books is that they invariably romanticize war. The reader may, occasionally, identify with the heroic dead. Achilles. Robert Gould Shaw. But no one identifies with the nameless schmuck who gets hit by a stray piece of shrapnel, the guy who dies of malaria, the guy whose pelvis is crushed by a run-away cart.
I’ll tell you a little war story. Something I never told anyone. In Vietnam, I only once saw an engagement that was anything like a battle. A large number of our guys here; a large number of their guys there. Mine was a guerilla war. I never saw a large scale battle like Bastogne or Gettysburg. I only rarely saw my enemy.
But this once, my division caught a battalion of North Vietnamese on top of a near-by mountain. We, the 4th Infantry, surrounded the base of that mountain. Trapped them. And I watched. I was a mile or two away. It went on all day. I don’t remember why anymore, but about mid-day I was walking down a dirt road. A jeep drove up – this takes longer to tell than it did to happen – and the driver in panic asks me where the evac. hospital is. I just point down the road. He’s headed in the right direction. It’s only then, as he pops the clutch, as his tires spin, as he begins to move on, as the back of the jeep comes even with me, it was only then that I notice. The guy on a stretcher. Red and wet from his navel to his knees. As he passes, as I first see the jeep from behind, something is hanging, like a small rope, off the back of the jeep. Dragging in the dirt. At first I’m confused, but I sense it’s wrong. By the time I realize what it is, the jeep is too far away. It’s his intestines. In all my nightmares, awake and asleep, I am as I was then, frozen, unable to speak.
I want my student to imagine being 10,000 miles from home, dying in the back of a dirty jeep, a single strand of intestine dragging in the dirt. Identify with that. That is “what war is about.” Anything else is a romantic novel.
What would you do to live
tonight? Surrounded by enemy
kids, would you shoot
anything that’s yellow?
And when the enemy kids try
to overrun you, would you
have the guts to rain-down
napalm like the monsoon?
And when you go home and go
to work, your medals yellowing
in the drawer, would you tell
your boss that beyond death
beyond even pain there was a night
you turned a kid’s face into fire?
Copyright 2017 John Samuel Tieman