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“We were talking about Afghanistan, too,”
one of the young women at the bar said.
They knew facts, news, analysis,
some important names and dates;
history – we knew what we lived.
They weren’t even born when we fought
“Do you want to know what war is about?”
Jake asked the talkative one.
“Don’t say it, Jake,” I said. My hand added
insistence on his arm.
“Did you ever kill anyone?” he asked her.
She did not know where to look.
“That’s what war is about, sweetie! Not fucking
politics! You help with the killing and the killing
helps you. Then, you go home! Case closed!”
“Shut up, Jake!”
“Don’t shut me up, Richard! I’m warning you,
don’t shut me up!”
We were sitting at one end, and along
the bar people looked up, not at Jake and me,
but at shouting stereotypes, at headlines:
Viet Vets In Drunken Brawl:
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Jake raised a hand to the bartender,
I shook my hand to wave him off.
“Who the fuck are you!” Jake slurred,
leaning in too close, no less loud.
“Did you ever kill anyone?”
“You know, Jake,” I said, “but I’ll send
you my resume, again.”
“Don’t fuck with me! I’m warning you,
don’t fuck with me!”
“Back us all up, here, Steve,” he shouted,
pushing a fist of cash forward,
and turning back to the women.
“Did you ever wake up in a rice paddy
and shoot a fifteen-year-old kid? You
ever have to do that?”
“Let’s go out and smoke, Jake.”
He looked at me knowing I didn’t
smoke. Fighting did not find words,
but spoke in us like the name
of something we both wanted. He placed
a coaster over the rim of his glass
so the bartender would know he’d be back.
I pulled on my coat and walked out,
Jake and eyes following.
Here I will ask for the privacy you’d extend
to lovers, because a complicated intimacy
is at the heart of what passed between us
out there; decades and allegiances carried to
and laid upon that altar. And I ask, too,
for the forgiveness reserved for those
who deserve but cannot forgive themselves
or relieve the burden of carrying
more than their own time.
There is a feral loneliness you carry
from war to your grave. That isolation
is why Jake and I were outside the Inn,
forty years after.
I am just an old soldier, like all the others
going back to Odysseus, his story being
the enlistment of all those before and after,
all of us forever bound to brothers.
If we stood on each others’ shoulders,
to reach beyond the screams of red flares,
the moon could roll down our rolled up sleeves
to light fields of fire for a young sentry fighting
anywhere to stay awake in the dark far
from a home he’ll never return to,
even if he comes back.
So Jake and I were not alone on the outside
of the Brooklyn Inn, late, on that cold winter night.
Divisions from the expanding Afghan war
and from battles we had fought and survived
roiled awake and moved out with us,
securing the losses we had carried
to stand here, under a streetlamp that can
no more bring to light the pain of witness,
than bare the roots under stubborn curbside trees,
stripped to winter bones and dormancy,
and always, especially at night,
alive with their own shadows.
Though there are no flares – only flare-ups –
to mark this spot for a medevac, I tell you this:
a brother is down here. You have only my piss
poor triage to go by: but I’d say no one is coming
for us anymore. It’s just us out here, just us.
“C’mon in, Jake. I’ll buy the next round.”
Inside, in silence, Jake finished the beer he’d left
and with no more than a nod walked out.
The round I’d bought him sat sweating, even
after the young women took their leave, smiling
shyly and averting their eyes as they went. Then,
it was just Steve and me, the jukebox jazz,
and the barroom full of people
with their own stories to tell, a few, no doubt,
fueled by drink, going beyond what can be said
without disturbing the peace.
Copyright 2021 Richard Levine
Richard Levine is a retired NYC teacher and the author of Richard Levine: Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press, 2019). He served in Vietnam (1967-68, USMC).
These are the men from my era. This is why war needs to stop, but also why we need to attempt to understand their pain without judgement. A powerful poem. Thank you.
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Barbara, I disagree. We absolutely need to JUDGE them and ourselves for allowing such pointless, immoral cluster-fucks as the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts to happen. My Vietnam heroes were those young men who left the country or went to jail. “What if they gave a war and no one came?”
LikeLiked by 2 people
Mine are , too. But a lot of men were broken doing what they thought was right. Why punish them now? I marched against the war, but I didn’t have to worry about being conscripted. We all could have done more. That’s why we have to speak up against war now ( still).
Yes, I agree. I feel sorry for all those victims. Still, by 1967 even in Tucson, anti-war sentiment was strong. Hard to believe those who allowed themselves to be drafted were “doing what they thought was right,” more like allowing themselves to be cogs in the mindless war machine. But knowing your sacrifices meant NOTHING seems punishment enough.
DON’T GET ME STARTED
Last night at yoga
I listened to Elliot breathing
next to me like a patient
on a respirator. What if
there really is a soul?
Something the color
of duct tape or transparent
as plastic sheeting?
“Think about it,” I say
at breakfast. My wife glares
& tries to hide behind the classifieds.
She’s tired of my negative bullshit.
“Duct tape! Plastic sheeting!
Gee, I wonder why they’re
pushing petroleum products?”
She leaves the table, her toast
chanting One! Two!
Three! Four! we don’t
want your fucking war?
Remember that poster, girls say
yes to boys who say no?
I said to a girl across the room
what if they gave a war
& nobody came? I meant it,
it wasn’t bullshit, but she untied
her macrame halter top anyway.
I like that slogan, no blood
for oil. Maybe I’ll record it
on our answering machine or
shout it from our porch.
“You know,” calls my wife
from the other room, “if you were
happier, you’d be happier.”
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