Veterans Day 2014: “Of Arms And The Man I Sing” by Mike Foster
This Veteran’s Day holiday of remembrance of wars and warriors began in 1919 as a celebration of peace.
Armistice Day, which coincides with Veterans Day, a public holiday, is commemorated every year on 11 November, marking the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, ending hostilities on the Western Front of World War I, which took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning—the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.
After World War II, many of the countries observing this holiday renamed it Veterans Day to honor subsequent victims of subsequent wars.
I remember the church bells pealing in Peoria to celebrate the end of The Korean War.
I do not recall any such rejoicing ringing after Vietnam, or when Pres. George Bush landed on the aircraft carrier trumpeting “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.
Ever since the Greek poet Homer wrote The Iliad and Roman scribe Virgil began his Aeneid with “Of arms and the man I sing,” writers have turned their art to chronicling the deadly craft of warfare, “the most dangerous game.”
So today, we do the same at Peoria, Tazewell, and Woodford: Here, There,& Everywhere.
One sad truth: there’ve been many wars giving poets and prose writer’s worm’s meat for their fare.
Consider the paradiddle drumbeat of Charles Lever’s wry souvenir of the Napoleonic wars:
“Bad luck to this marching
Pipeclaying and starching
How neat one must be to be killed by the French!
I’m sick of parading
Through wet and cold wading
Or standing all night to be shot in a trench.”
Edgar Lee Masters (1868–1950), who published Spoon River Anthology in 1916, scandalizing many residents of Fulton, Knox, Mason, and Peoria counties, who knew the truths behind his tales of the dead sleeping in the cemetery in these poems, sadly soliloquizes a story of our nation’s bloodiest conflict, the Civil War:
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army,
Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words ‘Pro Patria.’
What do they mean, anyway?
English poet Wilfred Owen also uses the quote from Roman lyric versifier Horace that Masters employs in the stanza above.
Owen endured two tours on the Western Front. His parents received the news of his 1918 death just as all the bells in England sang their hosannas of victory on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
A more overlooked British poet commenting on the First World War is David Jones, author of In Parenthesis.
Of course, even when fought with mere swords, war is hell. The Great War of 1914-18 was the hottest, most horrible hell in history up to that point, as new technologies of terror stoked the fiery furnace on the front with the bodies of boys.
Writers witnessing that “colossal and mismanaged butchery,” including Owen, Erich Maria Remarque, and Ernest Hemingway, who thus described it, still have a place in the popular literary canon.
But nearly forgotten is Welsh poet David Jones’ harrowing first-hand account of months of muddy misery, chronic cold, fearful fatigue, trivial tedium in the filthy, flooded trenches inexorably leading in a Calvary-esque march toward the killing chaos of the July 10-11, 1916, assault on Mametz Wood, the day 19,000 soldiers would die. Incorporating Welsh mythology, Shakespeare, Arthurian legend, Roman Britain, and the Bible, In Parenthesis, published in 1937, is truly, as T.S. Eliot declared, “a work of genius.”
W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Siegfried Sassoon likewise lauded it. A true prose poem, it mingles wry wit and defiant doggerel with swift, shattering scenes of slaughter: “Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came—bright brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming the howling crescendo’s up-piling snapt. The universal world, breath held, one half second, a bludgeoned stillness. Then the pent violence released a consummation of all burstings out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through…the sap of vegetables slobbered the spotless breech-block of No. 3 gun.”
Jones links the men of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the Dais and Taffys, with all military history: from the Black Prince of Wales and Thomas Malory’s Balin to Saul and Longinus: the universal soldiers. Epigraphs ennoble the soldiers even as mundane lists of the things they carried—tea, tobacco, biscuits, postcards, cheese–humbles them.
The desperate attempts at fellowship on the doom-driven march south to the Somme are touching: “They talked of ordinary things. Of each one’s friends at home…Of if you’d ever read the books of Mr. Wells…Of the losses of the Battalion since they’d come to France…Of how everybody rightly ought to have Burberrys, like officers. Of how German knee boots were much more proper to trench warfare than puttees…Of whether they three would be together for the Duration, and how you hoped so very much indeed.”
After 150 pages, Part Seven depicts the long-dreaded moment of battle as a new Gethsemane: “Or you read it again many times to see if it will come out different:/ you can’t believe the Cup wont pass from/ or they won’t make a better show/ in the Garden/ Won’t someone forbid the banns/ or God himself will stay their hands.”
Not in the Somme. “But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.”
In The Third Spring, Christendom College history professor Adam Schwartz rightfully restores this work to the prominence it merits. His cogent, catholic, and Catholic critique of Jones calls readers to rediscover this sad, stunning, steely song of war.
In Parenthesis’ harrowed hell reminds us all, however, that needless death in a senseless war is redemption without resurrection.
Better that men live like Jesus than die like Him.
World War II memoir-fiction Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which I made the mistake, in principal Fr. Francis White’s judgment, of teaching to juniors and seniors at Peoria’s Spalding Institute in 1968-69, when so many of them would go off to fight and even die in Vietnam after graduation.
Fifty-three years after its publication, Joseph Heller’s first and best novel has its reputation secured by one fact: it has added a new word, its title, to the English language.
Even those who have never heard of Heller or read this dead-funny tale of World War II knows what a Catch-22 is: no good choice; two or more bad options; damned whether you do or don’t. Pardon my verbose Webster, but it’s “n. A paradox in which seeming alternatives actually cancel each other out, leaving no means of escape from a dilemma.”
The life-or-death dilemma that Yossarian the Army Air Force bombardier faces is that everyone, especially his own commanding officers, is trying to kill him. We learn early on that Yossarian was a brave and skillful bombardier until something happened that turned him into a man who wants no more part of war and will do anything to escape it. In the book’s forty-first and penultimate chapter, we learn what that was in a scene Heller said he patterned on a bit in the last act of William Shakespeare’s King Lear.
This book may not be as tragic as that play, but it is certainly a heck of a lot funnier. Indeed, no classic American novel—and this is one—is funnier, not even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Its PG-13 humor is based on surreality, slapstick, satire, stereotype, and absurdity. Consider Orr, Yossarian’s bizarre, giggling tentmate, survivor of many close calls during the bombing runs over Italy, who patiently explains why he used to stuff crab apples in his cheeks:
“I didn’t want apple cheeks. I wanted big cheeks. I didn’t care about the color so much, but I wanted them big. I worked at it just like one of those crazy guys you read about who go around squeezing rubber balls all day long just to strengthen their hands. In fact, I was one of those crazy guys. I used to walk around all day with rubber balls in my hands, too…I did it to protect my good reputation in case anyone every caught me walking around with crab apples in my cheeks. With rubber balls in my hands I could deny there were crab apples in my cheeks. Every time someone would ask me why I was walking around with crab apples in my cheeks, I’d just open my hands and show them it was rubber balls I was walking around with, not crab apples, and they were in my hands, not in my cheeks. It was a good story. But I never knew if I got it across or not, since it’s pretty tough to make people understand you when you when you’re talking to them with crab apples in your cheeks.”
Orr, of course, is one crazy guy and shouldn’t be flying bombing missions. But as the medic Doc Daneeka explains to Yossarian in the first of the book’s definitions:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and he didn’t have to; but if he didn’t he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
Much later in the book, Yossarian learns another, simpler definition
By then, Orr and most of Yossaran’s other friends are missing or dead, victims of the vaingloriously evil Col. Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of bombing missions his crews have to fly in the hope of getting a story about himself in The Saturday Evening Post, bravely risking the lives of his men even though the war is all but won.
Before a harrowing walk through occupied Rome that may be the book’s darkest chapter, Yossarian comes at last to the brothel that’d been a place of peace and refuge for him and his friends, only to find everyone but a weeping old woman gone, chased away by soldiers. She tells him:
“Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”
Heller’s combat experience illuminates the book’s aerial sequences; the frenzied terror of Ch. 15’s flak-wracked bombing run stands out as one of his best homogenizations of horror and humor.
Catch-22’s wit wears black. The laughter reveals the gleaming teeth of the skull beneath the face.
In the first half of the book, we meet Yossarian and his pals, the most loveable band of eccentrics in American literature. In the second half, we witness the death of almost all of them, victims of Col. Cathcart and his cronies. Almost every high-ranking officer in this book is a venal villain. Almost everyone else is a victim.
Yossarian, if he is a hero, is certainly an ambiguous one. Yet in the end, he finds the existential courage to say “No,” and the novel ends on a note of high hope.
Yes, that’s some catch, that Catch-22. It may, indeed, one of the best there is.
Vietnam is the war that is closest to the present in American memory.
Minnesota poet Robert Bly and Kentucky novelist Bobbie Ann Mason have different takes on that sad “police action” that ends as one of the few wars that America lost.
Browsing the poetry shelves in any many-bookcased home is like going back to the neighborhood you grew up in. Like once-grand ghettos, the poetry shelves have a kind of shabby dignity, a bygone grace. There they are, the voices that sang to us long ago—Edna St. Vincent Millay, Li Po, the haiku poets, Wallace Stevens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Kenneth Patchen, the Sanskrit and the Navajo, Sassoon and Owen, Sandburg and Frost, the masters of the Norton and Oxford anthologies, those unforgotten but long-ignored friends.
Rightly or wrongly, the poetry books ghetto may be the one least visited and least under construction. Oh, a sweet spring day may send us back to E.E. Cummings or a melancholy mood to Georgia’s soberly sapient author of “Tetelestai” and “Blues For Ruby Matrix,” Conrad Aiken.
The time has never been riper for rediscovering Robert Bly. His Collected Poems remains the easiest avenue. His ruralscapes of Minnesota and the Midwest mark him as one with solitude and nature. His dream poems are surreal with an accent on the last syllable. His glimpses of a quiet moment in the life of a long-married couple, or the joys of getting up late, make mundane moments momentous.
His poems reviling the drudgery of modern America roar and ring with righteous rage. And who would not want to read “After Drinking All Night With A Friend, We Go Out In a Boat At Dawn To See Who Can Write The Best Poem”?:
“A few friendships, a few dawns, a few glimpses of grass,
A few oars weathered by the snow and the heat,
So we drift toward shore, over cold waters,
No longer caring if we drift or go straight.”
Going straight has been Robert Bly’s passion. In 1966, he co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, becoming point man on the combat patrol of anti-war protest. “Reciting political poems at Vietnam gatherings, I experienced for the first time in my life the power of spoken or oral poetry,” he writes here. “The community flowers when the poem is spoken in the ancient way—that is, with full sound, with conviction, and with the knowledge that the emotions are not private to the person speaking them.”
The Light Around the Body, published in 1967, won the National Book Award; Bly donated the prize money to the resistance movement. Selected Poems excludes one of that book’s best poems, “Watching Television”, but includes most of the best of the rest, like “War And Silence” and “Counting Small-Boned Bodies”:
“Let’s count the bodies over again…
If we could only make the bodies smaller,
the size of skulls,
we could make the whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight.
If we could only make the bodies smaller,
maybe we could fit
a whole year’s kill in front of us on a desk.
If we could only make the bodies smaller,
we could fit
a body into a finger ring, for a keepsake forever.”
In “Hatred Of Men With Black Hair,” Bly indicts racism as the real root of the United States’ war policies, from the Indian wars on:
“We fear every person on earth with black hair.
We send teams to overthrow Chief Joseph’s government.
We train natives to kill the President with blowdarts.
We have men loosening the nails on Noah’s ark.”
In 1970, Bly published the pamphlet-sized The Teeth Mother Naked At Last through Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights books. Here in its eleven-page entirety, this is a broadside rich with wrath, scathing in sarcasm, grand in grief, fiery and beautiful as a napalm strike.
Forty-four years later, it still bleeds like a wound:
“it is the desire to eat death,
to gobble it down,
to rush on it like a cobra with mouth open.
It is the desire to take death inside,
To feel it burning inside, pushing out velvety hairs,
Like a clothesbrush in the intestines—
This is the thrill that leads the President on to lie.”
The sixth of Teeth Mother’s seven sections may be the most excruciating and exquisite. Here Bly evokes one of the Vietnam War’s most famous photographs:
“But if one of those children came near that we have set on fire,
came toward you like a gray barn, walking,
you would howl like a wind tunnel in a hurricane,
you would tear at your shirt with blue hands.
You would drive over your own child’s wagon trying to back up,
the pupils of your eyes would go wild
If one of those children came toward me with both hands
In the air, fire rising along both elbows,
I would suddenly go back to my animal brain,
I would drop on all fours screaming;
my vocal cords would turn blue; so would yours.
It would be two days before I could play with my own children again.”
I pulled this book off the shelf eleven years ago on the Sunday of All Souls Day, 2003. That morning the news was that 19 US soldiers had died in Iraq, 16 shot down in a Chinook helicopter crash, the highest daily death toll since this mad, bad, sad invasion began March 20. It brought to 139 the number dead since May 1, the day that Pres. Bush—who made Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson look like Aragorn and Pres. Nixon like Good King Wenceslaus–descended triumphantly onto a carefully posed aircraft carrier and declared the war over and won; 115 had died up till then. Meanwhile, estimates of Iraqi casualties ranged from 7,792 to 9,605 on the feast of the Poor Souls.
And how many more have died since?
And when will it stop?
“To everything, there is a season,” sang the Byrds back in 1966 in “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, Pete Seeger’s version of Ecclesiastes 3. “A time for love, a time for hate/ A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”
Like many reading this, Vietnam is only a paragraph or two in a high school history text.
So it is with Sam, the heroine of Bobbie Ann Mason’s 1985 novel In Country.
She is 17 in the summer of 1984. She’s just graduated from high school and she knows what she doesn’t want to do but not what she does. In short, she’s like every pilgrim soul that age, only more so.
We first meet Sam driving on I-64 from Hopewell, Kentucky, to Washington, D.C., in her newly-bought old Volkswagen beetle. With her is Emmett, the Vietnam vet uncle she lives with, and Mamaw, her grandmother, the mother of the father Sam never knew; he was killed in Vietnam before she was born in 1966.
They are going to The Wall.
“The scenery is funny little hills shaped like scoops of ice cream. She has never been this far away from home before. She is nearly eighteen years old and out to see the world. She would like to move somewhere far away—Miami or San Francisco anyway. She wants to live anywhere but Hopewell. On the road, everything seems more real than it has ever been.”
“You can’t get lost in the United States,” Sam says. But she is.
She is searching for the voices of two dead men. One is John Lennon, singing a Little Willie John song called “Leave My Kitten Alone” with the Beatles. Sam knows the ‘Sixties record collection her mother Irene left behind when she remarried by heart. She knows that song isn’t on any Beatle album. She also knows that Lennon has been dead for nearly four years. So when she hears the song on the radio, she is mystified.
The other voice she’s searching for is her father Dwayne, who was not much older than Sam when he came from the Vietnam war in a body bag. She finds his voice in the letters he wrote to Irene when she was Sam’s age, a loving voice. In one of the last, he gives unborn Sam her name.
Then she finds a truer voice: a diary he kept “in country”, the jungle swamps of Vietnam, that Mamaw gives her, claiming to have never read it. But Sam does.
Mason’s short (245 pages) novel begins with a 17-page segment of the trip to the Wall and ends with 17 pages on what happens when they get there. In the middle, a flashback to the summer of ’84, “the summer of the Michael Jackson Victory tour and the Bruce Springsteen Born in the U.S.A. tour,” tells why they went.
Sam’s uncle Emmett, Irene’s brother, is also a casualty of sorts. His face is ravaged with pimples from Agent Orange or, as the VA doctor tells him, nerves. “He couldn’t adjust” after the war; he becomes Hopewell’s first hippie. When Irene’s new husband gets a job in Lexington, Sam stays behind. “Somebody had to watch out for Emmett, Sam insisted, and she didn’t want to change schools her senior year.” We first see him cooking muffalettas for Sam and her boyfriend Lonnie wearing “a long, thin Indian-print skirt with elephants and peacocks on it” like Klinger in television’s M*A*S*H.
Emmett is jobless and intends to stay so, living off his V.A. check, spending days fixing the foundation of their old house. He gives Sam and Lonnie beer and smokes marijuana with them. As parental surrogates go, he’s hardly ideal.
Lonnie, for his part, has no college plans and has just quit his job at Kroger’s. He wants Sam to stay in Hopewell and commute to Murray State University instead of leaving for to Lexington to live with Irene and go to the University of Kentucky.
Sam’s sure of only one thing: she’s having ghostly visitations by a new Beatles song: “Hearing it was eerie, like voices from the grave…Sam felt the energy of the sixties, like desire building and exploding, as if back then were a much better time to be young than now. Her mother knew somebody who had been to a Beatles concert in 1966.”
Sam is obsessed, as Jay Gatsby was, with the past. Mason shows how she has been mothered by the media: her first memory of color television was refugees fleeing Saigon’s collapse. Her view of the war comes from the stories she seeks out hungrily from Emmett and his veteran pals and reruns of M*A*S*H.
This tension between past and present is also in the soundtrack of this novel, the songs of Springsteen and even more, the sixties. Mason weaves in pop music with ironic purpose, as when Sam gives Lonnie a pair of her panties as the truck radio plays “Cover Me.” At a veterans’ dance Emmett organizes, tipsy on Jim Beam and Coke, she unsuccessfully attempts to seduce a vet named Tom to the sardonic sound of the Animals’ ballad of a girl’s ruination, “The House of the Rising Sun.”
When Sam finally reads her father’s diary, the clash between the image of Dwayne she’d had and the real Dwayne is too much. Leaving an angry note for Emmett, she runs away to “hump the boonies” at Cawood’s Pond, a swamp, trying to feel what her father’d felt in country in Vietnam. What happens then will lead to the trip to The Wall in Washington.
There she, Mamaw, and Emmett will find Dwayne’s name. More importantly, Sam finds herself. She is no longer lost in America.
The young men and women who are Sam’s age this year were born in 1996, ten years after the fall of Saigon. Pull this one off the shelf for them. It may teach them something about a war they may know too little of.
If your country is fighting a mad, bad war, don’t go to die in it, as Dwayne did.
I had one fine funny friend from Spalding Institute’s class of ’64 and erstwhile bandmate in The Tempests from 1962 to 1964, Tim Slevin.
He survived as an Airborne lieutenant leading patrols up country in Vietnam, only succumb to cancer of the esophagus on May 22, 2013. My “good luck” gift to him when he set off for San Diego was Catch-22.
After graduation from Quincy College 1968, Tim went off to U.S. Army officers’ candidate school in Georgia. He created the world’s shortest film, a ten-second slow-motion drive past a sign that said “You Are Now Leaving Georgia.” The Army’s slogan then was “A Choice, Not A Chance.” Lt. Slevin edited them with Magic Marker so they read “Choice? Not A Chance!”
I was teaching at Spalding, and then back up to Marquette to earn my MA in English. Our letters continued. Even in combat up in Vietnam, his droll humor never failed him.
In spring, 1971, I flew home from Milwaukee with MA in hand to interview for a job teaching English at Illinois Central College. Since Tim was due to have completed his three years’ duty to Uncle Sam, after my interview I drove out to his parents’ home on Picture Ridge Drive. He answered the door. We took some beers out back and climbed up to the tree house overlooking the Detweiler woods. We were home free.
One memorable day, we walked from there down to the Illinois River. Tim hated spiders and every time he saw one enwebbed, he’d draw his .22 pistol, line up his shot carefully, and blast it to arachnid oblivion. “Do you think its little ears are ringing?” he’d say delightedly.
Only years later, on sabbatical at the Journal Star in 1982, did I discover that Tim had been awarded a Bronze Star in Vietnam…for disobeying an order. Up in country, the Viet Cong began hitting the villagers camped outside Tim’s compound. The terrified Vietnamese begged him to let him in, but the commanding officer had a standing “No Admittance” command.
Though his master sergeant vigorously objected, Lt. Slevin gave them shelter from the shooting. After the captain returned, he called Tim onto the carpet and chastised him severely. Tim explained that they’d carefully searched each entrant and put them under guard where they could do no mischief.
Nevertheless, said the captain, you disobeyed, you put the whole base at risk, and I’m recommending you for a Bronze Star; you did the right thing. That was one the one and only time we spoke of it. His was probably one of the few battle stars awarded for compassion and mercy, not killing.
One Spalding 1964 classmate, Mike Stacy, and Bob Beutel of Tremont High School ‘64, the other winner of the Peoria Journal Star journalism scholarship, are two names on The Wall.
My family and I saw the real thing, the names on black granite, when we visited Washington, D.C., in 1984, but I didn’t find their names.
I likewise visited the Traveling Wall when it came to Peoria’s Glen Oak Park and to Chillicothe, but again, no luck on the two names I sought.
Finally, on the last night that that wall was in Pekin, I went down alone.
I was the only one there but for the docent, a grizzled guy in an Army combat jacket.
I signed in and told him the two men I was searching for.
He nodded, then looked at me sharply.
“How do you know Mike Stacy?”
“We went to St. Bernard’s and Spalding together,” I replied.
His face softened as he recognized me.
“Mike Foster,” he said.
“Dave Lakin,” I said.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you to find our friends.”
And he did.
I made rubbings of each name.
I used them as books marks when I taught Catch-22 and In Country at ICC.
Respect their sacrifices. Cherish their memories. Forget them never.
And remember what Pope Paul VI said:
“War no more. War never again.”