Blank verse

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When I was working on ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab; the slide above is from my presentation) I stumbled across the poetry of Keith Douglas and his prose account of the desert war, From Alamein to Zem Zem (see my post here).

I was familiar with the soldier-poets of the First World War, of course, but I confess I had no idea how much fine poetry had emerged from the deserts of North Africa in the 1940s.  Ironically, Edmund Blunden was Douglas’s tutor at Oxford….

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The LA Review of Books recently published an appreciation of Douglas’s importance by Steven Isenberg here:

Douglas wrote Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), his account of men and tanks in North Africa, so close in time and space to the desert battlegrounds that it pulses with ebullient immediacy. He became the answer to his own question: “Why are there no poets like [Wilfred] Owen and Sassoon who lived with the fighting troops and wrote of their experience while enduring them?”

The lightness (and darkness) of being

The Light of God slide.001

Pip Thornton‘s wonderful ‘The meaning of light: seeing and being on the battlefield‘ – which, among many other good things, worries away at the conceit shown in the image above – is just out in Cultural geographies (Online First).  It will eventually form part of a special issue on ‘Darkness’ edited by Tim Edensor.

Here’s the abstract:

On the battlefield, light and dark mean much more than the (dis)ability to see. While the darkness of night-time can be used as a tactic, providing cover for personal and territorial defence and attack, it also affects and secures bodies and the spaces they inhabit in other more immediate and intimate ways, recalibrating senses and redefining distance. Light too can spell both safety and danger on the battlefield, disciplining and controlling its occupants with often asymmetrical power-plays of affect and aggression. Using autoethnographic examples of experiences in Iraq in 2003 (based on the poem below), this article sets out to challenge traditional binaries of light/ dark, good/bad and to question the elemental, cultural and technological sovereignty of light and vision in modern battlespaces.

And here’s the poem:

Light Discipline

In a blackout we adjust our sights

by touch and cup our smoke against

the desert, waiting for the light.

At long last the barrel scrapes

into place and the night is instantly

exposed. I cover my ears and watch.

In the distance a fitful city crouches,

seared eyes raised to the floating

arc above, waiting for the strike.

 

Novel wars

Since I added ‘The Natures of War’ to the DOWNLOADS section several people have asked me about my use of novels, especially in relation to Vietnam, while others have asked me to recommend writings – both novels and memoirs – that treat contemporary conflicts, especially Afghanistan.

Writing letters to home

The first part is easy.  To say things too quickly, I think the usual distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ is much more problematic than it seems (don’t we all know this? and in any case where exactly do you place a ‘memoir’ in such a strangely bifurcated landscape?).  I also believe that there are some insights – truths, if you prefer – that are best conveyed in ostensibly fictional form.  For that reason I suspect it’s significant that it’s my appeal to (for example) Karl Marlantes‘s magnificent Matterhorn in the Vietnam section that seems to trouble some readers much more than my use of poetry in the section on the Western Desert in the Second World War.  Yet both emerged through their authors’ reflections on their experiences of modern war in those places.  That doesn’t mean that one can ignore literary conventions or linguistic devices – no text is a transparent reflection of the world, after all – but this surely also holds for nominally factual accounts too (and that goes for military blogs, which have created their own conventions).  In other ‘fictional’ cases I can think of – like Tom McCarthy‘s C, which I drew upon in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ to characterise the battlefields of the Western Front  – the narrative is clearly embedded in intensive and immensely thoughtful research.  In fact, I’d push this further: hence my interest in documentary drama as part of – not simply a product of – the research process.

The second question is more difficult, but there are some recent guides which might help.  A good place to start is George Packer‘s ‘Home Fires: how soldiers write their wars‘ which appeared in the New Yorker last spring.  Packer tries to pin down what is distinctive about writing that seeks to capture the wars fought in the shadows of 9/11:

‘The first wave of literature by American combatants in these long, inconclusive wars has begun to appear—poems, memoirs, short stories, novels. Their concerns are the same as in all war writing: bravery and fear, the thin line between survival and brutality, the maddening unknowability of the enemy, tenderness, brotherhood, alienation from a former self, the ghosts of the past, the misfit of home.

But Iraq was also different from other American wars… Without a draft, without the slightest sacrifice asked of a disengaged public, Iraq put more mental distance between soldiers and civilians than any war of its duration that I can think of. The war in Iraq, like the one in Vietnam, wasn’t popular; but the troops, at least nominally, were—wildly so. (Just watch the crowd at a sports event if someone in uniform is asked to stand and be acknowledged.) Both sides of the relationship, if they were being honest, felt its essential falseness.’

Given this disconnect, he concludes, ‘it’s not surprising that the new war literature is intensely interested in the return home.’  But when it deals with the soldiers’ experience of war, he continues,

‘It deals in particulars, which is where the heightened alertness of combatants has to remain, and it’s more likely to notice things. To most foreign observers, the landscape of Iraq is relentlessly empty and ugly, like a physical extension of the country’s trauma. But in the poetry and the prose of soldiers and marines the desert comes to life with birdsong and other noises, the moonlit sand breeds dreams and hallucinations.’

It’s that struggle to turn the experience of land into its evocation that interests me.  But Packer makes surprisingly little of it, and his gaze is focused almost unwaveringly on Iraq rather than Afghanistan (not surprising, given his own war reporting).

Writing in the New York TimesMichiko Kakutani identifies a series of writings on the human costs of what Dexter Filkins called ‘the forever war’:

‘War cracks people’s lives apart, unmasks the most extreme emotions, fuels the deepest existential questions. Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan morph into shapeless struggles with no clear ends in sight, they have given birth to an extraordinary outpouring of writing that tries to make sense of it all: journalism that has unraveled the back story of how and why America went to war, and also a profusion of stories, novels, memoirs and poems that testify to the day-to-day realities and to the wars’ ever-unspooling human costs.

‘All war literature, across the centuries, bears witness to certain eternal truths: the death and chaos encountered, minute by minute; the bonds of love and loyalty among soldiers; the bad dreams and worse anxieties that afflict many of those lucky enough to return home. And today’s emerging literature … both reverberates with those timeless experiences and is imprinted with the particularities of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq: changes in technology, the increased presence of female soldiers and, most importantly, the all-volunteer military, which has opened a chasm between soldiers (“the other 1 percent”) and civilians.’

Here too there is an attempt to see how today’s writing differs from the established canon of war literature.  En route, Kakutani makes some good suggestions for reading, but she says very little about the differences – those dense ‘particulars’ again – between Iraq and Afghanistan.

afghan1

She leaves that to Brian Castner‘s outstanding essay for the LA Review of Books, ‘Afghanistan: a stage without a play.’

Castner did two tours in Iraq, and his own account of that experience (and, just as important, what followed) in The Long Walk is a tour de force in every sense of the phrase.  But he is also remarkably perceptive in his readings of Afghanistan (‘the Undescribed War’, he calls it) and – of particular interest to me, given my interest in ‘the natures of war’ or what my good friend Gastón Gordillo would prefer me to call ‘terrain‘ – its land and landscapes.  Castner also draws several illuminating comparisons with Vietnam (not least through a double parallel with the US’s ‘Indian Wars’ of the nineteenth century).

Kevin Maurer covered both wars, and always found

“Afghanistan far more riveting than Iraq because it’s a whole different world. Baghdad is a Middle Eastern city, but it is a modern city. In Afghanistan that barely exists. I’ve always been able to turn my brain into Afghanistan mode and out, while Iraq blurs.”

The influence of the terrain, especially its beauty, is clear: while a few descriptions of colorful Iraqi skies creep into the literature, it was mostly an ugly urban war fought along the New York State Thruway, rest stop to rest stop. “Afghanistan always had that Vietnam vibe to it,” Maurer said, “because you can go get lost in Afghanistan, you can be on some hill on some outpost. In Iraq you were never that far out.”

Korengal

And for that very reason the terrain was always more than beautiful.  You can see that in a film like Restrepo – and even more clearly in Koregal (above) – but according to Castner you can also see it in John Renehan’s forthcoming novel, The Valley.  And here too Vietnam continues to haunt the imaginative landscape:

RENEHAN The ValleyThe landscape acts as an omnipresent consciousness, an apparition always in the corner of [Lieutenant] Black’s eye, and Renehan attaches to it layers of reverence and dread and unknowable quasi-mysticism; the valley is capable of anything. This infection spreads slowly for the reader, and Renehan says his writing process followed a similar path. “I more or less thought I was setting out to write a mystery story that happened to be set in a war. But as I started writing it I realized it was growing into something different in my mind, and it changed on paper too.” A detective story becomes a heroin- and concussion-fueled dreamscape that crosses genres. “Going After Cacciato gave me comfort in writing the parts of The Valley that become almost surreal,” Renehan said. “It reassured me that this sort of thing is okay, because it’s a war novel, right?”

What I need to think more about – the process I started in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and continued in ‘The Natures of War’ – is how, despite Castner’s title, the stage is always part of the play.  And novels and poems will continue to help me do so.

POSTSCRIPT  Just after I finished drafting this post, I stumbled across ‘s Peter Molin‘s excellent blog: Time Now: the Iraq and Afghan wars in art, film and literature which also discusses the three reviews I list here.  Peter is a US Army officer who served in Afghanistan in 2008-9, and his posts are rich in ideas, insights and resources: well worth bookmarking.

War cultures

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The British Academy is holding a two-day Landmark Conference in London on 12-13 November 2014, The First World War: Literature, Culture, Modernity.  The conference is convened by Santanu Das and  Kate McLoughlin:

A hundred years after the war’s outbreak, this conference brings together some of the world’s leading experts and emerging scholars to reassess its literary and cultural impact and explore its vexed relationship to modernity. Was the war a ‘crack in the table of history’ or did it reinforce deep continuities? What is the relationship between artistic form and historical violence, and between combatant and civilian creative responses? What are the colonial and transnational dimensions of First World War literature? Spanning across literature, the visual arts and music, the conference will adopt an international perspective as it investigates the war’s continuing legacies.

Registration is required; full details here.

In association with the conference, there will be an evening of music and readings at King’s College Chapel (London) on 11 November, Terrible Beauty: Music and Writing of the First World War, and an evening of poetry reading at the British Academy on 12 November, The Past Hovering: An Evening of War Poetry; both events are free but registration is required.

Siegfried’s Lines

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The BBC reports that Siegfried Sassoon‘s diaries from the First World War have been digitised by Cambridge University Library and are now available online (more illustrated reports here and here).  The journals and two notebooks of poetry include not only Sassoon’s jottings but also sketches like the interior of a military hospital (above).

IM.0942_zpUnlike edited printed transcriptions, the digitisations allow the viewer to form a thorough sense of the nature of the physical documents. Sassoon wrote in a small but neat and legible hand, frequently using the notebooks from both ends. His war journals were used for a wide variety of purposes: in addition to making diary entries Sassoon drafted poetry, made pencil or ink sketches, listed of members of his battalion and their fates, made notes on military briefings and diagrams of trenches, listed locations and dates of times spent at or near the Front, noted quotations, and transcribed letters. The wartime notebooks were small enough to have been carried by Sassoon in the pocket of his Army tunic, and many had enclosures such as letters tucked into the outer cover or inner pouches; some bear tangible evidence of use in the trenches, from the mud on notebook MS Add.9852/1/7 to the candlewax spilled on MS Add.9852/1/9, presumably as Sassoon sat writing in his dug-out by candlelight.

The journals give a fascinating insight into daily life in the trenches. Sassoon records for example the first day of the Somme (‘a sunlit picture of Hell’; MS Add.9852/1/7, folios 10r-12v) and the moment when he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Arras (MS Add.9852/1/10, folios 6v-9r), along with manuscript drafts and fair copies of his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ (MS Add.9852/1/10, folio 45v-46r; MS Add.9852/1/11, folio 21-23). His drawings from France range from studies of towns and churches (MS Add.9852/1/5, folio 36v; MS Add.9852/1/9, folio 8v) to a psychological profile of ‘the soul of an officer’ (MS Add.9852/1/7, folio 3r). The poems include previously unpublished material along with early drafts of some of his best known works, including an early version of ‘The Dug-Out’ with an additional, excised verse: MS Add.9852/6/2, folio 76r).

I read Sassoon’s (fictionalised) Memoirs of an infantry officer several times, for ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘The natures of war’, and again more recently for my new project on the casualties of war,  and didn’t find it a patch on, say, Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of war.  But I’m looking forward to working my way through the notebooks because it’s already clear to me that there’s an immediacy and rawness to the writing that Memoirs often, understandably, seemed to lack:

‘July 1st 1916…  Since 6.30 there has been hell let loose.  The air vibrates with the incessant din.  The whole earth shakes and rocks and throbs.  It is one continuous roar.  Machine guns tap and rattle, bullets whistling over head – small fry quite outdone by the gangs of hooligan-shells that dash over to [illegible] the German lines with their demolition parties…. One can’t look out as the m[achine] g[un] bullets are skimming.  Inferno – inferno – bang – smash!!’

Writing at a dead-line

BBC2 The Wipers TimesBack in the trenches again, revising “Gabriel’s Map”, and I see that the former President of the Royal Geographical Society – rather better known as Michael Palin (“This President is no more!  He has ceased to be…. This is an EX-PRESIDENT!!”) – appears in a new BBC2 drama [also starring Ben Chaplin and Emilia Fox, left] based on the story of The Wipers Times, a trench newspaper written and printed on the Western Front during the First World War.

This is Palin’s first dramatic role in twenty years (other then being President of the RGS).  Many readers will no doubt immediately think of the far from immortal Captain Blackadder in Blackadder Goes Forth (in which case see this extract from J.F. RobertsThe true history the Blackadder – according to Rowan Atkinson, “Of all the periods we covered it was the most historically accurate” – and compare it with this interview with Pierre Purseigle).

But since the script for The Wipers Times has been co-written by Ian Hislop (with Nick Newman) the Times is inevitably being described as a sort of khaki Private Eye: Cahal Milmo in the Independent says that ‘its rough-and-ready first edition was a masterclass in the use of comedy against industrialised death and military officialdom.’

So it was, but the appropriate critical comparison is with Punch, which Esther MacCallum-Stewart pursues in ingenious depth here.  The French satirical magazine Le canard enchaîné (which is in many ways much closer to the Eye) started publication in 1915 and was much more critical.  But for most of the war, MacCullum-Stewart says, Punch enforced ‘a strict code of “comedy as usual” interspersed by patriotic statements which hardly pastiched anything except an enduring capacity for the British to show a stiff upper lip to all comers.’

That soon wore thin on the Western Front, and when Captain Fred Roberts – played by Chaplin – found a printing-press amongst the rubble of Ypres (“Wipers”) in February 1916 the Times was born (though a shortage of vowels meant that only one page could be set up and printed at a time).

Wipers Times No 1

The title of the paper changed as the Division was re-deployed time and time(s) again.  It had many targets in its sights, including the warrior poets:

‘We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry. Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other absently walking near the wire in deep communication with their muse.’

This is one of the most widely quoted passages in the paper, but MacCallum-Stewart explains that this is precisely because it could be squared with the mythology of the war which so many other contributions worked to undermine.

You can find other extracts here but my favourite – given how mud works its way into a central place in “Gabriel’s Map” and into one of the vignettes in “The nature of war” – is this satirical version of Rudyard Kipling‘s If (Kipling wrote the original in 1909 as advice to his son –”If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…”: celebrated by the Daily Mail here):

If you can drink the beer the Belgians sell you,
And pay the price they ask with ne’er a grouse,
If you believe the tales that some will tell you,
And live in mud with ground sheet for a house,
If you can live on bully and a biscuit.
And thank your stars that you’ve a tot of rum,
Dodge whizzbangs with a grin, and as you risk it
Talk glibly of the pretty way they hum,
If you can flounder through a C.T. nightly
That’s three-parts full of mud and filth and slime,
Bite back the oaths and keep your jaw shut tightly,
While inwardly you’re cursing all the-time,
If you can crawl through wire and crump-holes reeking
With feet of liquid mud, and keep your head
Turned always to the place which you are seeking,
Through dread of crying you will laugh instead,
If you can fight a week in Hell’s own image,
And at the end just throw you down and grin,
When every bone you’ve got starts on a scrimmage,
And for a sleep you’d sell your soul within,
If you can clamber up with pick and shovel,
And turn your filthy crump hole to a trench,
When all inside you makes you itch to grovel,
And all you’ve had to feed on is a stench,
If you can hang on just because you’re thinking
You haven’t got one chance in ten to live,
So you will see it through, no use in blinking
And you’re not going to take more than you give,
If you can grin at last when handing over,
And finish well what you had well begun,
And think a muddy ditch’ a bed of clover,
You’ll be a soldier one day, then, my son.

Wipers_Times_4 German 4th Army trench newspapers

There were many other trench newspapers produced by the different armies on both sides. On the Allied side there were 100 or so British ones, for example, and perhaps four times as many French ones; there were perhaps 30 Canadian ones, and more Australian ones. Graham Seal has just published the first full-length study of Allied trench newspapers: The soldier’s press: Trench journals in the First World War (Palgrave-Macmillan 2013); you can sneak an extensive peak on Google Books (though contrary to what it says there, an e-edition is available at a ruinous price).  As you can see from the image above, there were also trench newspapers on the other side too: see Robert Nelson, German soldiers newspapers of the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 2011).  He also wrote a more general and thoroughly accessible survey of trench newspapers in War & History [2010] which is available here.

In the final edition of the Times, published after the end of the war, Roberts – by then a Lieutenant-Colonel – wrote this:

“Although some may be sorry it’s over, there is little doubt that the linemen are not, as most of us have been cured of any little illusions we may have had about the pomp and glory of war, and know it for the vilest disaster that can befall mankind.”

Playing war

SHEERS Pink MistI’ve just finished reading – but certainly not thinking about – Owen Sheers‘ extraordinary dramatic poem, Pink Mist.

It was originally commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its More than Words Festival in 2012 but sadly it’s not available on the BBC iPlayer Radio – though you can now get it as a physical book and an e-book.

I’ve spent much of the last several weeks reading poetry from the First and the Second World Wars, but few of those poems have affected me as much as Pink Mist.  I noted Owen Sheers’ work in passing, when I was writing about Keith Douglas’s poems from the Western Desert, but Pink Mist is insistently about the present.

It tells the story of three young men – Arthur, Hads and Taff – who grew up together in Bristol, ‘playing war’ like so many other boys. They decide, a spur of the moment thing, to enlist in the British Army and soon find themselves serving together in Afghanistan:

It’s like my recruiter said today,

it’ll be a chance to do the job

they train you for.

Otherwise it’s like going to the fair,

but staying off the rides.

So yeah, I want to go to war.

But of course it’s not a fairground ride, and nobody is ‘playing war’ any more.

Sheers captures in short bursts the surreal violence of war in Afghanistan.  The accidental killing of a farmer’s wife and two year old grand-daughter:

I can still see his face, even now.

An outdoor man, skin leathered by the sun,

The way he unwrapped the end of his turban

to wipe at his eyes, raw with what we’d done.

An illustrated language card issued to troops to help them communicate in Pashto and Dari, ‘a kid’s cartoon book of modern warfare’:

British Army Language CardWhere is the pain? – Dard cheri day?

Blood – Khoon

Dead – Maray

Go home – Khaana burayn

Shot – Wishtalay

Go home – Korta dzai

One at a time – Pa waar yao

One at a time.

And the three friends do go home, one at a time, wrapped in the shadows of violence that now fall across the lives of a mother, wife and girl-friend.

Hads returns without his legs, the victim of a ‘blue on blue’ air strike that killed two of his mates:

… that’s what you’re fighting for.

The man on your left and the man on your right.

Forget queen and country, the mission or belief.

It’s more about keeping your mates alive.

Or avenging the ones who’ve already died.

Taff is so consumed by by PTSD that he is haunted even by the silent, ‘Sunday-morning dead’ streets of his home town:

But all Taff’s feeling is the threat.

The echo of when a village went like this back there,

when the women and kids melted away.

That’s what he’s trying to keep at bay,

plugging in his headphones, turning the volume right up.

Eventually he becomes homeless, like many other vets, living on the streets:

There’s a spread of regiments under those blankets …  

And a spread of wars too –

Falklands, Gulf, Northern Ireland, Iraq.  

Yeah, you walk this country’ streets

and there’s our history, under your feet.

And Arthur? Read it for yourself.

It’s a profound work, I think, at once an art-work and a documentary.  As in so much of Sheers’ writing, Pink Mist is based on careful research and sensitive interviewing so detailed and so intimate you can almost feel it in the sinews of the words and the cadence of the lines.  Sheers records his debt to ‘the many service personnel and their families whose stories have informed this work, especially Lyndon Chatting-Walters and Daniel Shaw, whose own experiences are, at times, closely echoed in these pages.’

bravo22aThose interviews were, in turn, part of Sheers’s research for The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a play not only about the Army’s wounded and injured from Afghanistan but also, and remarkably, largely performed by them.  Sheers describes the project here (and see the clip above).  In Afghanistan 22 per cent of British service personnel have been injured – a higher proportion than in the Second World War – and to prepare for the play Sheers and his director travelled the UK: ‘We became well-acquainted with the names of certain drugs, types of prosthetics, military jargon. We visited barracks, PRUs (Personnel Recovery Units) and rehabilitation centres.’  And then they worked with the soldiers.  There are plans for the production to tour again this year.

I’m making so much of this for two reasons beyond the power of Sheers’s project.  The first is that Sheers has much to teach us about transcending the limitations of conventional academic genres and incorporating the arts into the research process, not only as objects of contemplation and critique but also as ways of working.  (Think how lifeless so many ethnographies and interviews become on the printed page).  The second is that Pink Mist and The Two Worlds of Charlie F ought to confound the politics of care that assumes a concern with civilian casualities is the exclusive preserve of the left, while a concern for military casualties is the exclusive preserve of the right.

As Arthur says, at the very end of Pink Mist,

So that’s all I hope for.

When the debate’s being had,

the reasons given,

that people will remember

what those three letters mean,

before starting the chant once more –

Who wants to play war?

Who wants to play war?