Contests : War Poetry Contest : Past Winners : 2010 : David Arnett
You really don't know how it is, you see:
The books you read, the films you watch, the sense
Of wrong and hatred strong that fills your tea
Of sympathy for rebels cold who kill
Your sons and brothers bold despite their plea.
So come with me—a bit of reverie
Is all you need to stand in jungle rot
Instead of dozing through a litany
Of mindless musings on the horrors of war
By those whose views spring not from memory.
So just how was it then? you ask of me.
And I will say at first that love and hate
Do fill us all, and you must come to see
The love in hate and hate in love before
From hate you can be free: Now follow me.
Boredom sets in. Day in. Day out. Same trail.
Why must we continue sliding up and
Down beyond the wire in gritty muck—snail
After snail with sticky sweat that drops sand
Into boots and pants while thought and reason fail?
Don't mean nothin', buddy says, and grins back,
Death head, unaware of time and life that
Slide away in endless trek without slack.
God, I'm sick of trudging through the mud flat
Blown apart to open field of fire a crack.
"Hump it, boys," said Sarge. "Old Charlie sneaks up
Close to wire and kicks our ass at nightfall
'Less we push him back by day and co-opt
Bloody plan to turn the Claymores round—all
Fixed and aimed at us, when hell erupts."
So it goes as men grow tired and lose their
Edge and Charlie never shows his face to
Anyone. Even Sarge begins to swear,
All upset and tight about the fate due
Black-clad wraiths that kill and disappear.
Four weeks pass and maybe more and they don't
Hit us. We patrol the boonies 'round our
Camp but no one really thinks that something
Will come down at last, because the hours
Come and go and we don't hear the bullets ring.
Hank's in front on point brave, whistling even,
Unafraid, without a care or caution
In his stride, for we fear no war demon
And won't hide from tiny men—precaution
Makes no sense when body's tired and mind is dreaming.
Is it true, I wonder, you've never felt your
Buddy's brains come running down your cheek and
In your mouth as skull bursts open, blood pours
Out in all directions, bullets strike sand,
Mind shuts down and nothing's left but brute force?
Tell me then, my ignorant friend, who sits and
Talks about the horrors of war on campus
Green, though horror's unseen, and soldiers stand then
Fall on foreign shores while cowards damn us,
Tell me then, in peace and quiet—fill me in.
Yes, old Charlie was no slacker; small but
Brave, he fought us hard and gave no quarter.
Woke us up right smart, he did, and kicked butt
Hard before we countered, brought to order
Our patrol and hit him back in his gut.
Hank was dead and could not whistle any
Longer. Death comes quick when brain's asunder.
Oh, but I forgot that you and many
Others only talk and have to wonder
What it's like when bullets lick your fanny.
Two died later back at camp and Sarge cried
Hard throughout the night before he bellowed
Out at first light: Rise and shine, for no one
Died in dishonor—not one was yellow.
Black they'll be and rotten soon where they lie.
So we packed them all in rubber bags with
Dog tags 'round their necks and scent of rot then
Rising 'round them, blazing sun and hard death
Working cruelly hand in hand to blacken
Husks of men who fought until their last breath.
Choppers lifted proudly, rotors turning
Loudly. We saluted, turned around to
Lick our wounds at camp and soothe our burning
Lust to kill whatever moved or might renew
Sneak attacks upon us: We were learning.
"Not so fast, men," came the call from Sarge once
More. "I said that no one died without his
Honor. None of them was yellow. You grunts
Must allow that others lie in muck this
Day whose mothers cry away in silence.
"Grab entrenching tools and follow me to
Prove to me and each of you that fighting
Men still honor those who die with virtue.
Let us dig their graves before the blighting
Heat removes the fact that they were human too."
Some of us began to mutter loudly:
Pain and grief and anger seized us strongly
At the thought that we would honor cowardly
Men who killed without a warning, wrongly
Striking down our brothers marching proudly.
Yet we knew inside us, each and every one,
Charlie did to us as we to him had done.
Duty, honor, country, the song that we had sung—
These things that made us soldiers and in our heads had rung,
They marked us all as equals in the setting sun.
Their bodies lay before us, twisted, rank
With gore. The insects buzzed, the bodies stank,
All ten of them laid out upon the bank,
For we had killed them all, you see. We sank
Them deep and tamped the earth, all lush and dank.
My mind spun 'round, and what was first was last.
The stress of war and blood without a doubt
Had grabbed me hard and turned me 'round to cast
An eye on soldiers dead, the little men
Whose mothers cried and now the earth held fast.
And Sarge was right, for each of us did kneel
And pray that very day for brothers lost
Whose eyes and skin were different far but real
To us at last, for Charlie died as friends
Had done with war as judge and no appeal.
I carried Sarge myself in two weeks' time,
Or what was left of him I ought to say,
As booby traps on corpses placed—a crime
It seemed to me—do blow a man apart
Quite readily and turn his guts to slime.
We never buried Charlie after that.
Old Sarge had tried his best, but love and hate
Do mix and roll within a man and cast
A pall upon his soul until he learns
To trust in love and drop the hate at last.
But that's a thing I could not do, to love
The ones who killed my friend, the man indeed
Who honored them in death and tried to prove
That men are men regardless of their creed.
The hate inside me no one could remove.
So here I am, back home once more—the World,
As soldiers said who found themselves in hell
Nine thousand miles from Uncle Sam and curled
In tents with regiments of bugs and thoughts
That filled their dreams with fear in minds that whirled.
You know what I despise? The ones who shout
And cry without an eye on why we fight.
Does anyone love a war or talk about
A wish to kill among the folks you know?
Then burn your straw men now in shame: Chill out!
And this is what you really need to know:
In real democracies, the people choose
To go to war or not, and if we go,
We go in pain, for we've been hit and blood
Has flowed or freedom knows another foe.
Yes, freedom, friend, is not a word to throw
About and denigrate in classrooms taught
By those who did not serve and only know
Their books and others' thoughts, so cheaply bought,
And truly can't distinguish friend from foe.
In any case, you must decide yourself
When war is just and freedom worth the fight.
Just keep in mind that no one else will help
If you and I stand back and wring our hands
When dogs of war draw near and start to whelp.
Now go on back to class and listen hard
To what your teachers say to you and how
They try to state their case. Do they regard
Their views as writ, or do they say that you
Should pause and cogitate lest truth be marred?
And if you think that you should march against
The men who go to war, then please accept
That enemies appear without consent
And will not keep the peace if we are weak
And will not sheathe their swords if we relent.
You know, my friend, the paradox is this:
The soldier knows that some must die to save
The larger number—those who rest in bliss
And slumber—yet he takes the chance himself
And strides ahead with life and limb at risk.
There are no "ifs" and "buts" on battlefields,
No empty rhetoric or football games,
No coed sweet who sighs your name and yields
Herself in fond embrace without a thought
Of he who fights by night and rifle wields.
The one who loves the peace is he who stakes
His life to end the war. The one who loves
His fellow man is he who acts and takes
His stand along his side, protecting him
And country too from apathy and fakes.
So this is it: When evil men ignite
The flames and peaceful ways ignore, a man
Of courage stands, a man you can't incite,
Someone who loves both friend and "enemy"
But knows the flames must stop and joins the fight.
If love and hate still rive your soul,
Then think upon the bloody toll
Of all who hate beyond control,
And make sweet love your final goal.
I wish you well, my youthful friend;
I wish you peace and all delight.
I wish you joy without an end,
And hope you never have to fight.
But as for me, the day turns night,
As shadows now obscure the light.
These very streets where I was hissed
Now turn again to milky mist.
What's that you say, the other man?
Why that is Sarge, you understand.
I did not think that he'd return,
But he believes you still can learn.
The hate you feel inside of you
For patriotic men in blue
Must turn to love for those who stand
The test for you and guard your land.
If hate you must, then turn your sight
On those who trust upon their might
And start the wars that we then fight
Until the darkness turns to light.
The bell strikes eight; I hear it toll.
Our time is up upon this knoll,
But you have time to save your soul:
A loving heart wins your parole.
He bowed his head and lumbered down the hill
With protest sign held low in hand, a large
And muscled man he was who would not kill
For any cause, yet turned to look at Sarge
And knew at last the task he must fulfill.
For those who march must cleanse their hearts of hate.
It does no good to shout out words of scorn
And bitterness so cold and demonstrate
Against the soldiers young who have thus borne
The burdens and the duties of the state.
And I, you ask, who bore the bloody lump
Of flesh that once was Sarge upon my back,
Did I as well fulfill the call and dump
The heavy load of bitterness so black
That ripped my soul and cast it in the sump?
You're right, of course, for I did not release
The hate for little men who killed with traps,
And I instead did hunt them down and tease
Their lives from them in brutal ways that saps
The soul of holiness without surcease.
And then at last the time had come to face
My death like everyone, and Charlie shot
Me up so well there was no single trace
Of life in me, as blood did freeze and blot
The sun, and darkness did my life erase.
The blackness then did shake my soul, of hue
The very same, as I sped down a well
Of hate and shame that tore my soul in two.
When I could feel the very fires of hell,
A voice rang out, a voice I surely knew.
"I never once," he roared, "left one behind,
And first you will not be. Now stretch your hand
To me and hold on tight, my stupid friend,
For we must rise above the flames and stand
On ground where we can seek a better end."
I grasped his hand with all my might and felt
The horror of hell below as we began
To rise. The hellish fire did even melt
The ice within my chest and start to ban
The evil thoughts with which I'd never dealt.
"Forgive me, Sarge," I said, as we approached the goal.
"Forgiveness comes from someplace else," he said.
"So pray your best as we depart this hole,
And hope that God above will ease your dread
And find some love and goodness in your soul."
The next I knew, the shadows flew and Sarge
Had dropped my hand. The corpse upon the ground
In front of me appeared like some mirage.
The blood seeped out, and I felt duty bound
To act; then I remembered the barrage.
"That's you, all right," said Sarge. "A bloody mess
You are. But you and it can live again,
Providing you repent. Now here's the test
That you must pass before you're free from sin:
Remove the hate that lurks inside the human breast.
"Go out and find the ones who think that they
Are right, but fail to note that other folk
Have views they represent and cannot lay
Those views aside as if they were a joke—
Thus conflict turns to hate one fateful day.
"The hate that conflict generates can weigh
Upon the soul and fester deep within,
Until the bile just cannot be allayed,
And those who disagree succumb to sin,
For hatred does its job and one of them is slayed.
"Your challenge is to waken those who bear
The hate—advise them well so they will know
That hate itself engenders hate, and what they care
About so much may turn and bring them low,
Unless they love instead and friendship dare.
"For you, my friend, the task is crystal clear:
You must confront the seeds of hate in those
Who somehow think that soldiers hold war dear,
Even though the course of war they never chose,
And they are those who have the most to fear.
"Do this with love and then you shall be whole.
The hatred you have felt within yourself
Has twisted thoughts and deeds until the toll
Inside you putrified, but know this well:
No man from my patrol will lose his soul."
I felt a searing pain within my heart,
And then my head began to ache and throb,
And blood began to course through every part
Of blackened flesh, and I began to sob
As soul and body melded with a start.
So now perhaps you understand my role
And even start to pause and contemplate
The fate of one who did not grasp the whole
Of love or try to overcome the hate
In human hearts and states: I'm on patrol.
I'm on patrol.
I'm on patrol, my friend, to save your soul.
This poem was a finalist in the 2010 War Poetry Contest sponsored by Winning Writers. Copyright is reserved to the author.
About David Arnett
David L. Arnett retired from the U.S. Department of State on November 30, 2005. He was a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor. Born in Indiana in 1943 as the son of a career Army officer, he lived in both Austria and Japan in the 1950's. After graduation from Wabash College as an English major in 1965, he spent four years in the Army with service in the Azores and Vietnam. He received his Ph.D. in English from Tulane University in 1973 and entered the Foreign Service in 1974. His Foreign Service career of 31 years included tours in Ankara, Bonn, Berlin, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Istanbul, Munich, Oslo, and Washington, D.C. He speaks Danish, German, Norwegian, and Turkish.
He and his Norwegian-born wife Vivi live in Sedona, Arizona.