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Clouds
Century of poetry and war

PART 3: the the second world war

 

A Front by Randall Jarrell

Fog over the base: the beams ranging
From the five towers pull home from the night
The crews cold in fur, the bombers banging
Like lost trucks down the levels of the ice.
A glow drifts in like mist (how many tons of it?),
Bounces to a roll, turns suddenly to steel
And tyres and turrets, huge in the trembling light.
The next is high, and pulls up with a wail,
Comes round again - no use. And no use for the rest
In drifting circles out along the range;
Holding no longer, changed to a kinder course,
The flights drone southward through the steady rain.
The base is closed...But one voice keeps on calling,
The lowering pattern of the engines grows;
The roar gropes downward in its shaky orbit
For the lives the season quenches. Here below
They beg, order, are not heard; and hear the darker
Voice rising: Can't you hear me? Over. Over -
All the air quivers, and the east sky glows.
 

POETRY INDEX

  the first world war
  the 1930s

  the second world war
Judging Distances  GO
How to Kill  GO
A Front  GO
Cleator Moor  GO

  
the 1930s
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voice
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INFORMATION
   
The setting of the poem is a military air base.
'A front': (a) a cold front, as weather forecasters term it, when cold air meets warmer air, often creating fog (b) the front line in a battle
'towers': the navigation towers in an air base
'beams': radio waves for radar (but could be lights as well). Radar was first used in the USA in the early 1930s.
'cold in fur': the crew are wearing fur-lined flying jackets but are still shivering
'Over.': an expression used in radio communications to signal changes between transmitting and receiving. 'Over and out' ends the transmission. In the poem, 'over' has a deeper and sadder meaning as well.
   

HISTORY
   
Randall Jarrell was born in 1914. He studied psychology before joining the US Army Air Corps in 1942, where he became a trainer of pilots. His childhood had been happy, but his experience of war was not. Indeed, people who knew him well said that after 1942 he was never really happy again.

Here are some of Randall Jarrell's comments on life in the army:
1943: 'Most of the people in the army haven't the faintest idea what the war is about. Their two strongest motives are nationalism and race prejudice (against the Japanese).'

1945: 'The general atmosphere was very prison-campish. What I minded most was physical pain and exhaustion. Beside all the training and physical labour, we did two hours a day of running, duck-walking [walking crouched with bent knees], crawling on our stomachs, and inventive callisthenics [exercises to develop muscles] - and anything else our PT sergeant could think of....The atmosphere was of lying, meaningless brutality and officiousness.'

Pearl Harbor (an American naval base in Hawaii) was bombed by Japanese planes in December 1941, and the USA joined the Second World War as a result. The Japanese occupied large areas of southern Asia in 1941 and 1942, but were pushed back during 1943-5. They gained a reputation for brutal treatment of prisoners. In 1945 the USA dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese towns, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing many thousands.
   

IDEAS
   

This poem can be read and visualised as though it's a clip from a highly atmospheric film. We can peer through the fog to see - and hear - the one bomber that makes it into this base. We can imagine the smell, taste and feel of the fog, the damp air, the fear. Maybe the soundtrack provides more glimpses of the tense voices on the radio. 'Base 1 calling. Base 1 fogbound, repeat fogbound. Do not, repeat do not touch down. Proceed south to base 2. Here are the bearings...' What is the reader's 'position' in relation to events? Is the mind's eye camera in the navigation tower, or in the runway? Or, like the view for someone watching a movie, does it move around?

This 'film' is about just one tragedy among many. It was the personal tragedy, real and terrible, for those in the plane that crashes and fills the foggy air with the sound and glow of its explosion. With whom does the poem encourage us to share the feelings of tension and anxiety?

Any air-crew faces the risk of bad weather. But bomber crews in war face other dangers. One danger, of course, is being hit by anti-aircraft fire. There is something else: if it wasn't wartime they would probably never have set out on a raid in the first place. They are in danger not only from the war but because of the war. Lives are risked - and lost - tragically, pointlessly, and under orders.

The 20th century introduced a new weapon for killing not just one soldier but many people - including civilians. The aircraft-carried bomb distances the killer from the killed even further - so far that the victims often aren't even visible to the bomber. At that range, it's easy to forget that they are human beings - many of them not fighters in an opposing army, but innocent civilian bystanders. In war, a great callousness becomes possible. It's not confined to the military, either. This was the century in which one American politician could say of Pacific islanders at risk from missile tests 'There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?' and another, of thousands of Iraqi children dying as a result of hostilities, 'It's a price worth paying'.

 

 

   
     

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