20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
PART 6: Other Wars

 
     
     

 

 

CONTENTS
Introduction
  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
The US Sailor ...Japanese Skull
Missing GO
Two Lorries GO
O Come Love These Warring Armies GO
  responsibility
  women's voices

The US Sailor with the Japanese Skull by Winfield Townley Scott

Bald-bare, bone-bare, and ivory yellow: skull
Carried by a thus two-headed US sailor
Who got it from a Japanese soldier killed
At Guadalcanal in the ever-present war: our

Bluejacket, I mean, aged 20, in August strolled
Among the little bodies on the sand and hunted
Souvenirs: teeth, tags, diaries, boots; but bolder still
Hacked off this head and under a leopard tree skinned it:

Peeled with a lifting knife the jaw and cheeks, bared
The nose, ripped off the black-haired scalp and gutted
The dead eyes to these thoughtful hollows: a scarred
But bloodless job, unless it be said that brains bleed.

Then, his ship underway, dragged this aft in a net
Many days and nights - the cold bone tumbling
Beneath the foaming wake, weed-worn and salt-cut
Rolling safe among fish and washed with Pacific;

Till on a warm and level-keeled day hauled in
Held to the sun and the sailor, back to a gun-rest,
Scrubbed the cured skull with lye, perfecting this:
Not foreign as he saw it first: death's familiar cast.

Bodiless, fleshless, nameless, it and the sun
Offend each other in strange fascination
As though one of the two were mocked; but nothing is in
This head, or it fills with what another imagines

As: here were love and hate and the will to deal
Death or to kneel before it, death emperor,
Recorded orders without reasons, bomb-blast, still
A child's morning, remembered moonlight on Fujiyama:

All scoured out now by the keeper of this skull
Made elemental, historic, parentless by our
Sailor boy who thinks of home, voyages laden, will
Not say, 'Alas! I did not know him at all'.



   

INFORMATION

   


'Guadalcanal': the largest of the Solomon Islands, occupied by Japanese troops during the Second World War. It was the site of fierce fighting (August 1942 to March 1943) before American forces recaptured it. 21,000 Japanese and 5,000 USA soldiers were killed.
'Bluejacket': sailor in the US Navy
'aft': at the rear of the ship
'cured': preserved
'lye': a strong alkaline liquid for thorough cleaning
'cast': appearance. Death has been traditionally symbolised by a skull in almost every civilisation and culture.
'Fujiyama': a dormant volcano, the highest mountain in Japan. It is often featured in Japanese art, is snow-capped in winter, and has been regarded as sacred since ancient times.
'Alas! I did not know him...': a reference to Shakespeare's play 'Hamlet'. Prince Hamlet meets gravediggers who have just dug up several skulls. They tell Hamlet that one is the skull of Yorick, a court jester. Hamlet remembers how Yorick had entertained him when he was a small child. Holding the skull in his hands, says: 'Alas! Poor Yorick. I knew him....'

   

HISTORY

   


By 1910 Japan had already seized territory on mainland Asia: southern Manchuria and Korea. In the early 1930s a new government - nationalist, militarist, and eager to continue empire-building - launched an invasion of China and seized the rest of Manchuria.

On December 7 1941, without warning or declaration of war, Japanese aircraft bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. America and Britain immediately declared war on Japan, which now became caught up in the Second World War. Japanese troops swept through south-east Asia and part of the Pacific. By 1943 they had occupied Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, the Philippines, and some Pacific islands including the Solomons. Allied troops had already begun to drive them out again. The Guadalcanal campaign was the first land offensive by the USA against any of the opposing states in the Second World War. The campaign also involved 5 naval battles in which many ships were damaged or sunk.

After the USA dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan surrendered. It was occupied by a transitional Allied administration, led by the US general Douglas MacArthur, and was demilitarised. Democratic government with a 'Peace Constitution' and peaceful foreign policy was successfully introduced. (The Allied occupation ended in 1952, but American military influence is still there to this day.).

Soldiers have brought home souvenirs of war for as long as there have been battles to provide them. Archive footage of the 1942-5 Pacific war was recently discovered showing US soldiers shooting wounded Japanese and using bayonets to hack at the corpses while looting them. Ex-servicemen told of the widespread practice of carrying off gold teeth, ears and heads from dead - and sometimes still living - Japanese soldiers. In the Vietnam war there were similar reports of decapitation (and photographs of soldiers proudly holding the heads) and of severed ears and fingers.
Such acts are illegal under international law. Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention says that warring sides must 'search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled'. In the prevailing brutality of war, it remains an instruction hard to enforce.

   

IDEAS

 

 

 


This is what one commentator said about the poem: 'The subject, considered cold and without the literary link and universal relevance which the poet has given it, is an unpleasant one. In his hands it is perfectly acceptable, a little wry, and calls forth our understanding and pity'.

The 'literary link' is the echo of Hamlet's musings over Yorick's skull. (Shakespeare doesn't let Hamlet pull any punches, however. Hamlet is nauseated by the contrast between the living Yorick he remembers and the grinning skull he is handling now. He suggests the clown's skull should be made an object lesson for any woman: whatever her cosmetic skills, her face will be a skull one day - 'make her laugh at that!'. Even dead emperors have ended up like this - 'and smelt so. Pah!'). What, if anything, does this literary echo do? Do such echoes make truths more palatable? Do they provide a kind of cosmetic for ideas that might otherwise be revolting?

'...The subject...calls forth our understanding and pity': of what, for whom? The poem certainly gives opportunities to experience one or the other, or both, for the living sailor. It does the same for the dead Japanese. But perhaps the head we should really enter is the poet's. He is one who watches and imagines. What does his judgement seem to be? Is he tolerant of the 'two-headed' sailor? If so, why? Is it because of the young man's dedication, thoroughness and skill in preserving, making 'elemental', the human head 'hacked off' on a bloodstained beach? Or his careless youth? Or some other reason?

And the dead Japanese - does the poet give him a life by imagining his thoughts? The 'remembered moonlight on Fujiyama': does this poetic, tranquil image soften the image of the scrubbed skull 'bodiless, fleshless, nameless'? (Though earlier in the poem the eye-sockets were 'thoughtful' hollows.) Does the snow-capped peak push out of mind the reality of violence done?

And where does the last verse leave us? The troubling choices of interpretation persist to the end. 'Scoured' suggests cleanliness, not eradication. 'Keeper' suggests care, not indifference. 'Elemental, historic', suggest something lasting, not a life that is over; but 'parentless' suggests grief, especially when the idea is right next to 'thinks of home'. The sailor, predicts the poet, won't quote 'Hamlet', or lament that he never knew the man whose headless corpse lies on a now-distant shore; does this mean that the young man is illiterate, or innocent, or insensitive?

The poet is clearly not insensitive - but to what? After all, it would appear he was there, watching 'our' bluejacket, on the beach and on the ship with: so, he's a fighting man himself. Perhaps we can look with 'understanding and pity' at him: caught, maybe, in action that he hasn't questioned, and so has no answers for?

 
            
     

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