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 GO
Missing
Two Lorries GO
O Come Love These Warring Armies GO
  responsibility
  women's voices

Missing by Margaret Richardson

You're not long born; your mouth a roaring O,
You're shown a mirror. Young astonishment
Breaks your next breath piano. In your face
Your face. Soon you've left it everywhere:
The panes noseprinted, polish mouthed away.

Shop windows next. You and what you want
United in the glass, you check your gear
And wonder what it's like to look at you
And like you. She does. As she lifts her mouth
For kissing, in her eyes two tiny yous
Lean keenly forward.

You remember that
Later, when you're on your own in Nam,
Between two fires, and doing things you thought
You'd never do or want to. Dreadful screams
Beside you turn out to be yours. Then death
Smartly shuts your mouth.

The Wall is built
Of brightly polished granite: a vast black
Mirror carved with sixty thousand names.
Dead; missing. Silent. Living faces crowd
Slowly past them: tourists but more sad,
Uncertain how to handle death-in-life
Or their reflections: ghosts unaptly dressed
For meeting you as you now are, your mouth
A blackened O, your self shrunk to a type-face.



 
   

INFORMATION

   


'O': both the cry 'Oh' and the shape of the printed capital letter
'shown a mirror': some psychologists believe that when a child sees his or her reflection for the first time, it is also the first experience of identity and 'separateness' together
'piano': 'softly' - an instruction to musicians. When he sees himself in the mirror, the baby suddenly stops bawling, with a startled gasp.
'The panes noseprinted....': now a small boy, he still pursues his reflection, pressing his face against reflective surfaces.
'Two tiny yous': reflections of himself in his girlfriend's eyes
'Nam': Vietnam
'Between two fires': caught between two opposing firing lines in war; also an echo of a poetic phrase 'between two worlds', here referring to East and West on the same battleground (on which fire was a major weapon)
'The Wall': the Vietnam memorial in Washington, USA
'unaptly': unsuitably
'a blackened O': the dead youth's burned and bloodied mouth (open in a scream); and the letter O carved in the black granite Wall
'type-face': printing, in this case the name of the missing soldier whose body was destroyed in war. 'Face' picks up the poem's running image of the boy's face when he was alive.

   

HISTORY

   


Vietnam came under French rule in the 19th century. In the 1930s the Vietminh was founded: a guerrilla resistance force fighting for independence. In 1945 the Vietminh began a war against the French, who were defeated after 9 years of heavy fighting.

Vietnam was now divided in two: North Vietnam under a communist government, and South Vietnam. It was North Vietnam's desire to unite the country under communist rule, and communist guerrillas (the Vietcong) began to infiltrate and attack South Vietnam. In 1964 North Vietnamese forces attacked South Vietnam.

To the American government, in the midst of the Cold War and a fight against communism, which they perceived as an evil force, North Vietnam was a threat to the whole region. Communism must not be allowed to spread, and South Vietnam was seen as a bastion against it.

First, from the late 1950s America provided substantial financial and military aid and advice to South Vietnam. In 1964 US troops (over 500,000 of them by 1968) were sent to support the South Vietnamese army against the communist invaders, though no war was declared by the USA. Many US troops were conscripts under 20 years old, who faced the choice of fighting or going to prison for refusal.

As casualties increased, the war remained unwon, and America's involvement grew controversial, public opinion in the US shifted. Protests increased. In 1970 some troops were withdrawn, and most had been pulled out by 1973 when a ceasefire was negotiated. (Soon afterwards North Vietnam ignored the ceasefire and invaded the south. Vietnam was reunited as a socialist republic.)

All wars are brutal and dehumanising, and the Vietnam war was no exception. A new marker of success was introduced: 'the 'body count' - the US aim was simply to kill off communists. A new weapon of war was employed: Agent Orange - a chemical sprayed from the air to kill off the Vietnamese forests which provided cover for guerrillas. The notorious use of napalm fire bombs resulted in the injury and deaths by fire of many civilians; civilians (believed to be harbouring Vietcong fighters) also suffered from massacres by US forces in what they designated 'free fire zones'; some civilians were forced to act as human mine detectors.

After the war the devastation was seen to be colossal. Huge areas of land, once either forested or used for agriculture, have remained unusable. Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese citizens alike have been affected by the dioxins in Agent Orange: a significant number of US soldiers developed cancers, and in Vietnam there was a significant increase in genetic damage in children born to parents who had been drenched in the infamous defoliant.

The Vietnam Memorial Wall, made of polished black granite and known simply as 'The Wall', was dedicated in November 1982. There are 58,226 names of the dead or missing inscribed on it, listed in the order in which they died or were declared missing from 1959; the last death was in 1975. Of the missing, there are over 1,000 names.
Some people expressed dissatisfaction with the Wall's starkness and simplicity. To meet their needs in 1984 the 'Three servicemen' statue was erected near the Wall. The Vietnam Women's Memorial statue was dedicated in 1993.

   

IDEAS

 

 

 


The first three verses of the poem swiftly sketch a short life, from infancy through childhood and teens to war and death, all before the age of 20. The character is expressive (images to do with the mouth) and self-absorbed (images of reflection). This self-absorption is part of growing up, which in the case of this unnamed youth is prevented from completion. The poem deplores the waste of a life that had scarcely begun and had ended in violent and pointless death - killing and being killed, under military orders.

The poem ends with an image of the Wall's reflections of tourists (this is one of the most-visited memorials in America). It has something - both angry and sad - to say about the business of war memorials, reminding us that their supposed function of 'keeping alive' is an illusion.

Voices of Vietnam veterans:
- 'Death is on my mind a lot. The deaths I have caused - and wanting my own death - are with me every day. I can't love. Part of my soul is missing, and it seems I won't ever get it back.'
- 'I knew that war's wrong. Killing's wrong. I realised that. I went to a war, though. I killed. I thought, It couldn't be wrong, or I'd have remorse about it.'
- 'The rules were weird. It was right to shoot an unarmed Vietnamese who was running, but not one who was standing still. It was wrong to shoot an enemy prisoner at close range, but right for a sniper to kill a soldier who couldn't defend himself any more than the prisoner could. It was wrong to destroy a village with white phosphorus grenades, but right for a fighter pilot to drop napalm on it.'
- 'Flame-throwers, napalm, phosphorus; crossbows, poisoned stakes - don't expect men caught in the desperate straits of war, crushed with a thousand hellish decisions, to stick to the rules.'
- 'Our humanity rubbed off us. We were fighting in the cruellest sort of conflict, a people's war, a war for survival waged in a wilderness without rules or laws, a war in which each soldier fought for his own life and the lives of the men beside him, not caring who or how many he killed, or how he killed them. And feeling contempt for those who tried to impose on this savage struggle the mincing distinctions of civilised warfare.'
- 'I couldn't speak out against the brutality. People would think I was a traitor to my country. Some of the people in the army and outside it would hate me - they wouldn't understand why I was doing it. I'd get a dishonourable discharge, I'd find it hard to get a job, it would mean hardship for my parents.'
- 'I didn't want to. I wanted to turn around and walk away. Something told me not to, you know, just turn around and not be part of it. But when everybody else started firing, I started firing.'
- 'I was at the massacre. I thought "this is all screwed up", and I didn't fire. I couldn't understand why people couldn't understand why I didn't. It seems like just about anybody can kill women and children. Maybe this is the way wars really are.'

 
            
     

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