the first world war
the second world war
Judging Distances GO
How to Kill
A Front GO
Cleator Moor GO
crimes against humanity
the nuclear age
How to Kill by Keith Douglas
Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
Now. Death, like a familiar, hears
and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.
The weightless mosquito touches
Her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.
Keith Douglas was born in 1920. His father fought in the First World War, and in the Second World War Keith chose to fight too. After only a year at university he joined the cavalry (he loved horse-riding), but like the rest of the cavalry he actually trained in tanks. As well as an excellent horseman he was a keen rugby player; he also started writing poetry in his teens.
Keith Douglas was injured by a landmine during the battles in Egypt, and was taken to a hospital in what was then Palestine. He took the opportunity to write poems while he recovered, and then went back to active service. He was killed during the Allied invasion of Normandy. He was only 24 years old.
Some people have said that he would have been one of the century's greatest poets if he had lived. Keith Douglas himself said that most of the poetry of the war would be written only after it was over, whether by soldiers or civilians. He knew that this war had involved civilians to a much greater extent than ever before, though he did not know that an estimated 27 million civilians would be killed by the end of the war - double the number of soldiers killed.
This is another poem that shows how an impersonal, distanced view makes murder in battle possible. The title suggests that somebody reading the poem will learn how to kill: but the real instruction is in the awfulness of killing. In its time this poem was 'modern' in its manner and use of language, and still isn't all that easy. It packs a lot into its four verses.
What can be unpacked is up to the reader. Here are some ideas that might be noticed:
- as a child one throws a ball for fun; maybe for the adult soldier there's a dreadful echo of that pleasure in aiming a missile to kill
- maybe a child playing war games finds it tempting, when grown up, to make them real
- a weapon in the hand can give a fatal sense of fatal power
- when you see a person only as a target, and are seeing him through the medium of a gun sight, he is much less real
- even though you know that he is some mother's son, with his own character and habits, it's still appallingly easy to pull the trigger when the cross hairs meet on the target - because that's the 'aim of the game' - imagine what it would be like if someone really dies when you press the trigger button in a computer game
- for the professional killer, there's no emotional link between pulling the trigger and the death he has caused
- the killer knows he is 'damned' (condemned, cursed, guilty, deprived of humanity) - and, thus isolated, is fascinated by how easy the act of killing can be
- detachment is the danger: if the killer is unmoved by his killing, he can see death simply (as though the victim has died from a mosquito bite) - he can disregard his own responsibility for the act, or think of it as a kind of black magic
What we know of Keith Douglas from his letters and poems is that he was a romantic person and also an ironic one: he could see the difference between what is true and what appears to be true. He was also unsentimental about death, and fully expected to die as he did. What is this poem, really? The poet sharing his own experience? His attempt to show what goes on in war? A warning?
That mosquito: its thin legs like the cross-hairs in the gun sight, its whine like the whine of a bullet....It 'fuses' with the image of Death, and 'fuses' the 'soldier who is going to die' with his man-made death. Perhaps the tone of the last verse helps to bring home what an awful act has been done - and how killing dehumanises a killer.