From the film "Voices in Wartime," West Point Superintendent and General William Lennox plus Army Lieutenant Paul Mysliwiec talk about how poetry can help soldiers understand the human experience and trauma of combat.
Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, General Lennox wrote his PhD dissertation on American war poetry.
On the History of American War Poetry
This conversation was excerpted from General Lennox's interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
What poets in particular do you use as examples?
I looked across a spectrum of American war poets. I particularly like Walt Whitman, because I think Whitman changed when he saw war close up. We all know the Walt Whitman of the earlier days, singing the story of America.
I think when he as a reporter visiting his brother saw the horrors of war for the first time. When he went up to the hospital tent and saw the limbs next to the tent the doctors had been amputating from the wounded soldiers, he recoiled.
And he questioned the poetry he had been writing. Ultimately I think he matured. He went through a process where he assimilated those war experiences into his earlier writing and came up with a much more mature poetry in the end.
At the beginning of “Drum Taps,” Walt Whitman questions whether he can ever write again the way he had been writing. And I think there you start seeing the transition he goes through. I think he was trying to reconcile the great “Song of America” with all the terror and the horror that he saw on the battlefield.
Let’s turn to another poet, Wilfred Owen. What do you think of his experience of war?
Wilfred Owen is the archetype of the poet who comes in with a romantic feeling and just recoils at that horror and probably writes the best war poetry of World War I.
Now you see some of that earlier. Americans seem to confront that kind of war during the Civil War, and a poet like Herman Melville started singing the praises of fighting for an America that was on its millennial track but then started to recoil. And we see some of the same themes in Melville that we see in Owen and some of the British World War I poets, recoiling from what had been an absolutely great progress in technology over the years.
Now Melville, being a sailor, wrote about it on the sea, but he saw the move from the romantic to “crankin’ screws” as he called it, as we became more technological and as the technology was really put into warfare. And I see that trend proceeding throughout American poetry certainly. I think Melville did a good job leading into those British World War I poets.
Could you talk a little bit about the transformation of poets during World War I and how Owen fit in to that?
Owen and the other British World War I poets were bred in that romantic era -- the playing fields of Eton -- and then were confronted with that trench warfare, and were confronted for the first time at least in Europe with the machine gun, barbed wire, and that static front they existed on for years.
As they fought as they stayed in place over those years, and their concept of technology and progress in general was questioned. All of the sudden the technology and the commerce that came from that technology that had been on the upswing prior to the war were all being used against them. And it’s that confrontation that we see Owen and some of those poets responding to.
Owen is often considered the greatest poet of war, what’s your opinion on that?
Well, interestingly, I’ve studied primarily American poets and I’ve seen some of those themes developed throughout the American history of war. For example, the Revolution, very public poets singing the praises of the country and carrying the war aims if you will, talked about technology commerce on the rise.
In fact in the early days of the Revolution we talked about bringing in Christ’s Millennium with all that meant, through technology and commerce and education. Even during the beginning of the Civil War we saw those same themes really.
It was only Melville and Whitman who started questioning that. Then the British poets of World War I, while they didn’t have the same themes, we do see that same recoil. And as we move through the American poets to World War II, man becomes a part of that technology. The planes, for example. When we start seeing Randall Jarrell and some of the others talk about the 8th air force and how men become part of the plane and are actually dehumanized and become part of the weaponry, it’s very interesting.
We see a little of that change in Vietnam where men become victims of technology. And technology becomes a negative thing being used against the people of Vietnam.
How has war poetry changed since Walt Whitman and the Civil War? Could you talk a little bit about how the poetry of Randall Jarrell and others reflected those changes?
The poetry of World War II really focused on many ways on the technological advances, where in World War I it was almost a recoil. Here technology became almost dehumanizing. Men in particular became parts of the weaponry. For example, they were the ones who were only there to pick out the speed of the plane or know when to drop the bomb. There was a dehumanizing going on.
In fact some of the poems go back to the pilots when they are resting back in England and they are reflecting on what they have done, the horrors of what they have done. It’s traumatic, whether they accept the guilt or they wash their hands of it and say “That’s the way it is. I had nothing to do with it but be a part of the plane that I was in.” It’s very interesting and it’s a change particularly in the technological aspects from what we have seen earlier.
Some washed their hands of what they had done; others worried about it. Then Jarrell’s “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner,” he’s part of it and then not part of it, he is just washed out at the end.
Randall Jarrell in “Losses” writes:
We read our mail and counted up our missions –
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school –
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen
I think there you get some of the dehumanizing aspect, the pilots are removed from what they have done until they get back and think about it, and slowly it has an impact on their lives.
In Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” he writes:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly until my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
I think you see the dehumanizing right there. He becomes like a fetus in an animal and really dehumanized, but the washing out at the end just emphasizes what’s been done to these ball turret gunners.
In the more public protest poetry of Vietnam, it’s interesting because technology takes a turn. It’s not the celebrated thing that it was in the earlier years from revolution through the civil war. It is now evil. And it’s being used against a Third-world country. And it’s America’s evil visited upon this poor population. It’s a change from what we’ve seen in the past.
With Wilfred Owen and some of the other World War I poets there seems to be a bitterness, a sense of betrayal, recoil. What was the image of war, and how did they react to it?
In World War I, the British for the most part were brought up in a very romantic time. Their concept of warfare was based on the seventeen- and eighteen hundreds: one-on-one, done with dignity. They found themselves in the trenches, ankle-deep in water with technology used against them. Concertina wire and machine guns. Bitterness and a recoiling really occurred at that point.
You talked a little bit about how the poets in Vietnam try to distill things and try to make sense of what was going on around them by using small incidents. Could you talk a little more about that, using some examples?
I think the Vietnam War produced soldier poetry where soldiers were looking at the area around them and their environment and trying to draw sense of what was going on. There are also other things we see in their poetry: Their sense of time is greatly distorted. Most of those soldiers were there for one year and they knew how long was left in their tour and they counted down those days very carefully. Every second counted to them. I can give you a couple of examples.
W.D. Ehrhart writes in “Glimpse”:
Barely tolerable conglomeration of mud, heat, sweat, dirt, rain, pain, fear, blood, fatigue, fear, we march grinding under the weight of heavy packs, feet nailed to the ground. Forward we rush. Up the slope, staccato gunfire, grenade, hoarse battle cries, urgent calls for corpsman, burnt powder acrid in nostrils, explosion, dive, roll, hide, melt deep into the earth. Tired, no sleep, night patrol, move out, can’t sleep, eyes burn, mind stray, waist deep water, wet boots, festering blisters, lonely foxholes, stars, we wonder. Site in, open fire, wild hopes, quiet despair, assault, defend, shoot, maneuver, we wonder.
There I think you see the grasping of details and the resulting look, which is what I think many of the Vietnam poets did.
W.D. Ehrhart in “The Next Step” talks to us a little bit about time in Vietnam and the concern about time.
The next step you take may lead you into an ambush
The next step you take may hit a wall of rocket fire
The next step you take may detonate a mine
The next step you take may tear your leg off at the hit
The next step you take may split your belly open
The next step you take may send a sniper’s bullet through your brain
The next step you take
The next step, the next step, the next step
I think Earhart in this poem is just showing the on the one hand, the drudgery of time but also the counting off of the seconds and not it’s not only the seconds but the steps a person takes. And it all counts toward getting that one year tour done but each second makes the person very vulnerable.
About Vietnam, can you sum up the limited tour of duty and the importance of each second?
In Vietnam poetry we see a lot of individual soldiers very concerned about time. There is a lot of drudgery and time on their hands, but also each soldier knew that he had one year “in country.” They counted it off meticulously. A day at a time, an hour at a time, a second at a time, and it’s this time-counting that shows up in much of their war poetry.
What about the therapeutic affect of poetry for soldiers? We talked about them wanting people to understand their experience. Could you talk about that?
For most soldiers coming out of combat, telling about their experience is very important to them. I think it is also very difficult, and I think that causes some soldiers never to talk about it, which produces I think a lot of pain. I think poetry allows many of these poets an opportunity to give other people a feel for what they went through. They are confronted with the possibility of losing their life for a cause. And that is very important to them: They want to tell people what it is about and poetry allows them through images and through the writing to do that.
Poetry at West Point
This conversation was excerpted from General Lennox's interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
How did you become interested in poetry?
I became interested in poetry early, I was fortunate to have great parents who read to me, and my grandfather recited poetry to me once in a while. I got to know “Gungha Din” when I was pretty young. And I was also fortunate that I had a good education, a good opportunity to study literature and to get a sound background before coming to West Point.
At West Point it was in the late Sixties, during the Vietnam era, and a lot of us were getting ready to go to Vietnam. We wanted to find out what we needed to know and at least get a feel for the experience anyway we could; by talking to veterans, by reading what we could. And this gave us some insights into what to expect.
We’re seeing that right now with the cadets here at West Point. The cadets e-mail, they write, but they are trying to draw experiences from soldiers over in Iraq, just trying to get a feel for what it’s like. I think poetry is one of the better ways to do that.
What can poetry do? Why is it a good tool?
For an infantryman, for those who are in combat, it’s very hard for them to articulate what they experience. They go through a whole series of emotions: joy, elation, horror, fear. What genre allows you to portray that better than poetry? I don’t know.
I think poetry can capture all of those emotions at one point at one time and transfer them. That’s why I think poetry is so important. Many have said that’s it’s very hard to articulate that experience, and I think that poetry is the only way that you can deliver all of those feelings simultaneously.
How do you integrate poetry into the curriculum at West Point?
We do it in a couple ways. We have courses on poetry. We have a course on war poetry. But also, we use it in the writing course. We find that cadets have no time, so reading a poem is shorter than a novel or short story.
While it’s tough to go through and analyze, it give us a great vehicle to allow cadets to write about what’s in that poem, what’s important to them.
When cadets read this kind of poetry, what is their response?
Cadets are very interested in war poetry, war short stories, and war novels because, that is their business. I think soldiers, particularly soldiers who have not been in combat, always wonder what it is like. And these cadets right now know that they will probably be in combat pretty quickly after they graduate. So they want to know, they want to get as much information as they possibly can.
War poetry, short stories, novels, provide us a way to get that information to them. Now, of course, we have veterans coming back; lieutenants and captains and senior officers coming back in to talk to the cadets. But the literature is always available for us and so we provide them with that opportunity and they can discuss it frequently in the classroom with combat veterans. And it satisfies a little bit their desire to know what it’s like, what they need to know, in order to lead in that environment.
We’ve had graduates, graduates recently, who after a year of their subsequent training end up in Iraq or Afghanistan. A first captain we had two years ago arrived in Iraq, was given a platoon, and that night was hit. That’s the kind of training we want to give them, so that they can go into that kind of environment and do very well. And giving them that kind of background, I think, gets them better prepared to deal with that sort of situation and do very well.
I think there is a parallel between cadets who are at the academy right now and cadets who were at the academy during Vietnam. The cadets know that they will be involved in that combat shortly after graduation -- there’s an immediacy there.
The cadets want to get as much information as they can. They grab people who come back and ask them a lot of questions: “What is it like to lead in combat? What is combat like? What are the techniques that I can learn here that I can apply when I get into those kinds of circumstances?”
Soldiers always want to know what combat is like. And poetry provides us a great vehicle to teach the cadets as much as anyone can what that combat is like. It prepares them to be ready to lead under pretty tough circumstances. And even if they’re not immediately in combat, it gives them a great background to understand where they might be in the future.
A lot of war related poetry is about the betrayal of soldiers. Could you reflect on that a little bit?
Betrayal is a theme in war poetry and we do see it in American war poetry. I’d probably look between the world wars, at people like Ezra Pound or ee cummings. Interesting poetry. Ezra Pound knows in his mind that civilization is not worth saving, and we are just expending individuals. ee cummings uses language better than any war poet to tell the story. cummings is a character anyway, but some of the Ezra Pound is tough stuff.
Do you think a poet like Wilfred Owen would be able to relate his experience of war to a modern conflict like Iraq?
Owen could probably see some of the experiences he had in a war like Iraq or Afghanistan. Each war is different though, and the reaction of the poet depends on the circumstances that he or she finds him- or herself in, so I don’t know if he’d find that same irony built on that same romanticism that he had coming in. Time is shorter, he is not in the trenches for an extended period of time the way he was in World War I. So it maybe a little bit different, but I think there is a universality that the poet sees when he is in that circumstance.
Poets are mostly anti-war. I was wondering if you could give your opinion on that, looking back through history, especially at Americans?
In American war poetry, a lot of the poets do react to war, and some of them find themselves anti-war at the end of it. Primarily, though, people with a grander vision of America are the ones who react to war. I don’t know many who have really turned. Even Whitman didn’t. Melville questioned. Maybe Edward Howard.
I see it in the Vietnam protest poetry, which is not the soldier poetry for the most part. So I’m not sure. I guess the soldiers react and some of their feelings might be construed as anti-war, however what we really see are people who are more romantically minde, more liberal thinking, who react to what’s happening in America. That’s where you see the anti-war poetry more than anywhere else.
In your experience, what is the attitude of cadets coming in toward combat or fighting in the military academy? Is it romantic or more realistic?
I think the cadets that we bring into the military academy probably are more romantic, they are more patriotic, they see it as their duty to serve their country, especially since 9-11. They are all volunteers, they know what they are going to get into when they graduate.
So I think it’s our responsibility to talk them through the experiences people have over there, to bring people back, let them talk to the cadets and to introduce the cadets to the literature of war so they have a better understanding of what they will be getting into and what they need to know to do the job over there.
Is there a romanticism of combat?
I don’t know whether the cadets or the high school students coming in romanticize combat; I do know that they seem to be more patriotic now. We have gotten a number of combat veterans in the class that will take care of any romantic feelings about what some of these young people are going to be getting into.
Why does the experience of combat seem to produce great poetry?
That’s a great question. I think that as man confronts combat, a couple of things happen. First, there is usually an ideal, there’s a reason why the soldiers are out there fighting. So each individual measures the cause against the sacrifice he or she is making.
Second, I think that their lives are on the line and they are seeing, probably for the first time, their lives are passing before them and the threat that they might not be here in the next second, or in the next hour, and that’s tough. So it’s people confronting maybe for the first time their mortality. And that comes into play into poetry quite frequently.
Do you think it’s anything to do with the image they went in with and the reality and the clash of those?
Oh, I think so. I think war is something that nobody can anticipate. While we try, particularly here at West Point, to get them to understand the circumstances that they are going to find themselves in, I think it’s very hard to prepare somebody to get ready for combat.
We try to do it here, by bringing people who have been in combat back to cadets and introducing them to literature, but each person is going to find themselves in circumstances they can’t anticipate. Consequently you have more war poetry later on, because they have hit something that they have never experienced before and really can’t anticipate fully, and we get that reaction and consequently the war poetry.
So war poetry, to sum up, poetry about war is a reaction to?
I think war poetry is a reaction to the situation that the soldier finds himself in. I think that it is also the confrontation with an ideal, you know, the cause: “Why am I here and is it worth the risk I am going through right now?” I think on many levels it’s an awakening for the individual.