Write About War



In 1971, during the rainy season, I was sitting in a room in an old-fashioned French hotel in Saigon, Republic of Vietnam. It was evening and darkness was settling with the suddenness of dimmed stage lighting over the noise and reek of the city. Beyond the groans of my ancient air-conditioner, there sounded the thunder that might always be, but rarely was, something else. The thunder persisted as the scattery silence of curfew came down.

That afternoon Judy Coburn, The Nation’s correspondent in Saigon, had given me a copy of the New American Review that contained a section of reportage by Michael Herr, who had come to Vietnam on assignment for Esquire. New American Review was a literary magazine in paperback-book form that favored the latest work of younger writers, and the passages of Herr’s work were entitled ‘‘Illumination Rounds.’’ The title itself seized the mind’s eye in a moment, moved a reader into a dark space inside himself where remembered parachute flares spread their whiter-than-white slow descending light and the red or green tracer rounds could suggest a celebration. The six syllables of Herr’s title evoked a nocturne at once explosive and uncannily calm, hypnotic in its prodigal light and color.... Read more.

from How Michael Herr Transcended New Journalism, by Robert Stone on Dispatches, Groundbreaking Reportage from the Vietnam War


I'd taken five trips to Cambodia but I'd never set foot in Vietnam, even though when I first dreamed of seeing Southeast Asia it was always because of Vietnam. Even though I didn't fight in the war it was still the seminal political event of my middle and late adolescence, and it was a bond my father and I shared, one of the few things we could agree on: that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was wrong, or had gone horribly wrong. Every dinner in our home was accompanied by the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and the reports from Vietnam. Casualties, evacuations, Agent Orange, the Tet Offensive and the massacre at My Lai. My father rued the war with greater intensity with each passing week. I absorbed the news, agreed with my father and was vaguely apprehensive of the draft I might face upon graduating high school.

I lay in bed last night, thinking about my father. Or did I just dream about him? I've been dreaming about my father a lot this last month, almost five years after he died. I would like to call him on the phone and tell him, "Dad, I'm in Saigon." I'd like to tell him what it is like here, he would be so interested. The open windows and the noise of the street invaded my dream landscapes last night as I crossed the liminal membranes the night journey brings. My father has arrived in Saigon and is mixing with the noisy battleground outside my window. Am I writing to him, or for him?

Last night, before going to sleep, I watched a little bit more of "American Sniper," the movie by Clint Eastwood, upon release hugely popular and controversial. I came across a bootlegged copy at a DVD store in Phnom Penh and bought it for a dollar and fifty cents. I've been parsing it out for three nights now, watching twenty minutes at a stretch, seeing what I think of it. It is showing the mind of a certain type of violent God, family and country-loving patriot. It's certainly not about the type of soldier my father would admire - and my father was a soldier - but it is here, with me, part of the postcard of Saigon that is composing itself in room #410... Read more.

from Inside Saigon, by Bill Scheffel


You can listen to Joy Harjo read this poem on YouTube.


I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don't know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
my daughters.

You are not my blood anymore.

I give you back to the white soldiers
who burned down my home, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.
I give you back to those who stole the
food from our plates when we were starving.

I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.

I release you, fear, so you can no longer
keep me naked and frozen in the winter,
or smothered under blankets in the summer.

I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you

I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved.
to be loved, to be loved, fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
You held my mother down and raped her,
but I gave you the heated thing.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won't hold you in my hands.
You can't live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart

But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.


Joy Harjo, She Had Some Horse
Thunder's Mouth Press
, New York. 1983



The Impossible
Bruce Weigl

The paradox of my particular pathology as a writer is that the war ruined my life and in return gave me my art. The war robbed me of my boyhood and forced me, at eighteen years old, to bear too much witness to the world, to what men were capable of doing to other men and to children and to women.

The war took away my life and gave me poetry in return. The war taught me irony. That I among the others would survive is ironic. All of my heroes are dead. That's the particular paradox of my experience as a writer. The fate the world has given me is to write so beautifully as to draw others into the horror.

I was up North on Highway One past Hue. I must have had some bad water because I got sick. I shit and vomited. In my stomach a black snake grew. They sent me to the rear, to An Khe, and I slept in twisted sheets on a cot until some man threw a book at me and said Read this boy. I was eighteen. This was called the Republic of Vietnam. Republic, God save us.

I had never read a book straight through in my life. I could not say the names in this book out loud to myself, but I kept reading, the dream of the suffering horse pulling me into the story. I read Raskolnikov's letter over and over. Something snapped into place in my brain.

"I fear in my heart that you may have been visited by the latest unfashionable unbelief," Pulcheria wrote to her son.

She was writing to me as well. I don't know why the words made sense, 1968, the war raging all around us, the air filled with screams. The world conspired to put me there, in that war, in that province of blood, at that moment, so the man could drop the book on my bunk without looking at me. The book that was my link to another world, that was my bridge into a space blown wide open with a light that filled my brain.

I came from a house of no books. I ran away from the steel mill town and its grit to the war. I was not headed in the direction of books, but there was a moment reading and rereading Crime and Punishment that morning, my stomach raw from bad water, my nerves blown out, my life a kind of wire or string, that I must have glimpsed the enormous possibilities of expression because I was jarred out of one way of thinking into another… that vanished as quickly as it appeared. I have looked for it ever since. It has become my way to find it in the darker corners where it wants to weld something hurtful with something human. I have come from a long line of violence. In my poems I try to find a shape for the litany of terror to bring it into comprehension. The impossible. Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

I have looked for it ever since. It has become my way to find it in the darker corners where it wants to weld something hurtful with something human. I have come from a long line of violence. In my poems I try to find a shape for the litany of terror to bring it into comprehension. The impossible. The terrible beauty of our lives: that we use them up, that the hunger fades. The impossible. Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.


There is More to War Poetry Than Mud, Wire and Slaughter
by Andrew Motion -from The Guardian

When we say “war poetry” today, the sort of writing that comes to mind is a conglomeration of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and the other great writers of the first world war. It means descriptions of mud, wire and slaughter on a horrific scale. It includes accusations that the top brass prolonged hostilities for no good reason and that people at home supported the cause in ignorance. It involves fierce protest as well as intense sympathy. It issues a warning.

Because poetry of this sort has been drip-fed into British schools for several generations (interestingly, the process did not start as soon as the war ended, but only began in earnest during the 1960s), it has settled in the public mind at an extraordinary depth. There are large benefits, of course. The best poetry of the first world war is exceptionally powerful – not just the lyrics of Owen and others, but the more complex and modernistic narrative of In Parenthesis by David Jones (which still has some claim to be considered a neglected masterpiece). Furthermore, by rubbing its readers’ noses in the brutal facts of conflict and suffering, it possibly creates a social value as well – by helping to educate people in the human cost of war, and in the process discouraging them from starting or supporting another one.

At the same time, maybe there are disadvantages. Perhaps by placing such an emphasis on war poetry in the school curriculum, we donÕt actually put people off the idea of fighting, but inculcate the idea that it is somehow normal for the British to take up arms? Perhaps it solidifies the idea of us as a war-like nation? There is a literary consequence to the classroom focus too. By concentrating on the poetry of one conflict, which to an important extent is shaped by its particular circumstances, it directs attention away from the poetry of other wars... Read more.


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I found no grail. But I did discover the modern tradition. Because modernity is not a poetic school but a lineage, a family dispersed over several continents and which for two centuries has survived many sudden changes and misfortunes: public indifference, isolation, and tribunals in the name of religious, political, academic and sexual orthodoxy. Being a tradition and not a doctrine, it has been able to persist and to change at the same time. This is also why it is so diverse. Each poetic adventure is distinct, and each poet has sown a different plant in the miraculous forest of speaking trees. Yet if the poems are different and each path distinct, what is it that unites these poets? Not an aesthetic but a search.

Octavio Paz