War Poetry. What is it Good For?

February 12, 2007 | 2 5 min read

coverDuring the Second World War – unquestionably the “decisive, ideological struggle” of its time – the government instituted a draft, income taxes rose as high as 82%, food and luxury goods were rationed, and people further participated in the war effort by buying war bonds and planting victory gardens. What the President has often referred to as the “decisive, ideological struggle of our time,” (italics mine) has not inspired in our nation a corresponding spirit of sacrifice or sense of urgency. Even he, the war’s greatest supporter, tells us that to do our part, we need only shop and watch the increasingly blood-spattered and heart-rending images of destruction on the nightly news. Explosive violence is met with half-measures, and as Congress continues its endless posturing, Bush soldiers on and Iraq spirals into disaster. If only we could invest as much in this reckless war – to either win it or defeat it – as Brian Turner has in his poetry, we might still see ourselves free of the whole vile mess.

Turner has done his part. After graduating from the University of Oregon with an MFA in poetry, he spent seven years in the U.S. Army, including one year as an infantry leader in Iraq. It was during this time that he composed Here, Bullet, an attempt not only to chronicle his involvement in the war, but also to serve as witness to its human cost. In this, Turner has succeeded as few have. Eschewing the easy route, Turner expands his telling of the war beyond the bounds of his own experience to encompass not only those who fight and die with him, but the lives of average Iraqis and, most strikingly, those he fights against.

Although Turner’s views on war in general are made clear in such poems as “Gilgamesh in Fossil Relief” and “Sadiq,” where he writes to his fellow soldiers, “it should break your heart to kill,” the majority of the book avoids politics, with Turner only betraying his true sentiments in the last few pages, when, observing the aftermath of a bombing, he writes:

The stunned gather body parts from the roadway
to collect in cardboard boxes
which will not be taped and shipped
to the White House lawn, not buried
under the green sod thrown over, box by box
emptied into the rich soil in silence
while a Marine sentry stands guard
at the National Monument, Tomb of the Unknown,
our own land given to these, to say
if this is freedom, then we will share it.

Although Turner understandably felt it necessary to address his feelings on the war, his work pays its greatest dividends when it avoids partisanship. Instead of haranguing the reader, his vivid imagery and often shocking juxtapositions force the reader to come to terms with the war as it is being lived. His eye for telling details is sharp – a mustache and wedding ring lie forlorn on the sidewalk after a roadside bombing, glow in the dark stars on the ceiling of an arms dealer’s home – and his descriptions of violence are an integral part of the work, always horrific, sometimes possessing a distressing beauty, never gratuitous.

In the year or so Here, Bullet has been out, although no reviewer has dared question Turner’s qualifications, many have been critical of his language, commenting on a tendency towards purple prose and cliched usage. But by reducing the poems to a mere formal exercise, these critics miss the point. It’s not Turner’s language, as stirring as it often is, that gives his work its power, but his eye for detail and his unwillingness to spare his readers. These aren’t the self-indulgent maunderings of a neurasthenic MFA at a bucolic liberal arts college, these are epistles written in blood, and in this context, even the cliches work: the image of sunflowers turning their faces to the dawn as seen through the site of a sniper rifle in “Observation Post #71” or “R&R”‘s paean to “beer… so cold it sweats in your hand” closely followed by the seeming non sequitur, “I’m all out of adrenaline, all out of smoking incendiaries.” The combination of the familiar and the harrowing catches the reader off-guard, and the impact, as in all the best writing, comes not from form, but truth.

If there is one real complaint to be made about the book, it is that Turner’s work borrows heavily from the tradition of the poet/warrior, an archetype that has existed at least since the days of ancient Greece, when the soldier Archilochus wrote:

Some Saian mountaineer
Struts today with my shield.
I threw it down by a bush and ran
When the fighting got hot.
Life seemed somehow more precious.
It was a beautiful shield.
I know where I can buy another
Exactly like it, just as round.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone expressing the idea better, and the few weak pieces in the collection, such as “Cole’s Guitar,” bring nothing new to such commonly rendered themes as camp life. But despite these similarities, Turner takes a risk, unique at least in my reading, by making a genuine attempt to understand the people who he fights for and against. Where many poets have addressed their enemy as a faceless other, acknowledging, at best, the universality of human suffering, Turner has clearly studied Iraq and makes a concerted effort to use what he has learned to draw a clearer picture of the war. Excerpts from the Qur’an and historical references provide some necessary context for the war, which, as he writes in his opening poem “A Soldier’s Arabic,” “starts where we would end it… an echo of history, recited again.” Turner skillfully deploys this knowledge, sharing it with the reader in lessons in the book’s introductory poems, then building on those lessons, exposing the reader to the same words and images until what was once unfamiliar resonates deeply. This resonance combines with a (considering the circumstances) remarkable display of imaginative empathy to create Turner’s best poems and reaches its culmination in “2,000 lbs” a narrative of a suicide bombing told from the perspectives of Iraqis, American soldiers, and the bomber himself. In fifty to a hundred years, this is the poem that teachers will use to teach the Iraq War, much as Wilfed Owens’ poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” is used when discussing the First World War.

So Here, Bullet, a great book. So what? Who wants to read it? Many people complain of “Iraq fatigue,” and it is undeniable that the constant grim headlines and footage from the war make even the staunchest supporters (are there any left?) wish it would all just go away. There’s already more information available than can be digested, and it’s questionable if even the most diligent study will bear fruit. Why, then, should anyone care about one more book in a seemingly endless series devoted to the topic? Why would anyone want to know this war better? The issue, in my opinion, is not attempting to know the war, but attempting to identify with it. Art serves its highest purpose when it helps us to cultivate our sympathies. Because many of us have no personal stake in the war, it’s too easy to turn off the television or ignore the headlines, to pretend the war isn’t there or to let someone else take responsibility for a mess that isn’t “mine” to clean up. But the war goes on, whether we voted for it or not, and everyday it destroys lives. We need to care, and for those of us who can’t yet identify with the lives of soldiers and Iraqis dying half a world away, Turner’s poetry is more than great literature, it’s a revelation.

is a Washington correspondent for the Japanese news service Kyodo News. He writes on US-Japan relations, reporting from the White House and the Pentagon. In his spare time, he works as a translator. He is currently writing a police noir set in Japan. Follow him on Twitter @benjamindooley.


  1. It is tough with the Iraq fatigue, and I even have a book in that mix, but thanks for sharing this one. War Poetry? That's got me curious.

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