This is the field where the battle did not happen,/ where the unknown soldiers did not die.
—(from "At the Un-National Monument") by William Stafford
As the Iraq war headed into its sixth year, we were sitting at Café Alma in downtown St. Pete with an old friend who, like the poet William Stafford (1914-1993), was that rare person: a conscientious objector during World War II. The Bloody Marys were making us philosophical.
Our daughter Gretchen asked him what he thought of his decision after all this time. He said — after a short pause — that he felt more certain than ever that it had been the right thing: "Look at all the wars we've had since then," he said, "and what good did any of them do?" We tried to think of how many there had been: Korea and Vietnam, of course, and now Afghanistan and Iraq, but in between there were invasions and "interventions" in Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Haiti and others. Last year we bombed the usual suspects in Somalia, and this year's January incident in the Strait of Hormuz shows that Iran is still in our crosshairs.
There are always reasons for war, though the actual reasons are seldom the ones given to the public (e.g., Bay of Tonkin, WMDs). But what would the soldiers who died in Vietnam, not that long ago, think if they had seen President Bush smiling in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, dealing with a favored trading partner? Now, as we continue our endless surge in Iraq, is there a probable, or even possible, outcome to justify a single American death? Senator McCain, who still thinks we should have stayed in Vietnam, can wave the flag as much as he wants; the dead will stay dead, and Iraq will remain a quagmire.
When President Bush vetoed the second stem cell research bill, he said, without blinking a reptilian eye, "I'm vetoing this bill because taking lives to save lives is immoral." This applies to doomed stem cells, but not, apparently, to real people; Bush has no problem with preemptive strikes on innocent families, but he feels the pain of stem cells. On the war's five-year anniversary, he's still bombing Baghdad. The number of killed, wounded and ruined children can't be counted. But he weeps for those stem cells.
It's been often noted that poetry makes nothing happen, and poets are probably the least organizable group one could imagine, even worse than Democrats. Most of them don't agree with each other; there are more branches of poets than Fundamentalists. Poets seem to march, or wobble, to some weird inner music. Still, as far as I can see, American poets are 99 percent against this war. (Actually, I've never met one for it, but there must be one somewhere.) Why so unified? There are rich poets and poor poets. Black and white, gay and straight. Haven't they heard of Fox News or even The Wall Street Journal? And, in a rare turn of events, it seems that these unruly bands of antiwar scribblers are now part of a growing majority of our citizens. That's almost enough to make a serious versifier enlist.
I should add here that poets, generally speaking, aren't pacifists: They entered World War II in droves, many enlisting early in the Air Force (Howard Nemerov, James Dickey, John Ciardi, Richard Eberhart, Ann Darr, Randall Jarrell and Edward Field, to name a few off the top of my head).
Although it's obvious that you don't have to read poetry to be against a war — any farmer, plumber, schoolteacher, truck driver can be just as fierce a pacifist (barbers and dentists I'm not so sure about; this will take some pondering) — but involvement in poetry clearly pushes one in that direction. So maybe poetry really does make something happen, in an incremental way.
One definition of poetry is "the emotional history of the world"; the imagination of the writer/reader leans toward the victims, whether at Verdun, Hiroshima, 9/11 or Baghdad. He or she doesn't see "gooks," "Japs" or "capitalist pigs," but people we'd probably like, if we got to talk to them. At any rate, it seems — though it may be a chicken/egg conundrum — that reading poetry makes people more tolerant and sympathetic citizens.
And because poets are involved with language, they instinctively recoil at any administration's Orwellian use of words like "freedom" (Operation Iraqi Freedom), "patriotism," (Patriot Act) and "justice," which at the same time shrink the Constitution, expanding the rights of captors to do what they will with uncharged prisoners.
In short, although much poetry is rubbish, and even good poetry is often poorly taught in our schools, I believe that if we moved the teaching and practice of poetry closer to the heart of our children's education, we might be less likely in the future to throw ourselves so easily into violent confrontations just because we're the biggest kid on the block.
Remember when you hear them beginning to say Freedom/ Look carefully — see who it is they want you to butcher.
—from "Notes for My Son," by Alex Comfort (1920-2000)
Peter Meinke served in the Army from 1955 to 1961 and claims his time there is easier to verify than President Bush's. When he returned from being stationed in Germany, he married the artist Jeanne Clark. His latest book of poems is The Contracted World.