01 April 2019

LIsten Up, Maggots! It's National Poetry Month!

PHOTO BY: U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar
This post, written by the author of "FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," originally appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog April 6, 2016.

When packing for one of my first training experiences with the U.S. Army, back in the late 1980s, I knew that free time and footlocker space would be at a premium. I could live without luxuries like my Walkman cassette player for a few months. I also wanted to avoid avoid too much gruff from drill sergeants. So I stuffed a paperback copy of Shakespeare's "Henry V" into my left cargo pocket, wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag, as my sole entertainment.

If nothing else, I thought, I'd work on my memorization skills. ("Oh, for a muse of fire-guard duty …") Little did I realize that so much of my brain would already be filled, starting those summer months at Fort Knox, Ky., with the nursery rhymes of Uncle Sam. Training was full of poetry. Sometimes, it was profane. "This is my rifle, this is my gun!" Sometimes, it was pedagogical. "I will turn the tourniquet / to stop the flow / of the bright red blood." There were even times that it was nearly pathological. "What is the spirit of the bayonet?! / Kill! Kill! Kill!"

These basic phrases connected us new recruits to the yellow footprints of those who had stood here before, marched in our boots, squared the same corners, weathered the same abuses. Every time we moved, we were serenaded by sergeants. Counting cadence, calling cadence, bemoaning that Jody was back home, dating our women, drinking our beer. We learned our lines, our ranks, our patches, our places as much by tribal story-telling than by reading the effing field manual. Even our soldier humor was hand-me-down wisdom, tossed off like singsong hand grenades. Phrases like, "Don't call me 'sir' / I work for a living!" and "You were bet-ter off when you left! / You're right!"

Nobody's quite sure why April got the nod as National Poetry Month. I like to think that it's because of that line from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland": "April is the cruelest month." Because that sounds like the Army. Besides, in springtime, the thoughts of every warrior-poet lightly turns to baseball; showers that bring flowers ("If it ain't raining / it ain't training!"); and the start of fighting season in Afghanistan.

Poetry, I recognize, isn't every soldier's three cups of tea. Ever since I entertained my platoon mates with Prince Harry's inspiring St. Crispin's Day speech, however, I've enjoyed sneaking poetry into the conversation. Perhaps more soldiers would appreciate poetry, were they to realize the inherent poetics of military life:

Every time you go to war, you are engaged in a battle for narrative. Every deployment—individually as a soldier, or collectively as an Army or nation—is a story. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Every story is subject to vision, and revision. History isn't always written by the victors, but it is re-written by poets. Treat them well. Otherwise, they will cut you.

Every time you eat soup with a knife, you are wielding a metaphor. Every "boots on the ground," every "line in the sand," every Hollywood-style named operation ("Desert Shield"! "Desert Storm"! "Enduring Freedom"!) is a metaphor that shapes our understanding of a war and its objectives. If you don't understand the dangerous end of a metaphor, you shouldn't be issued one.

(There's also a corollary, and a warning: As missions change, so do metaphors. In other words, when a politician trots out a new metaphor for war, better check your six.)

Every poem is a fragment of intelligence, a piece in the puzzle. A poem can slow down time, describe a moment in lush and flushed detail. It can transport the reader to a different time, a different battlefield. Most importantly, a poem can describe the experience of military life and death through someone else's eyes—a spouse, a villager, a soldier, a journalist. Poetry, in short, is a training opportunity for empathy.

Soldiers like to say that the enemy gets a vote, so it's worth noting that the enemy writes poetry, too. Like reading doctrine and monitoring propaganda, reading an enemy's verse reveals motivations and values. Sun Tzu writes:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Every time you quote a master, from Sun Tzu to Schwarzkopf, you are delivering aphorism. I liken the aphorism—a quotable-quote or maxim—to be akin to concise forms of poetry, such as haiku. In fact, in my expansive view, I think aphorisms should count as poetry. In the world of word craft, it can take as much effort to hone an effective aphorism than it does to write a 1,000-word essay. Aphorisms are laser-guided missiles, rather than carpet bombs. We should all spend our words more wisely.

Reading a few lines connects us to the thin red line of soldiers past, present, and future. Poetry puts us in the boots of those who have served before, hooks our chutes to a larger history and experience of war. The likes of Shakespeare's "band of brothers" speech, John McRae's "In Flanders Fields," and Rudyard Kipling's poem "Tommy" continue to speak to the experiences and sentiments of modern soldiers.

I am happy to report that more-contemporary war poets have continued the march.

Here's a quick list to probe the front lines of modern war poetry: From World War II, seek out Henry Reed's "The Naming of Parts." For a jolt of Vietnam Era parody, read Alan Farrell's "The Blaming of Parts." From the Iraq War, Brian Turner's "Here, Bullet." In this tight shot group, modern soldiers will no doubt recognize themselves, their tools, and their times. Here is industrial-grade boredom, an assembly line of war, punctuated with humor and grit, gunpowder and lead.

Want more? Check out print and on-line literary offerings from Veterans Writing Project's "O-Dark-Thirty" quarterly literary journal; Military Experience & the Arts' twice-annual "As You Were"; the "Line of Advance" journal; and Southeast Missouri State University's "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" annual anthology series.

Finally, you can buy an pocket anthology of poetry, such as the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets edition of "War Poems" from Knopf, or Ebury's "Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets." Stuff it in your left cargo pocket. Read a page a day as a secular devotional, a meditation on war. Or, pick a favorite poem, print it out, and post it on the wall of your fighting position or office cube. Read the same poem, over and over again, during the course of a few weeks. See how it changes. See how it changes in you.

Remember: It's National Poetry Month. And every time you read a war poem, an angel gets its Airborne wings.

*****

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Middle West Press, 2015). He is the current poetry editor of Military Experience and the Arts' "As You Were" literary journal, and a member of the Military Writers Guild. As "Charlie Sherpa," he blogs about military culture at www.redbullrising.com and military writing at www.aimingcircle.com.

05 December 2018

Red Bull Veterans & Others to Share Stories on Stage


Five Iowa military veterans—four of them alumni of 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division—will share stories of their respective military experiences in the last installment of the Des Moines Register's "Storytellers Project" 2018 season. Stage performances are 5:30 and 8 p.m., Thurs., Dec. 6. 2018 at The Tea Room, 713 Walnut St. No. 600, Des Moines, Iowa.

Ticket information is here.

Previous 2018 performances in the series have included themes on rural life, siblings, and everyday miracles. Included in the line-up of "War Stories" cast members are:
  • Brian Lenz, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who became an environmental scientist. 
  • Sara Maniscalco Robinson, a senior non-commissioned officer in the Iowa Army National Guard, and founder of Iowa Veterans' Perspective, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that documents veterans' stories. Maniscalco Robinson served with Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Battalion during a 2003 deployment to Egypt. 
  • Jodi Marti, an Iowa Army National Guard officer who served as commander of Echo Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Battalion during the unit's 2010-2011 deployment to Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan. 
  • Miranda Pleggenkuhle, an Iowa Army National Guard officer who served as part of Task Force Archer in Bagram, Afghanistan, during the 2010-2011 deployment of Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. 
  • James Suong, a non-commissioned officer in the Iowa Army National Guard, who once served in Iowa's 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry while on a 2003 deployment to Kosovo. Before immigrating to America, he spent some of his youth in a Cambodian child-labor camp.

01 November 2018

P.O.W. Book-turned-Opera Comes to Des Moines Area



When military reporter Tom Philpott first encountered the tragic story of an Army family that lost its way during the wartime captivity of its patriarch, Floyd James "Jim" Thompson, he could hardly have predicted the journey would include more than a decade of reporting; publishing his work not as journalism, but as oral history; and soon to be an English-language opera to be performed Nov. 16-18 2018 on the campus of the Iowa National Guard's Camp Dodge, located in Johnston, Iowa.

Performances of "Glory Denied" are:

  • 7:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 16
  • 7:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 17
  • 2 p.m. Sun., Nov. 18

Tickets are $45, and may be purchased via the Des Moines Metro Opera at 515.961.6221 or www.desmoinesmetroopera.org. On Fri., Nov. 16, there will be a 5:30 p.m. reception featuring the opera's composer, Tom Cipullo.

A FREE preview will be presented to veterans, currently service members, and their guests 7 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 15. Contact the Des Moines Metro Opera for registration.

According to press materials:
America’s longest held prisoner of war returns to a country he no longer recognizes and a family who barely recognizes him. "Glory Denied" speaks to the plight of so many of our veterans who nobly fight for their country but face huge challenges when it comes to repatriation—and their longed-for civilian lives—after service. This true story of Vietnam veteran Colonel Jim Thompson explores the unimaginable bravery asked of soldiers and even the nature of hope itself.
Following each performance, cast members and Iowa National Guard veterans and soldiers will participate in a curated talk-back session with audience members.

This is Des Moines Metro Opera's second collaboration with the Iowa National Guard. In January 2017, a production of David T. Little's rock-infused "Soldier Songs" was also conducted at Camp Dodge. See the Red Bull Rising coverage here.

The story behind "Glory Denied" was previously covered on the Red Bull Rising blog in a Jan. 11, 2013 post.

Thompson, the longest-held U.S. Prisoner of War (P.O.W.) in American history, spent 9 years in North Vietnamese captivity. The first five were in solitary confinement. He attempted to escape five times. He came home in 1973.

"He dreamed in his mind of building this dream house when he got home. It turns out that his wife was living for eight or nine years with another man, who was posing as the father of the children," says Philpott, in the 2017 Red Bull Rising interview. "The boy, who was the only boy of four children, born the day after he was shot down, was called in at 9-years-old and told, 'This is not your dad. Here's a picture of your dad. He's coming home.'"

Then a reporter for the Army Times, Philpott first wrote a magazine-length article about Thompson in 1986. Thompson had suffered a stroke in 1980, and was living alone in Key West, Fla. To get past his expressive aphasia, Thompson played for Philpott a tape recording of a local media interview he'd given after his return.

Philpott ended up interviewing more than 150 people to further flesh out the story. "I didn't want to just tell his story," he says. "I wanted to tell about the impact of his captivity was on his whole family." The book-length oral history was published in 2001, with each friend's and family-member's recollections presented in their own words. Inspired in format by a 1982 book titled "Edie: American Girl," which relates from multiple perspectives the story of one of Andy Warhol's constellation of personalities, Philpott's book reads much like the script of a play. Or, as it turns out, a libretto.

"I had tape-recorded everything," says Philpott. "When I was writing the book, I found that the voices were so powerful and poignant and truthful—and the story was so unbelievable—I thought that if I wrote it as a single-narrator, people just wouldn't believe it. It would lose the poignancy of what they were telling me."

Following the publication of "Glory Denied: The Vietnam Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War" as a book, composer Tom Cipullo contacted the author regarding the possibility of presenting the narrative as an opera.

While in development, portions of the 2006 work were presented by the New York City Opera at an annual festival. The Brooklyn College Opera Theater put it on. Then, the Chelsea Opera Company "got some really beautiful talent behind it," says Philpott. "That attracted review in the New York Times." The work was subsequently performed in May 2007 by the Brooklyn College Opera Theater.

Presented in two acts, the 78-minute opera is written for two sopranos, a tenor, a baritone, and a small orchestra. The males respectively play the younger and older versions of Jim Thompson, while the females depict the younger and older incarnations of his wife, Alyce. Past reviewers note the opera's interwoven narratives, brute-force emotions, and a modernist angularity that isn't afraid to occasionally carry a tune.

"It was only in the Arlington performance that I heard the entire libretto—the instrumentation didn't overwhelm it for the first time," says Philpott. "I could understand everything that was said. [Cipullo's] choices were all from the book—he had used all these oral histories, the words from these people, who had said them to each other. It was masterful."

Philpott credits the opera with reawakening interest in his book, which was re-released as a trade paperback in 2012. He is currently a syndicated newspaper columnist on military topics.

Thompson died of a heart attack in 2002. He was 69.