15 February 2013

Military Poets Let Slip the Doggerel of War

In a recent guest-post on Tom Ricks' "The Best Defense" blog, military writer and U.S. Army officer Jason Dempsey laments that, unlike his poet-heroes of the Lost Generation of World War I, writers and artists no longer serve to help us make sense of the senselessness of war. The essay is headlined "Where are the poems that could help us grasp the meaning of our post-9/11 wars?"

"Today, art on war is stuck in a proverbial no-man's land," Dempsey writes. "On one side are the soldiers, a self-selected class with a corresponding lack of interest in questioning the assumptions upon which we build our rationale for fighting, and often without the tools to readily contribute on the rare chance they do. On the other side of the trenches are the professional artists. Relying on field phones and distant observation, their resulting interpretations of war are best understood as personal introspection, or navel-gazing through the barrel of a gun."

Nice metaphor, but I'm not sure of his battlefield analysis. I'm not even sure I'm looking at the same figurative piece of ground.

When I started writing a military blog in 2009, I wrote to communicate my experiences as a citizen-soldier preparing to deploy to Eastern Afghanistan. Then, I went to Afghanistan as a civilian journalist. After I returned, I've increasingly found myself writing about military writing: Encouraging writers of all ages and abilities to get their stories down on paper, and to share them with others.

Reports of the death of the warrior-poet are very much exaggerated. In fact, given an anecdotal explosion of contemporary war-literature in 2012 and 2013, the warrior-poet shouldn't even be listed as missing in action. Rather, veterans of recent conflicts seem to be engaging a target-rich environment: The academy, patrons of the arts, even a book-buying public.

If you're not stuck in the trenches, there's plenty of good and compelling war-writing out there: poems, essays, creative non-fiction, short stories, even comic books.

Some of it is painfully confessional. Some of it is cool, calculated, and military-grade. Some of it is joy-filled and humorous. Much of it is worth your time, and easily accessible.

For example:

The Journal of Military Experience, a literary and scholarly publication launched in 2011, is based on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kent. Submissions to the publication far exceeded capacity, so much that the editors have announced plans to spin off both a fiction publication (tentatively and cheekily to be called "The Blue Falcon"), and one devoted to poetry. The third volume of the main journal is slated for publication in November 2013.

Iraq war veteran and poet Travis Martin, one of the founders of The Journal of Military Experience, was recently featured in a New York Times round-up of "Warrior Voices." His "A Little Boy with Bananas" accurately captures every deployed father's heartbreak, seeking to win the hearts and minds of children not our own, while all-around bad things happen.

Also featured was Ron Capps, founder of the Veterans Writing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that publishes "O-Dark-Thirty," a quarterly literary magazine. Submissions are accepted here year-round. In a wholly separate effort from its literary pursuits, through the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the organization also helps conduct research into writing as a therapeutic intervention for wounded warriors.

The Missouri-based Warriors Arts Alliance published its first anthology of poetry, prose, and creative nonfiction in November 2012. Submissions are being accepted here for a second volume, due July 3.

The War, Literature & the Arts journal is based at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. You can submit visual art, prose, poetry, essay and creative nonfiction here year-round.

There are other military writing opportunities, other targets. New ones seem to pop up every week.

Need further inspiration? Seek out these 21st century military poets (for full texts, follow the links from each poem's title):

There's Brian Turner's celebrated "Here, Bullet", from the 2005 collection of the same name:
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. [...]
There's the armored efficiency of Jason Poudrier's "Baghdad International," a poem published in his 2012 collection "Red Fields":
The ninety-four left
of 3-13 Field Artillery,
Red Dragon Battalion,
drove over
bumps by night,
bodies by day;
then in the afternoons, they bagged
the scrunched, scorched remains
from yesterday's artillery fires,
clearing their claim
of the Baghdad airport. [...]
Finally, there is Gerardo Mena's ode to a fallen friend, "So I Was a Coffin":
[...] I walked around Iraq upright and tall, but the wind blew and I began to lean.
I leaned into a man, who leaned into a child, who leaned into a city.
I walked back to them and neatly presented a city of bodies packaged in rows. [...]
The journalistic rule of thumb is "three times makes a trend." From where I stand, both aspiring and working military writers seem to be advancing on their objectives. More importantly, they seem to be kicking butt and making names.

Call it a renaissance. Call it an insurgency. Just don't call it a no-man's-land.


As "Charlie Sherpa," freelancer and U.S. Army veteran Randy Brown writes ways in which citizen-soldiers past and present—as well as their families—can be remembered, supported, and celebrated at www.redbullrising.com.


  1. Maybe the greater difference is in the consumption of poetry, though I think it's certain there's less production, too. Of course, the WWI poets have had time to become entrenched in high school and college curriculums in a way contemporary war poets haven't (yet).

    1. Roger that! But that's also why it's so exciting to see so much interest in veterans and war-writing coming from college campuses. We can't change the world if we don't lay seige to the ivory towers.

      Anecdotally, I was also very pleased when a buddy's high-school-aged daughter recently asked for recent examples of war poetry, so that she could compare and contrast them with the school-assigned "Tommy," by Rudyard Kipling.

  2. Great column! Daniel Swift has written a moving and profound rebuttal of a similar charge against WWII poets, Bomber County. A great read! With regards to our current wars, don't miss the Aftermath Narrative conference at UC Santa Barbara:

    Chautauqua recently had a War issue; Epiphany is coming out with one; I'm sure there will be more.

    1. Thanks very much for the recommendations! We were tracking on "Epiphany," and will look forward to running "Chautauqua" to ground!

      Also very much looking forward to finding "Bomber Country."

      Thanks again!


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