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Writing War

September 17, 2007

Enthralled by war stories as a young wannabe soldier, I had no clue that for many veterans war is not a great literary adventure. Waging war is the hard, harsh work of armies. Writing about that experience should also be hard and harsh.

This point is memorably made by the authors of “Warrior Writers,” a new collection of poetry and prose by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. This writing is raw, edgy and meant to shock readers into feeling what it’s like, for an instant, to be in a soldier’s skin when war memories intrude into civilian life.

Much like “Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans” and other anthologies where my war poems first appeared, these explosive works flare out of the pages of a handmade, 29-page booklet printed by veterans who participated in a writing workshop conducted by Lovella Rose Calica . The collection is full of small, yet intense insights that illuminate the big questions about the war in Iraq and warfare in general.

In a poem titled “Dirt,” Garrett Reppenhagen, a former Army sniper in Iraq, captures the arrogance of America’s blustering military policy in a terse line of verse: “if the war never ends we’ll never lose.” The main metaphor of the poem grows into a blistering grunt-level critique of the top-level commanders:

Iraqi dirt is everywhere
in my boots and in my hair

Dirt so heavy that one can’t hide
inside sand bags that divide the sides

we dig and dig, but they cover the hole
when we discover the truth we pay the toll
an unknown soldier in a shallow grave
burdened and battered and buried alive

In “Toxic Munitions Report,” Drew Cameron describes disturbing images of hidden poisons permeating the earth from depleted uranium and other toxic residue from artillery barrages and bombs, and from military convoys spewing clouds of diesel fumes through the Iraqi countryside. “The earth is big, the soil is deep, the water is abundant but we have fast, impatient and furious feet,” he writes.

Other contributors challenge the mythology of military veterans as stoic saviors of civil society’s virtues and values.

“It is hard to fit into a life where everyone around me has no understanding that I lived my life for a year in a place where every decision I made either killed someone, or saved someone. I hope that in time we as veterans will find a way to bring our experience from war into society so our children will know the truth: war makes monsters of us all.”
--Mark “Gordy” Lachance, from “War makes monsters of us all”

“Never again must we fall into the belief that a ‘band of brothers’ is something only achievable while making war on others … We must see a brotherhood for what it truly is, an ultimate expression of love, and we must remember it is not something we can enforce and foster with a rifle.”
--Paul Abernathy, from “A Brotherhood”

This theme of the collection is also starkly conveyed in the introduction: “This book is a weapon against war. These are secrets from the dark corners of souls that people usually don’t want to hear or talk about.” A related theme, as workshop participant Matt Hrutkay wrote, is that working on this project was therapeutic. “I was motivated to keep writing with feeling, to get out the things I had held back for so long.”

In addition to this inaugural booklet, similarly stark writings, photos and artwork by these vets and other Iraq war veterans has been displayed at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. “When I got back from the war I did not want to tell anyone anything but instead just to reflect and think,” Aaron Hughes, one of the organizers of the art show in Chicago and a contributor to “Warrior Writers,” wrote on his web site, aarhughes.org/blog. Now he and other vets of Iraq are working hard to find their own voices and visions.

For more information: www.greendoorstudio.net, www.ivaw.org, www.nvvam.org

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.