Dead or Alive: W.D. Ehrhart on War and Peace
September 1, 2012
We are the ones you sent to fight a war
You didn’t know a thing about.
Those of us who lived
Have tried to tell you what went wrong…
(from “A Relative Thing”)
The expanding bookshelf of works by W.D. Ehrhart—20 books, at last count—started with a ticked off Marine who barely survived a rocket blast in the Battle of Hue in 1968.
“I began to write about the war. I didn’t know it then, but the writing was a way to get at what had happened to me and why and how I felt about it,” he noted in “Why Didn’t You Tell Me?,” an essay published in Studies in Education in 1994 and reprinted in one of Ehrhart’s periodic collections of essays. “My writing has been for me a continuing education, as I hope it is for those who read it. Somewhere along the way, I came to understand that I have been an educator all my adult life.”
But here’s a very unusual educator—one who hurls poems and essays, books and more books, like thunderbolts.
“As a poet, that’s what I want a poem to do. Shake things up. Get under people’s skin. Get into their heads and stay there,” he wrote in “Batter My Heart with the Liquor Store: or, Teaching Poetry to Teenagers,” a speech he gave at a teachers’ conference, reprinted in Dead on a High Hill: Essays on War, Literature and Living, 2002-2012. “I want to make my readers laugh and cry and ache and gasp and see the world in ways they never thought of made suddenly familiar by my words. And when they put down a poem of mine, I want them to say to themselves, ‘Wow.’”
Ehrhart’s interweaving of “wow”-level poetry, provocative essays and challenging classroom teaching is astounding. Consider this address he gave to seniors at The Haverford School, a private school near Philadelphia, PA, where for the past decade he’s created a crucible of life lessons by way of teaching American and British literature and history:
“Are you going to continue to make the same mistakes humanity has been making since time out of mind? Are you going to continue to think in terms of me and mine, us and them, my good fortune and your tough luck, my country versus your country, my way or no way, this is mine and I deserve it? Are you going to continue to live as the generations before you have lived, as if the future will always be there?
“Or are you going to do what has never been done before: learn to think truly and genuinely creatively, imaginatively, globally, selflessly, beyond borders and boundaries and horizons, beyond old fears and comfortable truisms that are leading us inevitably toward irreversible disaster?”
Ehrhart’s teachable moments don’t just occur in his presence. I was recently at a Warrior Writers workshop for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that was held in New York City. As a writing prompt for the younger veterans looking to learn how to write about haunting experiences, workshop director Lovella Calica handed out copies of an Ehrhart essay titled “If This Be War.” The provocative point of this opinion piece is that if Americans truly support the war on terrorism we should stop amusing ourselves with sports events until the war is over.
Ehrhart is even harder on fellow history teachers. “If you are unwilling to believe that your government will lie to you, if you are unwilling to believe that your government considers its less influential citizens expendable, if you are unwilling to believe that your leaders make decisions based not on rational logic and available information but on irrational wishes and insupportable beliefs, then you will never understand the disaster of the Vietnam War and should not be teaching it,” he said in a speech at Columbia University’s Teachers College, titled “’They Want Enough Rice’: Reflections on the late American War in Vietnam.”
For years, Ehrhart has taught writing workshops for veterans at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts Boston and done readings and lectures at a wide variety of places, from community arts centers to colleges and universities across the US and in Europe.
In similar fashion, Ehrhart tackles a wide range of American myths, myopias and irrational passions in Dead on a High Hill, his latest collection of essays, recently published by McFarland & Company. The title is from an essay on poetry from the Korean war, which summarizes a book he wrote on neglected poets who served in the “forgotten war.” In this collection of essays published over the past decade, he also pays homage to writers, high school teachers, sports coaches, friends and family members who influenced his growth from Marine grunt to much-accomplished writer, poet and teacher.
I even make the cut, in a review of Earth Songs, my 2003 collection of poetry. Indeed, Bill Ehrhart and I have been supporters of each other’s literary efforts since working together on collections of poetry by Vietnam veterans published decades ago. It's been, on my part, an often challenging learning experience.
Ehrhart’s relentless push to publish a veritable library of literary works probing every aspect of the war in Indochina challenged me to write more than I otherwise might have done. His brash way of writing about seemingly every facet of life delighted me so much that I shed some of my Scots/Anglo-Saxon reserve to reveal more about myself in my writings. And his fearless, unflagging tweaking of the conventions of journalism, book publishing and other aspects of American society encouraged me in my work as a journalist, as well as in writing poetry.
In an essay on World War I poet Wilfred Owen, Ehrhart notes how hard it is to convey to another generation what we mean to say. “By the grace of chance, I survived my war,” he writes in “The Pity of War Poetry,” a homage to the famous British poet who died in battle, “and in an odd way I have indeed become a Wilfred Owen of sorts, a chronicler in verse of the war I fought. But I often wonder, when people—especially young people—read my poetry, do they understand what I am trying to say any better than I understood Owen when I was young? Sadly, I don’t image they do.”
And yet, he keeps trying to connect: writing, teaching, doing workshops and performing poetry readings with young veterans and old friends to audiences of all ages.
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