4 AUGUST...A Reminder
Sunday marks another anniversary. Two, actually. 4 August, 1914, and
4 August, 1964. The beginning of World War I and the incidents in the
Gulf of Tonkin, real or imagined, that became the Vietnam War. World
War II, 1939, is sandwiched almost exactly in between. Like a flat
rock skipped across time, bouncing every 25 years, we have a war for
When I began to write poems about my experiences in Vietnam, I looked
for the poetry of my father's war but found there was little. So,
looking further back, I stumbled into the poetry of World War I, of
which there are volumes. Reading these, I was amazed to find how little
war had changed in the experience of the ordinary ground soldier.
Many of us probably met Vietnam with the same anticipation as Laurence
"The cares we hugged drop out of vision,
Our hearts with deeper thoughts dilate,
We step from days of sour division
Into the grandeur of our fate."
Went thru the same training as W.J.Turner, 1916:
"The men of death stand trim and neat
Their faces stiff as stone,
Click, Clack, go four and twenty feet
From twelve machines of bone."
Felt the same anxiety, going into combat, as Max Plowman, 1917:
"It had come at last! and suddenly the world
Was sharply cut in two. On one side lay
A golden, dreamy, peaceful afternoon,
And on the other, men gone mad with fear."
Took our Incoming, along with Robert Graves, 1917:
"Near Martinpuich that night of hell
Two men were struck by the same shell,
Together tumbled in one heap
Senseless and limp like slaughtered sheep."
Watched our friends die, the same as Herbert Read, 1917:
"A man of mine
lies on the wire.
It is death to fetch his soulless corpse.
A man of mine
lies on the wire.
And he will rot
And first his lips
The worms will eat."
Like Wilfred Owen, 1918, felt the enduring fatigue of endless duties:
"Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And toward our distant rest began to trudge."
Until we were burned out, used up, and numb as Isaac Rosenberg, 1918:
"What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver - what heart aghast?"
And finally came back, as Owen put it in 1918, to a public that did
not know, and did not want to know.
"It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet there also encumber sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred."
And among friends and family, felt the split soul when our two worlds
collided, like Wilfrid Gibson, 1919:
"They ask me where I've been
And what I've done and seen,
But what can I reply?
Who know it wasn't I
But someone just like me
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands,
Killed men in foreign lands;
Though I must bear the blame
Because he bore my name."
And surviving, came with authority to speak for our dead, like
"Here dead we lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is, and we were young."
Or, more simply and bitterly, like Kipling, 1919:
"If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied."
Kipling knew, of course, having praised his son's enlistment in
1914, only to see him killed at Loos in 1915. And, as it turned
out, the bitter lesson of 4 August, 1914, didn't take, the whole
thing being fought again from 1939.
But there is a gap of one generation between the war which we were
fighting in 1864, amongst ourselves, and 4 August, 1914. The
generation of 1889 was spared its national war. Perhaps their peace
was due to the overwhelming pain and grief that the Civil War
caused in the lives of its survivors. They bought their children,
our great grandparents, one generation of peace, not through any
victory, but through their pain.
So why didn't the veterans of World War II write poetry? I think,
because they won. The pain of that war was absorbed by a public that
loved them and that showed it. I don't begrudge them that. But the
vets of World War I were forced out of Washington by Lt.s Patton and
McArthur on the points of bayonets, and the gun-muzzles of tanks.
Worthwhile wars don't require poetry, wars fought for nothing do.
This Sunday will be 82 years since 4 August, 1914, and 32 years since
4 August, 1964. The flat stone of war is, perhaps, in the middle of its
bounce now. But its ripples are settling and our sons (and daughters)
are not being drafted. My continual hope is that, like the generation of
1864, we have purchased a generation of peace for our children.
But I have a son who's 25 and another who's 18 and I'm holding my breath
until they're safely beyond the reach of another useless war.
I'm writing poems and stories as loudly as I can, and telling anyone
who'll listen about Vietnam, to remind my country to please not
kill my children.
If the Vietnam War had any meaning at all, let it be that.
James M. Hopkins
2 August, 1996
Copyright © 1996 James M. Hopkins
This essay may be distributed by anyone, for non-profit use,
as long as it's text is not altered in any way, and includes this notice.
Image: "50 Years", J.M.Hopkins 1996