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 every generation. 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 Binyon, 1914: "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 A.E.Housman, 1919: "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. And - 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 Richardson, Texas 2 August, 1996

Copyright © 1996 James M. Hopkins
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Image: "50 Years", J.M.Hopkins 1996