Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Warrior Poet Is A Tragedy As Old As Time Itself

I was driving into work last week listening to NPR's Morning Edition. As is their tradition, the last story of the day is arts-related. 50% of the time I find myself pushing in a cassette rather than listen to a profile of some terrible folk singer so as usual my finger hovered over the stereo as I made the turn onto Maine Route 17 for the high-speed run into Rockland. That morning however NPR was going to review a new documentary about American troops in Iraq so my hands returned to the steering wheel. I'm very glad that I gave Bowie's Hunky Dory a rest as the film, Gunner Palace, sounds amazing.

Essentially the film tells the story of the enlisted men of an American artillery unit, bunking in one of Uday Hussein's Baghdad palaces and converted from gunnery to foot patrol/police/crossing guard duty. As described on NPR the film seems to provide a new yet familiar set of images of the uneasy post-movement war in so far as it deals with the quotidian duties of the soldiers; images hammered home by freelancers and embeds, from Discovery Channel documentary series, and highbrow magazines and NPR stories. What I think will set this film apart from the standard pieces is its surprising concentration on the attempts by the soldiers to rationalize, explain, and escape their situations through music; specifically hip hop.

Listening to the story I was struck by the creative continuity between soldiers over the centuries and particularly by the parallels by the blessing and the bane of any British high schooler; the English soldier poets of the First World War.

Of course I wasn't able to find lyrics to any of the songs from Gunner Palace on line and wasn't able to retain enough of them from my drive, no matter desperately trying to remember as I pulled into the parking lot and raced to my desk for pen and paper. However, the above NPR link has snippets I believe, as does this piece from the New York Times.

The LA Weekly had this to say:
It’s easy to see why he (the director) got so attached: Nothing could be further than these men and women from the public image of mindlessly patriotic dim bulbs who sign on to the military because they have no other options. Patriotic they are, but many are also keenly aware that they are victims not only of an increasingly sophisticated insurgency, but of the muddled ideology behind the occupation. We see them playing happily with children in a Baghdad orphanage, then followed by little boys throwing rocks; hugging their Iraqi interpreters, one of whom turns out to be an insurgent plant; training local men in civil defense, then rooting out the “motherfucker” insurgents in brutal house-to-house searches. They know, as many anti-war activists often do not, that it may not be possible to go into battle without working up a head of steam against the enemy. Yet they understand precisely what a no-win situation both they and the Iraqis are in — that it is psychologically and practically impossible to function as policemen and social workers at the same time. They know they are hated, and what hurts them most is their perception that back home, a public — not hostile this time, but desensitized by the nightly news — doesn’t understand what it feels like to be them. Courtesy of Gunner Palace, the anguished freestyle rap lyrics of two of the unit’s black soldiers have landed them on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section. That’s not nothing, but in the words of Specialist Richmond Shaw, “For y’all this is just a show — we live in this movie.”

Once you have had a chance to check out the lyrics, I recommend revisiting the work of the "war poets" of 1914-18, in particular my favorite Wilfred Owen. Given the intervening 90 or so years the voice is very different, as are the language, circumstances, and relative situations of the authors. That said, I think it is obvious where the similarities lie once superficial cultural distinctions are stripped away. The one major difference to my mind is that Owen's elegant and elagic writing, removed from time and place by the passage of time, is so beautiful and of another time that even its most horrific passages seem wrapped in the cotton wool of horribly restrained Edwardian tragedy (at the time, it was very shocking). Sort of like a Merchant Ivory remake of a Sam Pekinpah film, if you will.

Three of the bitterest, most jarring and most poignant Owen poems can be found below. Don't worry you ADD freaks, they're short.

Dulce Et Decorum Est
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 towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God's making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds' scimitars,
-Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!

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