Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Listen to This, Listen to That: War Portfolio

by Dan Froid

Why does it seem easier to talk about war when it’s used as a metaphor?

I don’t think war is noble
And I don’t like to think that love is like war
But I got a big hot cherry bomb
And I wanna slip it through the mail-slot of your front door

Sure, war translates easily to metaphor. It’s “over there” (also the name of a 1971 propaganda song, by the way, that encouraged men to enlist)—out of sight, out of mind—and it’s easy to imagine endless possibilities for framing some minor personal conflict or petty grievance as, well, a war. Even Ani DiFranco notes the staleness of the metaphor in the great “Independence Day.” Such metaphors threaten, perhaps, to elide war’s very real horrors into abstraction, into a jumble of the very many kinds of relatively negligible conflicts we experience. But this week, I want to talk about the real deal: how writers attempt to confront war itself in their fiction or poetry.

In Air Schooner’s forty-eighth episode, “War Portfolio,” Brian Turner—who himself fought in the Iraq War in 2003, and was deployed before that in Bosnia and Herzogovina—discusses how he approaches the subject in his work. For Turner, poetry functions as an investigation of his own complicity with immoral acts. He says, “I find it easiest to think about what’s wrong with the world when I find complicity within myself.” He aims first to examine his own complicity, expressing it in poetry, and thereby to compel his readers to do the same.

PJ Harvey’s 2011 painful, beautiful album Let England has much the same concern. Its songs drawing on the work of World War I poets like Wilfred Owen—as well as making reference to Irish protest poetry—the album directly criticizes the war in Afghanistan. In “The Words That Maketh Murder,” she sings from the perspective of a soldier:

I've seen and done things I want to forget
I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat
Blown and shot out beyond belief
Arms and legs were in the trees

I've seen and done things I want to forget
Coming from an unearthly place
Longing to see a woman's face
Instead of the words that gather pace
The words that maketh murder

It’s not just that the solider has taken part in terrible actions, has witnessed gruesome death firsthand; it’s that those experiences resist being written about. I find this puzzling: these are the words that maketh murder? I think of that line from Samuel Beckett: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” War can’t be written about; it must be written about. Still, that seems a paltry analysis for Harvey’s moving song. The song, like Turner’s work, suggests complicity. Perhaps it’s that going about it in irresponsible ways leads to the same end: think propaganda. Or even focusing solely on sentimental notions of heroism—not that heroism doesn’t come into play, of course it does—at the expense of more difficult political discussions. (The song’s final refrain: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”) I’m not sure if I’m right. I’m not quite sure, honestly, what to make of it. But it’s worth thinking about.

Eduardo Halfon reads from his story “The Lady in the Red Coat,” which describes his experience in a restaurant when his father points out a woman who used to be a guerilla, among those who kidnapped Halfon’s grandfather in the ‘60s, during the Guatemalan Civil War. This story is rooted in reality: Halfon recalls his sense of distance from the civil war of the ‘60s, which took place before his childhood, before he was even born. It doesn’t seem quite real when it seems to ensconced securely in the past. He also describes the dissonance he felt between the appearance of the titular woman and his mental image of a guerilla: guerillas aren’t women wearing red coats in restaurants.

“Bitter Branches” likewise invokes a sense of dissonance. The song figures that image, of twisting, spreading branches, in multiple ways: first it’s the tall, lean soldiers waving their rifles above their hands, like trees swaying in the wind. Their “roots twist underneath”: they get stuck in the spot. They don’t come home. The image shifts to war widows, “young wives with white hands / wave goodbye,” their arms permanently stuck in a forlorn farewell wave.

The Air Schooner episode ends with Martha Silano’s poem “Distressed Boyfriend Khakis.” The poem cleverly puns on the “distressed, cutting-edge, shabby chic” pants to discuss a boyfriend suffering from PTSD: “distressed boyfriend releasing firing pin”; “distressed details vary: heavy abrasions, creased, ripped, lived-in.” Like Silano, Harvey examines the after-effects of war in the album-closer, “The Colour of the Earth.” In that song, a solider remembers his friend, killed in action. Silano satirizes the words we use to describe fashion, juxtaposing a fairly innocuous object with a loved one in pain; Harvey also considers a rather mundane thing, the earth, in the song’s touching final lines.

If I was asked I'd tell
The colour of the earth that day
It was dull and browny red
The colour of blood, I'd say

“I don’t think war is noble / And I don’t like to think love is like war.” War isn’t like love. Maybe it does resist writing. Not insurmountably—and yet. In “War Portfolio” writers ponder the many ways in which war bewilders us: it induces feelings of complicity, or dissonance; it throws in relief our more petty obsessions and interests. But how to write about it, in really honest ways that capture its complexities, and don’t brush them off or descend into abstraction or sentimentality. Again, I think of those lines from Beckett (and maybe I, too, am verging on the abstract or the sentimental):

It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.
You must go on.
I can't go on.
I'll go on.