Wikileaks and War Poetry

Daniel Swift is the author of Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War.

Photograph © by Deborah Copaken Kogan

On October 30th, at a press conference in London, Julian Assange—the founder of Wikileaks—announced the leak of 391,832 secret military documents about the war in Iraq. This represents, he said, “the most comprehensive and detailed account of any war ever to have entered the public record.” Here are tortures, newly revealed; here are awful rates of civilian deaths (perhaps 66,000)—and all presented in clipped, oddly formal, occasionally redacted fragments (here, for example, is the record of a friendly-fire incident from January 2008: “CAV REPORTS THAT SMALL ARMS FIRE ENSUED BECAUSE OF A DISAGREEMENT BETWEEN CLC AND IA. NO ENEMY INVOLVEMENT”).

This is an extraordinary wealth of detail, and it challenges simple analysis. The two English-language newspapers involved in the leak—The New York Times and The Guardian—have chosen to arrange the data into stories, local narratives about the war. Both papers suggest the bigger picture by giving a full and thorough reckoning of a specific day: The Guardian chose October 17, 2006, and the Times, December 20, 2006. These single days are intended to imply, by synecdoche, the whole picture of the war, and the choice of each is not purely arbitrary. The Times describes December 20 in Baghdad as “one of the city’s deadliest days” and, according to The Guardian, “17 October 2006 was a typical day in one of the bloodiest years of the Iraq conflict.” They are detailed because they are significant, and in being made representative, they become more meaningful still.

The Wikileaks documents raise—among many others—two questions: How can we convert specific records and statistics into a larger story of the war? And what, in turn, counts as part of the whole picture of war? Poets have been worrying about these exact questions for many years, as they are essentially questions about style and about representation: about what is included in the record, and how the part may conjure the whole.

Shakespeare’s greatest consideration of war is Henry V, which opens with a chorus who wishes for “a Muse of fire” to assist in presenting the story of the wars in France. All Shakespeare has to work with is a simple stage and a few actors to tell of great battles, so he asks “can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France?” and “may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques [helmets] / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” The problem is one of scale—the war is too big and the stage too small—and his conclusion is that we must, through looking upon particulars, imagine the whole: “since a crooked figure may / Attest in little place a million,” he notes, then “let us, ciphers to this great accompt [account], / On your imaginary forces work.” It is precisely the insufficiency of the stage that must provoke our larger imagining of the war.

There are many ways to tell the story of a war, and I’d like to trace a single example of the literary coverage of combat: to consider, briefly, what it may mean to aim for what Assange calls a “comprehensive and detailed account.” In 1947 John Ciardi published Other Skies, a collection of poems which describe the movements and moments of his career as a gunner on B-29s, stationed on Saipan, and bombing Japanese cities in the winter of 1944–45. This is possibly not the most accomplished volume of American poetry of the Second World War and—like its author—is largely forgotten now. But Ciardi too is focused upon the problem of a whole record of a great combat, and so his poetry might bear reconsideration now, in the time of Wikileaks and a very different American war.

Other Skies opens at graduation, with “An Ode for School Convocation,” and moves swiftly on to military training, where Ciardi exchanges his civilian clothes for the “olive drab” of a uniform and where wartime lessons now begin. “Even murder must be learned at school,” he writes in “Night Piece for My Twenty-seventh Birthday,” and soon is on his first liftoff. “At first the fences are racing under,” and then “we see the men look up.” He witnesses an accident, and knows this could be his own end. “We stood and watched and each man watched his own / Possible future flaming to arrive,” he writes in “Death of a Bomber,” and then he is sent to Saipan, “this coral rock behind the world,” where the bombing begins:

Where cloud rained fire, and we were in the cloud—
Its climate, dark, and deluge. And we spread
Simple as rain, like thunder loud,
To be the following weathers of the dead.

There are bombing runs and letters to loved ones; bombers lost, shot down into the sea (“they moved like fish / Into the silent oceans where they rest / Dark as the squid”); and finally, miraculously, Ciardi survives and is sent home. Close to the end of this collection he is back in the town where he grew up and remembering his childhood fights in the local schoolyard.

Each poem is an anecdote, but taken as a sequence, this is a whole record of war presented as the biography in verse of a single man. Most obviously, the poems are a succession of significant moments, but the book is also more deeply and structurally concerned with the passing of time. It is built upon a progression of days: to mark his progress toward war and back, he includes poems written upon his twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, and twenty-ninth birthdays. The day is the central trope of Ciardi’s poetry here, and days function both as organizing devices and as symbols: the day of survival apart from the night of bombing. “I beg of chance the green and living day” he writes in “Expendability,” as he considers the odds of dying in combat, and at last, in a poem called “V-J Day,” he tells of being sent home, alive: “No fire-shot cloud pursued us going home. / No cities cringed and wallowed in the flame.”

John Ciardi

Ciardi’s days, then, are each a part of the war, but also something more than this: they are a version of war itself, a kind of mechanism for telling. Before dawn on his twenty-ninth birthday, along with all the other airmen, “We waken, and the cities of our day / Move down a cross-haired bombsight in the mind,” he writes, for these are bombers, preoccupied with that day’s work, the raid. He looks upon his birthday present, “The bomb whose metal carcass dressed and bled / Is our day’s gift to populate the dead,” and something so commonplace as a birthday gift is here a sinister thing. As ever in Ciardi, much of the emotion is blankly general, as if the war were fought or felt only by “we” and never by “I.” But he turns here too to address his lover back in America, whom he calls “O gentle stay-at-home.” She is far away in a different time zone. “Already now, my dear, this turning sun / Has been your day, and here returns to me,” he writes, and the day is what joins the soldier to the civilian, the bomber to his lover. In thinking of days, the war is shared.

I’m struck by the deliberate banality of a day, and by the violence it may contain. As a unit of time, nothing could be more ordinary, and if something is commonplace then we call it “everyday.” And yet the day may mark a pattern of great suffering, rendering it unforgettable to those who read about it. What was “your day,” he writes, has now become his, and the time of war is shared with the time of home. Where were you on October 17, 2006? December 20?

For Ciardi and the bombers, the day will never fully dawn, for bombing is a weather and a time zone of its own. He writes:

I cannot lose my darkness. Posed and dressed
I touch the metal womb our day will ride.
We take our places while a switch is pressed,
And sun and engine rise from the hillside—
A single motion and a single fire
To burn, return, and live upon desire.

As the bombers lift up, on their run “our day has named its course,” and now they are the sun, marking out their own time. A day is one unit in the account of a war, and it is also a version of the whole of that war.

Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news. This week, I’m reading the newspapers, and I’m thinking about John Ciardi.

See Also:

John Ciardi at the Poetry Foundation

Contemplating Death from Above,” Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2010