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Whitman in Baghdad

ISSUE:  Spring 2012

“I was going to hold forth on arms, and the violence of warfare, in a meter suited to the manner,” wrote the Roman poet Ovid at the outset of his Amores, “but Cupid, laughing,” he continued, “stole one foot from the second line,” shifting the meter out of the heroic hexameters used by Virgil in his Aeneid and into elegiac couplets, thereby lightening the line into one more “suited to the manner” of love poetry. In antiquity, the meter matters when poets speak of kissing rather than of killing. Ovid’s sly invocation of Cupid alerts his readers: only a slim line separates erotic poetry and war poetry. The two modes have more in common than we might think. Poets craft their singular versions of history by choosing which stories to tell. But how we tell the story matters, too: the poetic modes and genres we use when we write, as Ovid knew, change everything.

The difference between writing in the heroic manner, itself an idealized and elevated mode for depicting war’s visceral brutality, and writing in the direct, ground-level present tense of first person experience, is in fact the difference between writing the epic and the lyric poem. Today, the subject of war continues to compel, though the meter has changed. Think of Yusef Komunyakaa, of Bruce Weigl, and, more recently, of Brian Turner. But think, too, of the poet whose war took place right here at home. Though Walt Whitman never picked up a rifle, he saw at first hand the catastrophic aftermath of what bullets and cannons can do to a man.

Say you are twenty years old. Say your father died and you felt cut adrift. Say, as Richard Hugo does, your life broke down. This is my brother’s story. On March 20th, 2003, the United States First Marine Expeditionary Force drove its tanks through the center of Iraq, along Highway One, destination Baghdad. My youngest brother had joined the Marines in a fit of indecision about his future. My father, who died when my brother was thirteen years old, had served as a Marine stateside in between the Korean and Vietnam wars. My brother wanted to follow, somehow, in his path. I don’t think he ever imagined he would find himself on the front line of a full-scale invasion.

During that week in March of 2003, other military divisions raced up the major highways across Iraq, from every part of the country, aiming to converge in Baghdad. My brother’s First Marine Division fought its way to the eastern side of Baghdad, and then launched a successful attack on the city itself. These were both exciting and terrifying days for a young man who had, up until that point, led a safe and even sheltered life. After the early, chaotic, months of the war had passed, my brother was assigned to the Camp Whitehorse detention facility outside of the city of Nasiriyah, about two hundred miles south of Baghdad. Like the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, Camp Whitehorse was a prisoner-of-war camp run by American soldiers. They had little training and almost no support. In modern warfare, technology has given us the capacity to kill at a distance. But we must tend our captured enemies, as well as our wounded comrades, all too closely.

What did my brother see in Iraq? All the evidence says that he saw too much. He himself will not say. What did Whitman see during the Civil War? In his case, we have an extensive and detailed record. Whitman recorded his Civil War experiences in a series of notebooks and letters, and in the poems of Drum-Taps. These poems record Whitman’s evolution from the man first filled with patriotic fervor, to the witness shocked by the ruined bodies of the wounded, to, at last, the nurse with an abiding compassion and love for the soldiers under his careful ministrations. By the conclusion of Drum-Taps, Whitman’s poems have begun to question the dream of America’s expansive promise amid the young nation’s faltering democratic present.

Whitman’s direct experience of the consequences of war changed his poems. While the early poems in Drum-Taps identify with, albeit at a distance, the beautiful young soldiers leaving New York for battle, the empathy evident in the later poems only emerges after having experienced ground-level interaction with these men and their actual bodies. The difference between Whitman’s earlier and later poems is the difference between imagining the heroic body and witnessing the wounded, convalescent body. In “A March in the Ranks Hard-Press’t, and the Road Unknown,” the speaker enters a church that has been reconfigured as a field hospital, and sees “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made”:

Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,
And by one great pitchy torch, stationary, with wild red flame, and clouds of smoke;
By these, crowds, groups of forms, vaguely I see, on the floor, some in the pews laid down;
At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death … .

Whitman’s speaker attempts to staunch the flow of blood, and then looks, again, all around:

… I sweep my eyes o’er the scene, fain to absorb it all;
Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead;
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood;
The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms of soldiers–the yard outside also fill’d;
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating;
An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls;
The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches;
These I resume as I chant—I see again the forms, I smell the odor;
Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in; my men, fall in;
But first I bend to the dying lad—his eyes open—a half-smile gives he me;
Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,
Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,
The unknown road still marching.

When we are ill, or injured, when we convalesce, we occupy a shadow land. We rest at a crossroads, the two roads, as Elaine Scarry says, leading in very different directions. Our bodies are inexorably fragile. The damaged body is in flux, occupying a middle ground, not quite healthy, not yet dead. Those damaged by war, but not killed, whether soldiers or noncombatants, often simply disappear, their stories untold. The words we write about them occupy a similar in-between land; the outcome of the story we tell has not yet been determined. But these words keep the soldier in view, grant him his own agency, and prevent at least one particular life from disappearing altogether.

One of the implicit questions of the later poems in Drum-Taps is: What to do with the wounded body? Do we praise it? Bury it? Do we keep it alive by writing it down? Whitman immersed himself in this shadow land, committed himself to the writing of it. In a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, he reports that the young soldiers in the hospitals have revealed to him a new world, “a world full of its separate action, play, suggestiveness—surely a medium world, advanced between our well-known practised one of body and of mind. …” Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that during this time Whitman also grew interested in the more fugitive medical phenomena he encountered, such as, Robert Leigh Davis reports, “the phantom limb, which is both real and illusory, both physical and ghost-like.” In these poems, the meditative language is itself a medium, a middle ground, a locus for something like Keatsian negative capability. Language intervenes and mediates between consciousness and the object under scrutiny; descriptive words help us to absorb the unthinkable.

But it is also human to fear the boundaries that separate one body from another. Jean Paul Sartre could as easily be speaking of blood when he says, about the stickiness of honey, “The viscous is a state half-way between solid and liquid … it is unstable but it does not flow. …” For Sartre, plunging a hand into honey is quite a different experience from placing his hand into water. In water, he says, “I remain a solid. But to touch stickiness is to risk diluting myself into viscosity.” As I say, he could as easily be speaking of the properties of blood, and I think of Whitman, who bandaged, cleaned, staunched bleeding wounds, who encountered all manner of human stickiness. Whitman’s poem “The Wound-Dresser” meditates on this interaction. Just as the men in “A March in the Ranks Hard-Press’t, and the Road Unknown” must continue to march onward, the narrator in “The Wound-Dresser” can only bear the consistent awfulness of what he sees by going forward. The wound-dresser makes his rounds among the injured and convalescing soldiers. He says “to each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,/ An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail, / Soon to be filled with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again. / … I onward go. …” In this poem, every body he encounters is breaking or broken, and all he can do is “pacify them with a soothing hand.”

Elaine Scarry, in The Body in Pain, gets to the heart of the matter: “The main purpose and outcome of war is injuring.” This fact “may disappear from view simply by being omitted: one can read many pages of a historic or strategic account of a particular military campaign, or listen to many successive installments in a newscast narrative of events in a contemporary war, without encountering the acknowledgment that the purpose of the event described is to alter (to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut) human tissue.” Why do we write about the wounded in war? Because people themselves, as well as their experiences, disappear. Because the individual stories of thousands of soldiers, young and far from home, are never recorded. Or: are told only in the sweeping histories that blur and erase individual suffering and action. So it is all the more necessary that, when we are faced with the unbearable, we not look away. Walt Whitman understood that “extraordinary circumstances should breed extraordinary acts of empathy.”

In one of his many war notebooks, Whitman writes, “The expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, and the battle-fights. It is to be looked for … in the hospitals, among the wounded.” Years after the war, Whitman wrote, “Curious as it may seem the War, to me, proved humanity.” Away from home, immersed instead in the culture of illness and recovery, Whitman turned away from the poetry of expansive joy and integration. Away from family, away from permanent work and a defined position in society, Whitman writes some of his most intimate and humane poems. The later poems in Drum-Taps represent the war experience not by invoking national pride or the epic achievement of battle, but by immersing the speaker in the midst of the sensory and emotional nightmare that follows the battle itself.

In 2004, my brother returned from his war. What he saw he will not say. What he did he will not tell: I know only the most bare and impersonal outlines. Stationed at Camp Whitehorse, he was asked to guard and care for all manner of men, from thieves, to boys, to bombers, to those imprisoned because they were injured and had nowhere else to go. The conditions were cruel, the barracks blisteringly hot, the prisoners living at times in open-air pens, without sufficient water or food. Some of the soldiers there were willing to do nearly anything to extract confessions from those they interrogated. One day, perhaps after witnessing a particularly brutal interrogation, my brother could not continue. His body, itself, simply broke down. His commanding officer reluctantly shipped him back to the United States. He was hospitalized, for a short time, then, astonishingly, put back into uniform, and ordered to report for duty. And so he returned, as did thousands of other young men and women.

Years after these events, my brother looks forward, not back. While writing this essay, I learned about the brutalities and deaths that took place at Camp Whitehorse, and about the base closing and the court-martials that eventually followed. I learned these things not from him, but from an Internet search. Unsurprisingly, only the barest outlines remain, the process of erasure having already begun. Long ago, Ovid argued that, when we write about love, we must borrow and adapt means and methods from our brother warriors. The distinction between love poetry and war poetry is narrow indeed. A shift in perspective, an understanding that the epic gesture is unavailable to us now, the accidental loss of a poetic foot: the poetry of witness has more in common with love poetry than one silent warrior might ever imagine.


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