War of the words.
How is the cow?
She walks, she talks, she’s full of chalk. The lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is highly prolific to the nth degree.
War has a precise vocabulary, as it should. But it also has a vivid poetry to it, marching to its own cadence and connections that can’t be denied or invalidated. Or transposed, out of time and context to a peaceful place, like the side table of an armchair with the cigars and whiskey, or thrown about with callow empathy and carelessness at suave Connecticut soirees, in an ambiguous rhapsody, and hope to have anywhere near the same impact and humility.
I sometimes listen to the self-annihilating ferocity of sallow liberals squawking, in a state of clueless ecstasy–if thought corrupts language than language can also corrupt thought–and it often makes me think that they would place the palm of their hands flat on the top of their heads and say that they know how tall they are. Words are at once dispensable and fatal.
We must keep reminding ourselves of the obvious: All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind–its deadpan, emotionless prose is simple but deceptively deep and universal–it’s arguably more eloquent than most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, as magnificent and magical as they are, measured by how much it moves us. But Remarque’s unbearable bathos, his terrible awakening to the horrible disillusion and indifference of the Great War’s and all war’s senseless slaughter is untranslatable, and still brings tears to the eyes. Res ipsa loquitur.
A few things came to bear on my mind this week: I just finished reading Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser, and it is, according to the famous historian John Keegan, “No doubt one of the great memoirs of the Second World War.” I couldn’t agree more. The Naval Academy Prep School student, now “midshipman candidate,” Calais, that I had sponsored this year, graduated a “star man” on Saturday. And I read an article this morning by British comic and author, Simon Evans, called “The End of War Poetry,” which was surprisingly sober and philosophical for a comedian, about the epochal catastrophes of history and today, too, which rather than unfold, “writhe and coil and knot”, according to him, in his beautifully-written monograph. The piece is an unravelling of the “old lie” and a skillful reweaving of it into an almost clever and uplifting clean-out.
“Mr. Cataldo, can I be honest with you?” Calais asked the other day. I said sure. “When I first met you I, how can I put this, I was scared, petrified, even. You were a crazy-man driving in your bare feet, 90 miles an hour over the Newport Bridge, with the top down, drinking tea with one hand and the other thumb on the steering wheel, the wind in your hair, and chatting away about why Achilles and Agamemnon were fighting over Briseis, a virgin battle booty captured in the Trojan War. Don’t take it the wrong way, but I was holding on for dear life and thought you were insane and scary.”
“And now when I drive 90 miles an hour over the Newport Bridge, with the top down, drinking tea with one hand and one thumb on the steering wheel, and chatting away about Achilles and Agamemnon and Briseis–you now know what the hell I’m talking about and you’re having a fabulous time with the wind in your hair. Same Jeep, same me. Different you,” I said.
The graduation was at Nimitz Field, and the practiced protocol and pomp reminded me of Henry Reed’s poem, The Naming of Parts, which I first heard about in an episode entitled Colors in the BBC series Endeavour. The scenario is similar to my own more than forty years ago, on “R-Day,” and many, many others down through the ages: surviving or rather swallowing the specific military predicament and confusing jingo jargon whole while reigning in the wandering attention and longing for the wonderment and freedom of the outside world.
Which, I’ve realized, is a sentiment inversely proportional to the number of stripes you have up your sleeve, so-to-speak.
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
The grass infield had a fresh short-back-and-sides, and the mown smell a slight dandelion bite. Old Glory gaffed at half-staff, clapping. The rain’s menacing but commendable forbearance. Horns and timbrels. Boatswain piping admirals aboard.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
I think everyone should serve–I’ve written about it many times in the past, most recently in a monograph about Robert Heinlein and his novel Starship Troopers–a witty and erudite dialogue with himself, essentially, illustrating voluntary calls to honor and duty and self-sacrifice that should hearten sincere hearts everywhere. The benefits of an engaged citizenry to a great nation are enormous; the downside the slow unravelling of crucial social fabric, resentment, misunderstandings, and division–is like slicing a person in half and then asking them to dance.
I’ll quote Evans, because I believe he’s got it exactly and stupendously right:
“Privately, I still find the idea of young men gladly ploughing themselves back into the earth of their homeland unbearably moving. But after Owen (Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est poet), recreating such an ecstatic embrace of death in the service of a greater cause became as impossible as nailing Christ back onto the cross, or rather, nailing that cross back onto the wall.
Take Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada–corny, sure, but a poem I cannot even read in my head without choking up. This was once core curriculum, precisely because it sings the moral foundations that are laid down by a decent school. In times of great confusion, it reminded us, you do not rise to the challenge, you lean hard on the granite of your education. The reserves of courage, the heroic and the stoic, the martial virtues—these were once considered more important than a fistful of GCSEs. But, as C.S. Lewis warned in “Men Without Chests,” they are now occasions for embarrassed sniggering. Boys now are being prepared for a different set of challenges.”
I wanted to talk about Bugle Notes ‘79, my initial and fascinating and imposing introduction to the rigor and traditions of USMA, and the army, and, since, militaries across the globe and time. Painfully, I had to memorize the whole thing, which I did, hatefully, and now proudly, at a point in my life when being the lowest of the low, a beancrot, carried weight and meaning, an epithet (epaulet?) which I still to this day wear as a subversive and somewhat sarcastic badge of honor.
Seriously, look what we have here:
Schofield’s Definition of Discipline
The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army…
Or how about:
But an officer on duty knows no one–to be partial is to dishonor both himself and the object of his ill-advised favor. What will be thought of him who exacts of his friends that which disgraces him?
On, Brave Old Army Team
On, brave old Army team,
On to the fray,
Fight on to victory,
For that’s the fearless Army way.
If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is. Youth has a kingdom waiting for it, and they will always be hungry for glory and death and beauty–ready to test themselves against the stone cold unforgiving conflict with cowardice and mendacity. Vivid, memorable language can’t help but touch and inspire, even if it devolves, headlong downward or slides sideways, and sometimes only briefly comes back and up again to a sort of and hoped for transcendence. War verse and manuals and memoirs, by heroes and anti-heroes, can become a distant reveille: muddled, messy, but ultimately a clarifying and meaningful call to arms.
After Calais graduated, and all the pictures were taken and the many hands were shaken, he came over to me and took off his “NAPS” collar insignia and pinned it on mine. He said “I’ll tell you what they told me when they did this to me: ‘You’re now officially a shitbag.'”