Armed with Verse

With recent collections of war poetry in his bag, an ex-soldier returns to Afghanistan.

by Nathaniel Fick
Poetry Foundation Media Services

The Baghdad Blues, Sinan Antoon. Harbor Mountain Press, $10.00.

The War Works Hard, Dunya Mikhail. trans. by Elizabeth Winslow. New Directions Publishing, $13.95.

Here, Bullet, Brian Turner. Alice James Books, $14.95.

I first flew into Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001, near midnight, with a rifle by my side and no passport in my pocket. At 24 years old, I commanded a Marine Corps infantry platoon, spearheading the attack against the Taliban after September 11. My men and I had all joined a peacetime military, and that night we were self-consciously aware of heading into combat for the first time. Nearly six years later, on a sunny afternoon, I’m again soaring over the Hindu Kush range. This time, I’m on an Indian Airbus, sipping sparkling water and reading war poems.

After two combat tours (we did another in Iraq in 2003), I left the military to study for a master’s degree in public policy and an M.B.A. Now I live with my fiance in Boston. We host dinner parties, grow herbs on the windowsill, and go walking in the park on Sundays. It’s four years and 10 lifetimes since my last ambush patrol, and I’ve been invited back to the fray to teach at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy, a school set up to train Afghan and NATO troops on the finer points of fighting insurgents. For some reason, I’ve agreed to come.

U.S. Army Sergeant Brian Turner distilled his year in Iraq into a haunting book of poems titled Here, Bullet. Turner initially kept his work to himself because he didn’t want his men to think he was writing about “flowers and stuff.” One of my favorites is titled “Ashbah,” Arabic for “ghosts.”

The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,

unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice

sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,

how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,

leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.

Having walked Iraq’s streets by night and felt that dawn wind bending the palms, I get lost when I read Turner’s verse. His words are worth a thousand pictures, and they take me right back. My memories are mostly sentence fragments now, rather than chapters, or even paragraphs. A boy with a bellyful of bullets. Birdsong in the palms. The taste of fear, like a penny on your tongue. Flames in the night sky. More than mere scene-setting, Turner captures the feel of the place, the sheer forlorn emptiness of it.

Sinan Antoon studied at Baghdad University before moving to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. We stood on opposite sides of a chasm: I was a combatant, and he was a civilian. But Antoon understands war’s egalitarian nature: that it often doesn’t matter which end of the gun we’re on. Antoon touches another universal theme in “Sifting,” a poem of but 12 words:

my eyes
are two sieves
in piles of others
for you

A husband scanning a crowd of refugees for his wife? Maybe a sister seeking her brother in a line of captured soldiers? Or how about a young Marine at a checkpoint?

Like Antoon, Dunya Mikhail fled Iraq in the 1990s. The title poem in her collection, The War Works Hard (winner of a 2004 PEN Translation Fund Award), turns President Bush’s oft-repeated phrase on its head.

How magnificent the war is!
How eager and efficient!
. . .
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
achieves equality
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters,
accustoms young women to waiting,
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures,
builds new houses
for the orphans,
invigorates the coffin makers,
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

As the plane drops toward the runway, into surface-to-air missile range, the poems have indeed prompted reflection. My heart’s beating faster, and I’m thinking of Turner’s wind, Antoon’s sifting eyes, and Mikhail’s working war.

They remind me where I’ve been, and make me wonder why the hell I’ve come back.

Nathaniel Fick served as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. His combat memoir, One Bullet Away, was a New York Times bestseller, and was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by The Washington Post.

© 2007 by Nathaniel Fick. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at


~ by ericedits on June 10, 2008.

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