War cannot be left to filmmakers, historians and journalists. Their scope is too narrow, too shallow, however skilled they may be.
It cannot be left to soldiers, politicians and preachers. Poets and artists must be called on to grasp all the dimensions of its horror and folly.
For this reason, when you watch the 10-part ongoing HBO miniseries The Pacific or the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker or Green Zone (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0947810/) you would be well advised to have at hand Tongue of War, Tony Barnstone’s epic sequence of poems about the Pacific war, and Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, a combat soldier’s reflections about the Iraq war.
Soldiers may be or become poets, artists, politicians or even preachers. But the bearing of arms and the arguments in behalf of a cause or an ideology generate a heat, a passion, that is only one element in a fuller understanding of war.
The filmmaker, for all his talent, cannot enter the minds of participants the way Turner does in Here, Bullet, and he cannot achieve, even as a documentarian, the breadth and depth of Barnstone’s exploration of the sensibilities of victims, enemies and innocents.
Because most of us take in more films than books we are increasingly inclined to think of films as definitive. So when Oliver Stone gives us the life of Alexander the Great we’re inclined to think we know enough about the man who almost single-handedly created Western society. When we read a much-praised biography of Thomas Jefferson-say by Fawn M. Brodie or Christopher Hitchens-we’re inclined to think we know the man. But Brodie and Hitchens are not poets or painters.They cannot give us the nuances of sensibility that are the stock in trade of poets and artists.
Here is a case in point. In The American Grain by poet William Carlos Williams is justly celebrated for its contrarian take on men like Aaron Burr and Samuel Champlain, to name but a few of his subjects. Williams had studied the histories, the legends, and he had asked himself, as poets always do, what is missing, what has eluded us, what does not add up. That is why In the American Grain is a kind of standard alternative to the usual takes on famous Americans, in the same way Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States is a bracing antidote to whatever authorized version has shaped your views.
But the reasons we cannot and must not rely on filmmakers, historians, politicians, critics, soldiers, preachers is even more cogent than that. For example, the writers Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway are justly revered for purifying the language, one might say Saxonizing it, and the literary establishment has tended to let it go at that. But it is hardly the full story. Henry W. Fowler, a British lexicographer, was arguing in the early part of the 20th Century for the de-Latinization of English. What Carver and Hemingway put into action in their stories had been well strategized by Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
The number of poets influenced by Fowler is at least as great as the number of historians, novelists and journalists.
The poetry-lover T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) tacitly acknowledged the limitations of historical account in his famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is notable for its literary allusions. Seven Pillars is not only a handbook of guerrilla warfare studied in war colleges, it also a masterful benchmark of what English rhetoric was like in the early 20th Century.
Lawrence, I think, would have liked Turner’s Here, Bullet, because as a soldier-scholar he instinctively knew that the histories of the war he was fighting in the Middle East against the Ottoman Empire could not adequately be portrayed by historians alone, not even when they had access to eyewitness accounts, such as his own. He knew that human endeavor is simply too subtle, too multifaceted and illusory to be captured by a history.
Lawrence stood on the eve of the age of psychology, the disciplined inquiry into the psyche, but like Turner he understood that everything he had witnessed would fall flat on the page and in film without a poet’s insight and audacity.
See if I make sense as you watch these films and read these books.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller’s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
For More Information: www.djelloulmarbrook.com