Duty, Honor, Trumbo

From the comforts of home, on the subject of war, in various online comments, see how the activists fret and fizz:

“The question that always comes to mind for me is, what is our intention for the future of our children/grandchildren will live into? Because we are all connected, no future can be considered unique to each of us. So, the big question is, can we share a vision for the future? What vision might be accepted by all?”

“Working together to end war and the preparations for war can yield a major shift of consciousness, otherwise our efforts – however they may meld- will always be haunted by the ultimate failure of humankind. And that is war.”

“Maybe we need a definition of War? Who can provide a definition that informs how we respond?”

“I got to thinking about this quite a bit last evening- and this morning. WAR is something that has many definitions, many uses. But for our purposes-WAR describes a violent, armed aggression. This is something with which none of us is comfortable. It’s been said before, there are no GOOD wars.”

And so on.

My first war poems rhymed with similar chatter.

In 1997 I spent several months in Hillsdale, NY at the house of poet and WWII veteran Peter Kane Dufault, which he shared with his wife Ruth. Most of the time, Peter lived in a shack in the woods. I visited him two or three times a week. We played chess, talked about books, writing. Occasionally, Peter would play the banjo, or guitar, or bag pipes. The New Yorker, he once mentioned, published his poems once or twice a year. And he loved the poetry of Galway Kinell. He loved women too. He loved being in the world. He did not like my poems.

“Do we need this? he asked, thumbing through the manuscript. He shook his head woefully. “Scratch this. Take that out.”

On he went, page by page, until just one verse survived the slaughter; the rest  discarded. At the time I did not appreciate his compassion for the world.

The finest antiwar voices rise above the chatter. In Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, following the catastrophic blast, Joe Bonham, bereft of limbs, sound and sight, speaks from the depths of his soldiers heart:

“Nobody but the dead know whether all these things people talk about are worth dying for or not. And the dead can’t talk. So the words about noble deaths and sacred blood and honor and such are all put into dead lips by grave robbers and fakes who have no right to speak for the dead. If a man says death before dishonor he is either a fool or a liar because he doesn’t know what death is. He isn’t able to judge. He only knows about living. He doesn’t know anything about dying. If he is a fool and believes in death before dishonor let him go ahead and die.”

“But all the little guys who are too busy to fight should be left alone. And all the guys who say death before dishonor is pure bull the important thing is life before death they should be left alone too. Because the guys who say life isn’t worth living without some principle so important you’re willing to die for it they are all nuts. And the guys who say you’ll see there’ll come a time you can’t escape you’re going to have to fight and die because it’ll mean your very life why they are also nuts. They are talking like fools. They are saying that two and two make nothing. They are saying that a man will have to die in order to protect his life. If you agree to fight you agree to die. Now to protect your life you aren’t alive anyhow so how is there any sense in a thing like that?”

“A man doesn’t say I will starve myself to death to keep from starving. He doesn’t say I will spend all my money in order to save my money. He doesn’t say I will burn my house down in order to keep it burning. Why then should he be willing to die for the privilege of living? There ought to be at least as much common sense about living and dying as there is about going to the grocery store and buying a loaf of bread.”

“And all the guys who died all the five million or seven or ten million who went out and died to make the world safe for democracy to make the world safe for words without meaning how did they feel about it just before they died? How did they feel as they watched their blood pump out into the mud? How did they feel when the gas hit their lungs and began eating them all away? How did they feel as they lay crazed in hospitals and looked death straight in the face and saw him come and take them?”

“If they think they were fighting for was important enough to die for then it was also important enough for them to be thinking about it in the last minutes of their lives. That stood to reason. Life is awfully important so if you’ve given it away you’d ought to think with all your mind in the last moments of your life about the thing you traded it for. So did all those kids die thinking of democracy and freedom and liberty and honor and the safety of the home and the stars and stripes forever?”

“You’re goddam right they didn’t.”

“They died crying in their minds like little babies. They forgot the thing they were fighting for the thing they were dying for. They thought about things a man can understand. They died yearning for the face of a friend. They died whimpering for the voice of a mother a father a wife a child. They died with their hearts sick for one more look at the place where they were born please god just one more look. They died moaning and sighing for life. They knew what was important. They knew that life was everything and they died with screams and sobs. They died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live I want to live I want to live.”

These days, who hears Trumbo’s pleading voice? Who hears it too late?

Not too long ago Peter Kane Dufault’s late son Ethan made a documentary about his dad. I think I understand why the major poetry festival in the town where I live declined to screen “What I Meant to Tell You: An American Poet’s ‘State of the Union.” There’s just too much truth and clarity.




Dalton Trumbo

The New Yorker obit of Peter Kane Dufault

Top photo-A German soldier dives for cover as shell explodes at the Western Front, 1917.