Very few serving US military field-grade officers have written books about their war experience. Only one that I know—Walter E. Piatt–has published poetry. As fate would have it, then-Lieutenant Piatt and I were roommates and fellow platoon leaders in B Company, 5-20 Infantry many years ago. Back then, Piatt was the crown prince of the “Regulars”—the most competent, poised, and physically tough lieutenant in the battalion. He just seemed to have it all together, and was rightfully loved by the brass, admired by peers, and respected by troops. Neither arrogant nor a stick in the mud, he was at the center of whatever fun was to be had and ever ready to turn the most harrowing event into laughter. I don’t know if he was writing poetry when we were roommates, but I knew he had a thoughtful side in addition to everything else.
Obviously destined for Army greatness, Piatt moved quickly up through the ranks. By March 2004 he was the battalion commander of the 2-27 Infantry “Wolfhounds” and had deployed with his battalion to Paktika province, Afghanistan. He since has commanded a brigade and now is an assistant division commander of the 10th Mountain Division. But it wasn’t until the last month or so that I learned that Piatt had published a book called Paktika: The Story of the 2nd Battalion 27th Infantry “Wolfhounds” in Paktika, Afghanistan (2006) that recounts–mostly in poetry–the story of the Wolfhounds’ year in that dangerous province pushed up against the Pakistan border.
Paktika combines short prose passages describing deployment-related events with verse ruminations on the events’ human aspects. The prose passages are worthy of attention in their own right. I particularly enjoyed an account of the Wolfhounds’ first battalion-sized operation against the Taliban, a mission marked by mishaps and unexpected occurrences. Another passage interestingly recounts the Wolfhounds’ participation in the 2004 Afghan election—an event that next to the killing of Osama Bin Laden marks the high water mark in the long war.
But it is the verse that intrigues most. Piatt’s typical poem consists of 2-4 syllable lines arranged without punctuation over the length of a page. Not very interested in subtleties of thought and language, Piatt uses poetry to convey in clear, concentrated terms emotions associated with the responsibilities of command and deployment. One I appreciated (and could relate to, based on my own deployment experience) recounts his anxiety in the wake of the first round of rocket attacks the Wolfhounds were to endure:
They came On a day When all felt safe The first were off Then seven more Came crashing in Destroying all They contacted All ran And for most This was their first As they ran They clung to life Thinking only Of surviving The next few minutes This war Became real And the soldier Realized he was mortal As the rockets fell On Orgun-E (“Rocket Attack”)
The most surprising and endearing poems in Paktika are those written from the point-of-view of others than Piatt himself. Poems told through the eyes of his wife, his sister, and his Afghan Army counterpart, for examples, demonstrate Piatt’s ability to empathize, to see the mission in terms other than the win/loss calculation of victory. Sometimes this empathetic ability leads Piatt into bouts of self-exploration. “Sergeant on Duty” articulates Piatt’s misgiving that his sympathy for Afghans might be a weakness that disqualifies him from being hard enough to be successful:
The soldier spoke And I listened He said He hated them These men He cannot understand His belief be damned God could not help His hatred pours Each day He is here These are not men They are not humans Incapable of feeling Not worthy Of our compassion The only emotion He could feel Was hate Then he looked at me And said You like them Don’t you I struggled to respond My duty Will not allow My emotion to speak For I see A spark In all of the them I see the man Not the differences Yet the soldier Struck a nerve Closer to the truth Than I wanted it to be Perhaps inside There is not enough hatred To do What I came here to do And in the end I won’t be strong enough To kill My fellow man
Such a poem, to me, packs an extraordinarily complex array of emotions and ideas into an extremely compressed space. The Lieutenant Piatt I knew was never afraid to admit he was wrong or that he did not know an answer. Such ability is rare among officers; typically most are anxiety-ridden about revealing doubt or hesitation. But in “Sergeant on Duty” I think Piatt might be worrying a bit too much. In Shakespeare’s great play Henry V, King Henry walks among his troops at night taking measure of their fears and his own. It is a quiet, somber scene, but not a foreboding one. The next day in the battle of Agincourt, Henry leads the English to victory against the French in the face of overwhelming odds.
Could it be similar for Piatt? I think his ability to take others’ views seriously–reflected in the penchant for turning his encounters with them into verse–is a source of his strength. That the strength is there should be no question. The testimony of one of his men, recounted in an Amazon review of Paktika, provides the evidence:
“I had the pleasure to serve under Col. Piatt as a Wolfhound in the Paktika province of Afghanistan. It is an experience I will always treasure. I learned more about myself and the nobility of soldiering in that year than any other. I can say that Col. Piatt is an officer who lives his beliefs and leads by example. He was the soldier with the most “wheel time” and the longest time “outside the wire” in the Battalion. In essence that meant he spent more of our deployment in a vehicle, on the frontiers, in the face of danger than any of the soldiers in his command. This behavior goes a long way to inspire an Infantryman who is tired, scared and homesick. Thanks again Sir, No Fear!”
So, strength, courage, and wisdom through poetry.