Walter E. Piatt, Paktika

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.

Piatt Paktika

Paul Wasserman, Say Again All

Paul Wasserman served in Iraq as an Army NCO aircrewman.  That terse job description might reflect a job as a helicopter crewchief or gunner, but reading between the lines of his poetry chapbook Say Again All suggests something more esoteric.  It seems that Wasserman’s job entailed signal or intelligence support of special operation forces, carried out in planes circling high overhead rather than, say, Chinooks or Blackhawks ferrying ground warriors to and from combat.  He brings to the task of portraying such service in poetry master’s degrees in philosophy and comparative literature.  He now lives in New York City, part of the thriving veteran artists’ scene there.

Befitting Wasserman’s refined education and dark-side operational experience, Say Again All does not describe his war experience literally or sensationally.   Various poems allude high-mindedly to Socrates, Homer, and NYC poetry giant Delmore Schwartz, though pop culture icons such as The Clash and Charles Bukowski are also name-checked.  The closest Wasserman gets to a straightforward evocation of his deployment comes in the clever “Fifteen Months, Twenty-Two Days”:

     1 war
     6 states
     5 countries
     273 missions
     1228.5 flight hours
     30 rounds, unfired
     15 days rest
     4 medals
     3 kills
     1 case of friendly fire in the unit
     2 cases of cowardice
     1 case of cancer
     52 steak nights
     1 quasi-mutiny
     5 divorces
     1 pregnancy
     1 unauthorized brewery
     2 acts of bestiality, witnessed
     34 paperbacks
     2 overseas bars, right sleeve.

In most poems, however, Wasserman more subtly explores war and deployment as they profoundly order and reorder his experience of time and space.  Say Again All‘s epigraph from Delmore Schwartz reveals that interest:  “‘Only the past is immortal.”  The theme is returned to in, among many other poems, “The Moon Here is Lower”:

     And time is pooling in our eyes
     The spill of it burning off noise
     Everyone got issued a year in theater
     We signed for it while our vaccinations dried

     We crush it in our pockets
     And let the tunnel-fill fall the length of us
     Out over our boots
     The way we lift the desert

     Sifting an exit
     Into the greenless rock and powder
     A private act of distance
     On daily trips to the airfield

Wasserman’s interest in language is given full play by the magical military lingo that enchants everyone, educated or not, who comes in contact with it.  The title Say Again All is radio shorthand for “Repeat everything you just said, I didn’t get it the first time”–a good title for a book that won’t give away all its secrets in one read.  In “Dead Wounded Missing,” Wasserman deconstructs the military’s use of the title phrase as a more-than-slightly-crude means of classifying casualties and lost or captured soldiers:

     the first two words put together
     might be a new way of exhaustion
     useful, perhaps for the last time
     one is ever exhausted

     the growth of language
     by precision
     words to be used once.

Other poems display a keen eye for the surreal or absurdist moments of the war, not the least of them being the incongruity of being an aircrewman who holds master’s degrees in philosophy and literature.  In “Artifacts,” Wasserman finds much company in the ranks of the over-educated.  He describes a supply sergeant who studies “New Persian,” an MP who uses her leave to go trekking in Spain, and a pilot with a history degree who narrates the history of the Babylonian sites of antiquity over which they fly.  “Artifacts” also references Yossarian, the anti-hero protagonist of Catch 22, the great black comedy of Army Air Force service in World War II.  The allusion aptly refers to Wasserman’s own airborne perspective.  Even total commitment to unit and mission, with life or death at stake, can’t efface the fact that the war is relentlessly experienced socially and personally as efforts to find connection and understanding in the midst of isolation and confusion.

Say Again All is available through Lulu Books, the online self-publishing venue.

Wasserman

War Poetry: Elyse Fenton

Clamor Cover

Brian Turner dominates conversations about contemporary war poetry, and I will write plenty about Turner in coming posts.  But let’s start the blog’s inventory of war-themed poetry with discussion of two other poets, one this post and the second to come.  By thinking about their achievement, we can begin to mark the current contours of possibility.

First up is Elyse Fenton, whose Clamor (2010) has won prizes in America and overseas, including the Dylan Thomas Award from the University of Wales for best work in any genre by an author under thirty.

“Clamor” is one of those double-edged words that have two opposing definitions.  Just as “cleave” means to both split apart and fuse together, clamor can mean noise and also, in an older archaic definition, silence.  The aural doubleness is apt: it expresses the need to speak in conflict with the pressure to remain silent or the struggle to find the right words.  Fenton’s husband apparently saw much as an enlisted medic in Iraq, while Fenton, not in the military, remained stateside.  Clamor’s poems trace the dual experience of deployment from the vantage point of a couple trying to fathom the unexpected entrance of so much violence, death, injury, pain, and anger into their lives.  In many poems, Fenton searches for images and words that stitch together her and her husband’s experiences, geographically separated as they were.  Many poems suggest that Fenton poured her nervous energy into gardening, an endeavor that only fitfully proves nourishing.  More often the fruit Fenton’s garden yields are blasted images of futility and despair:

                   Across the yard

     each petal dithers from the far pear one white
     cheek at a time like one blade of snow into
     the next until the yard looks like the sound
     of a television screen tuned last night to late-
     night static.  White as a page or a field where
     I often go to find the promise of evidence of you

     or your unit’s safe return.

     ("Clamor")

Not surprisingly Fenton’s husband serves as her locus for understanding the inscrutable and horrible war.  Sometimes she imaginatively depicts events he experienced in Iraq, as in the poem “Aftermath,” where she writes, “His job was not to salvage / but to bundle the clothes–trash bags full of uniforms / Rorschached in blood.”  The event described here is the grisly act of burning the uniform remnants of soldiers killed or wounded, but the aftermath Fenton seems most interested in is her post-deployment relation with her husband.  It was he, after all, who volunteered to go, which at one level or another insinuated a rejection of her and which irreversibly bruised the pre-war wholeness of their life together:

           No one marries during war,
     I’m told and yet I’m married to the thought
     of you returning home to marry me
     to my former self.  The war is everywhere

     at once.  Each eggplant that I pick
     is ripe and sun-dark in its own inviolable
     skin.  Except there is no inviolable anything
     And you’ve been home now for a year.

     ("Conversation")

A poem titled “By Omission” records the strain, reflected as a failure of communication, of a husband so preoccupied by truths he is incapable of sharing that he is driven into speechlessness toward his wife:  “…when he said nothing / she knew every silence was a lie he couldn’t tell.” And in return, Fenton confesses her own wartime crimes of the heart:   “Forgive me, love, this last // infidelity:  I never dreamed you whole”  (“Infidelity”). So much resentment, so much silent seething, so much lashing out.  So much clamor.

Elyse Fenton webpage

Fenton-Poster-ID

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