Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War

Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War

Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War

Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War


Every poet in this anthology represents the terrible beauty that Vietnam engendered in sensitive hearts, the curious grace with which the human spirit can endow even the ugliest realities. "No one will get out of this volume without being hammered in the heart and singed in the soul. I could touch the tears on page after page."- Wallace Terry


The war poetry of the western world begins, of course, with The Iliad, in which Hector expresses the warrior’s creed: “I have trained myself always, like a good soldier, to take my place in the front line and win glory.” As he leaves for an overseas duty assignment, Hector prays to Zeus:

Grant that this boy of mine may be, like me,
preeminent in Troy; as strong and brave as I; a
mighty king of Ilium. May people say when he comes
back from battle, “Here is a better man than his
father.” Let him bring home the blood-stained
armour of the enemy he has killed, and make his
mother happy.

(Iliad, Penguin, 129)

How utterly foreign these thoughts would have seemed to a young draftee after a month in Vietnam, no doubt a man whose image of war had been formed not by Homer or Virgil (he’d never been required to read them) or even by the significant war poetry of Whitman or Stephen Vincent Benet—but instead only by the silver screen: Hollywood. James Crumley, novelist and Vietnam War veteran, has identified the source of the average American’s attitude toward war: “millions of comic books and B-movies.” Other than in Crumley’s novel, One to Count Cadence, if there is any mention of Homer or Virgil in the hundreds of novels and the thousands of poems written about Americans in the Vietnam War, I have not found it—yet to those who know the tradition of war poetry and who also served in Vietnam, the difference between Achilles and Hector and John Wayne and Gary Cooper is not really significant. They’re basically, archetypally, the same.

One doubts, though, even as late as 1968 when Wayne starred in Robin Moore’s The Green Berets, that anyone realized how completely this 2000-year-old heroic tradition was to become obscured by the reality of war in Vietnam.

Poetry usually propagates and perpetuates myth. Therefore, such disparate American war epics as Joel Barlow’s Columbiad and Benet’s John Brown’s Body depend upon classic roots and archetypes, as does even Peter Bowman’s Beach Red (1945), a moving verse novel about World War II. In epics, however, one loses sight of the carnage and horror in favor of the overall fated . . .

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