Is it possible to be both a sergeant in the Army infantry and a poet?
Is it possible to maintain the protective carapace that wartime requires in order to exclude unbearable knowledge and also to allow the world in all its glory and sadness to enter into your heart?
Is it possible to kick in a door, charge into a house screaming obscenities, zip-tie a man and also to think of your enemy beside his pregnant wife, imagining “how the world disappeared for him when he heard that underwater sound of the future moving inside her?”
Is it possible to reconcile the man of action with the man of feeling?
This is the task chosen by Brian Turner, an Iraq War veteran and an acclaimed poet whose poem “The Hurt Locker” provided the title for the Oscar-winning film.
His mission isn’t an easy one, and his new memoir doesn’t make for easy reading. But the beauty of the language offers solace for the somberness of the message.
“I signed the paper and joined the infantry for reasons I won’t tell you,” he writes, “and for reasons I will.
“I said Infantry because I didn’t really know if I could do it,” he explains. But “I wanted the man in the polyester suit to know . . . that I was willing and prepared to crawl through the mud and muck any time of day or night . . . that I was from Fresno and people from Fresno can take it . . . people from Fresno can outcrawl [anyone] on the planet, or at least crawl with the best of them, low and cold and reptilian.”
As a child, Turner was taught of the nobility of the battlefield: “The theater of war some call it. The space where war disentangles itself from the structure of human norms to thrash into the natural world, the idea of beauty, all that some might view as the closest this world can come to a kind of sacred perfection.”
The idea of the battlefield as sacred space is one of the things that perpetuate war in our world. This idea allows young men to embrace war with open eyes and courageous hearts, ready to take a warrior’s life or die a warrior’s death. This idea holds that war is transcendent, heroic, an endeavor too mysterious and profound to question.
Turner’s father, a tough, hard-drinking former military pilot and a motorcycle rider, set up a dojo in the garage and there taught his son the solemn rites of mortal combat. “Ridge hands and palm strikes to the temple and to the hollow below the ear. Claw hands to the face. Knife hands to the mastoid and jugular. Hammerfists to the sternum.” When Turner was 13, his father taught him the useful craft of making napalm.
With this education, and his father’s stories of reconnaissance flights over Russia, his uncle’s stories from Vietnam, his grandfathers’ from World War II, Turner enlisted in the military: In his family, this is what it means to be a man. Yet Turner is also a poet, and he cannot help but see the world, even the world of combat, in terms of beauty, fragility and heartbreaking splendor.
In Iraq, he writes, “I step outside the tent to get a breath of air and quiet. A slight breeze lifts fine grains of sand from the landscape of the desert as if a white gossamer veil were slowly being drawn over the surface of the earth. There is a distinct sense of the past and the future being erased at the horizon’s edge. The circumference of the world retracts itself until it comes to rest beneath the nightfall of stars within my field of vision.”
His poetic gaze irradiates his world, and he draws us, fascinated and horrified, into the innermost coils of war. The shattered helmet of the skull, the hand and forearm blown from the body, pulsing blood, unbearable pain — all of it is here.
And what are we to make of this news from the front, so lyrical, so full of darkness?
Maybe simply the realization that we’re at it again: ridge hands to the temple, knife hands to the jugular. Old men gasping from ravaged lungs, ancient stories playing inside their minds, war carried on by bloodstream and memories. Heroic notions of combat passed down to children, to children’s children.
Turner’s memoir is beautiful, electrifying and full of pain. The wounds he describes will not heal. As Turner’s cousin says, “I’m telling you, one soldier to another, no matter what the grief, its weight, we are obliged to carry it.”
We put our trust in our fathers and our commanders, but what if they betray us? What if they order us on missions that are wasteful, shameful, futile? Soldiers will carry those burdens for the rest of their lives.
Turner’s eloquent rendering illuminates both the shared space and the painful divide between poet and soldier, mission and memory, war and peace.
Robinson is the author of nine books, most recently the novel “Sparta.”