When you think of war poetry, you’re usually drawn to the literary icons of the early 20th Century.
To John McCrae’s young soldiers who ‘loved and were loved, and now lie in Flanders fields’, Wilfred Owen’s Doomed Youth, with ‘the holy glimmers of goodbyes’ in their eyes, or to Siegfried Sassoon’s enemies ‘squealing like stoats’ beneath the bombs of his ‘Atrocities’.
Perhaps this tendency is rooted, not only in our education of poetry, but in how we think of those wars themselves: the great wars, the wars of nobility and just cause, sepia-tinged memories of jostling Union Jack flags and Britain, emerging defiant from the detritus of the Blitz.
Wilfred Owen and Siegfriend Sassoon were great friends and the most famous poets of World War I
But what about modern wars, such as the one that began despite a historic tide of public objection ten years ago? Can verse be born out of an invasion that for many of us wasn’t about morality or duty, but politics and oil? Put simply: what did poetry have to do with the war in Iraq?
Three years ago, platoon commander John Jeffcock from Coldstream Guards released a collection called ‘Book Of War’. He was part of the Allied Force that entered Iraq in 2005.
“I ran a team of about 30 people,” he explains.
“We were what you call the ‘mopping up squad’ - our job was to take our small pockets of enemies after the aerial attacks.
“Fortunately they surrendered very quickly, as it’s a deeply unpleasant job - they’re shooting at you from all angles, not just the front.”
John was there for 6 months, during which time he worked on his poetry when he could (which wasn’t often), without telling any of his peers.
“It’s quite an aggressive male environment, so it’s nothing you share with your platoon,” he explains.
'Claret' by John Jeffcock, from 'Book Of War'
Four bottles of his favourite claret
Before he talked
He had been through the numbness
The nervous laughter at death
The internal isolation from reality
The self-imposed exile from his fellow man
He was bored
Bored of being matted in another person's blood
Bored of picking up fragments of comrades he had trained
Bored of meeting civilians whose pampered lives he couldn't comprehend
Bored of his reality
He needed to come home
But there were no tickets
All routes were closed
But after coming home, gaining a masters degree in poetry and working on his own collection, John did find other soldiers willing not only to talk about poetry but share their own.
The aim wasn’t just to produce an account of the realities of war, but to help bring soldiers together as a community.
“For me, success was being able to speak to a new infantry sergeant and say: if you want to know what it’s really like out there, read this. ‘Heroes’ wasn’t just written by officers – two thirds of the poem are by other ranks – so it’s a broad voice of talent,” John says.
“When we had a small launch party for the book, people from all military backgrounds came along. We had guys who were at the bottom of the pile in the navy during the Second World War signing copies for Ghurkhas, who in turn signed theirs for officers just back from Iraq.
"It was very human thing, a good thing. Since then I’ve even had a guy write to me to say he’d been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and that the book has helped him cope.”
At the same time, the Iraq War was inspiring poetry in Britain from more traditional sources.
David Harsent, one the country’s most successful poets, released ‘Legion’ - perhaps the most successful book of his career - in 2005. It is a series of fragmented poems or ‘dispatches’ inspired by numerous conflicts, including Iraq.
David admits he has ‘never heard a shot fired in anger’ in his life. Instead, he says the impetus to write about war came from a mixture of accounts from family and friends and his own imagination, spurred on by anger at the powerlessness he and much of the country felt when the invasion of Iraq took place.
“My wife and I joined the march in London in 2003,” he remembers.
“It was a day full of anger and energy and purpose - it wasn’t just a ‘liberal outing’. There was a strong sense that this was a last ditch attempt by the people to stop that war, not just here, but all over the world. My youngest son was on a beach in Thailand with his girlfriend and they joined a march too.
“Two million people marched in London alone - despite what the cops say. And yet the next day, Tony Blair gave a speech in which he basically said: ‘yes, yes, I know you all protested, but I’m going to do what I want anyway, so you can f**k off.’ I remember bouncing around the house with fury when I heard that speech.”
Legion won the Forward Prize and was shortlisted for every other major poetry prize in Britain, making a book of war poetry the critical hit of the year.
'Daisychain' by David Harsent, from 'Legion'
When we saw the smoke, we knew. The smoke was indelible.
Some went to the lowland scrub, some to the sacred
sites, but some (some women, I mean) found another way, hard,
as if a word had been spoken, as if it might be infallible,
as if, last night, it had come to them in dreams,
the blade going hand to hand, each making the second cut
on the one before in case she couldn't, in case it came to that.
Others were ashamed and did what they did in private
coming to light later, some in orchards, some from house-beams.
Well, they must have gone round us. We sent men out
next day and the day after that, but the world was empty, it seems;
of that smoke not a trace; of that word, not a syllable.
“When I won, the chair of the judges gave a speech making it clear that Iraq was on their minds. There’s no doubt it resonated more with everyone because of what was going on. The sheer folly of the invasion... the hubris in the silly notion that it would all be over in ten minutes... it was all making people so angry.”
David wasn’t the only prominent writer to continue in the tradition of Plato, Whitman and the famous poets of the trenches. In 2009, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy rallied 16 prominent and diverse British poets to join her in reflecting on Iraq and Afghanistan for an article in the Guardian - including John Agard, Gillian Clarke, Amanda Dalton, Matthew Hollis and Daljit Nagra.
But of the returning soldiers and their insightful if not always accomplished poetry, and the ‘professionals’ who are writing without direct experience of conflict, who, if anyone, should be considered the true ‘war poets’ of modern times?
For John Jeffcock, who returned from Iraq to find himself sat in a classroom at Royal Holloway University, listening to fellow students recite verses about lost girlfriends and dead cats, it is the subject of the poem that matters most.
“The problem with most poetry today is that it is written by people who haven’t done anything interesting,” he argues.
“I’d much rather read something not as well written - but that puts across a real experience - than anything 'academic'.”
For David Harsent: “It’s not necessary to write out of experience - in fact sometimes it can be a big mistake. To write good poetry you need to be a good poet. Someone could live through something absolutely appalling and want to write about it, but still not be able to write well.
“Not,” he adds, “that that should put them off. It might not turn out to be world-beating poetry but it will be important to them.”
In reality, there may never be another poet who produces work with the combination of emotional authenticity and technical brilliance that have made McCrae, Owen and Sassoon echo through the ages.
Today, there are less than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq, even at its 2003 peak, deployment of British troops stood at 46,000. In World War I young men were conscribed to the front line in numbers exceeding 5 million. Talents like Wilfred Owen in particular may be said to come along once in a generation – the statistical likelihood of that person going to war today is therefore low.
In any case, if any area of poetry should transcend the art form’s unhelpful preoccupation with high vs low style and accessibility vs academia, surely it should be war poetry, where the stakes are too high for both those writing and reading it for anyone to lose out.
The war in Iraq may have been supported by far less of the population than World War I or II. And it seems entirely unlikely that we will ever look back on images of the fall of Basra or Tony Blair with anything like the nostalgia and pride we attach to V Day or Churchill, no matter how glossy the veneer of memory grows in time.
But while we continue to debate what part government, the army and war itself should play in the modern world, it’s clear poetry is still performing its role as vitally as ever, helping us to define and understand the most enormous of human experiences.
'Untidiness' by Amanda Dalton, from 'Stray' (Bloodaxe Books, 2012)
The National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad
Some time after the looting, the locked gates,
the US tank stood idle in a gallery,
Mushin Hasan, his head bowed
in a room of shattered stone,
after some had come back in blankets,
dustbin bags, the boots of cars,
in pieces - the Bassetki Statue, pulled
from a cesspool, smeared with grease -
and others recovered from Jordan, Italy,
France, US, UK, Peru, eBay,
they re-opened the museum,
missing maybe 3 or 11,000
(depending what you read), missing
the Hatra Heads, the Nimrud Lioness,
and doubting they'll ever get them back,
those bits of the world,
bits of the civilised world, scattered.
'Haddock of Mass Destruction' by Corporal Danny Martin (28), 1 Staffords Battle Group, Iraq (Operation Telic) 2003 & 2005, taken from 'Heroes'
Brain bored and arse numb
Finally the blades spun and we lifted
Skimmed the palm trees and popped flares above the Euphrates
We swooped low over the target truck
Then landed in its path
We charged in our Storm Trooper costumes
Blinding faceless shapes through dirty glass
I dragged the driver from his seat
Slammed his face into hot tarmac
Held it there with my suede boot
Steadied my hands long enough to cuff his
We searched his packed pick-up
Boxes stacked four deep five wide
Emptied in the dust on the roadside
The first box revealed ice and fish, and the next
And the next, and the last
Intelligence had said he was armed and dangerous
Armed with melting ice and defrosting cod
No match for our guns, our bombs,
Our good intentions, our morals
We cut his cuffs, and his wife’s
And left them to their ruined stock
I should demand commission
From the Taliban
For every recruit I’ve converted to their flock.
'The Parade' by Corporal Colin Mitchell (50), Duke Lancaster’s Regiment, Iraq (Operation Telic) 2007, taken from 'Heroes'
Everyone is on parade again
The CO tells us we have lost another of the men
Killed in action by a bomb
We all sigh not another one
A lump comes to my throat
Quite well I knew this bloke
A picture comes to your head
You think of the last thing you both said
You feel anger, rage then sad
And shed some tears for this lad
The padre says some words
But words don’t mean much cause it still hurts
He finishes everyone says amen
That’s one word I’ll never say again
'Shame' by Sergeant John ‘BJ’ Lewis (37), Royal Air Force, Iraq (Operation Telic) 2008, taken from 'Heroes'
We proudly served and followed the flag,
hailed as heroes – liberators of Iraq.
We fought with courage, faced the ultimate test,
with honour and valour we all tried our best.
We achieved our objectives, forced the change of régime,
counted our dead, young lives wasted it seems:
As with hindsight we’re told that our conduct was woeful,
journalists clamour to point it out as unlawful.
Headlines cry out with tales of abuse,
we’re painted as killing for fun, no excuse.
An illegal invasion, a political game,
an embarrassing endeavour that now carries great shame.
So what now for the veterans who were sent for the cause?
Who were told it was just, and believed that it was.
Who trusted the government that said it was right,
who out of duty were obliged to enter the fight.
We endured much hardship to do the right thing,
with no concept of the guilt and great shame it would bring.
How could we have known when we first answered the call
that we’d be consigned to the history books as not right at all.