On Reading Wallace Stevens’
Prose Statement on the Poetry of War
There was a time when we associated war with heroes,
With victories won, battles survived, nations conquered:
Achilles on the plains of Troy, Alexander in the gardens of Babylon,
Lawrence in Damascus.
But of late it seems war has become the breeding ground of villains,
Of men who fell to their lowest ebb not by their own weakness or pride
But by the circumstances of war itself—
Callous killers of woman and children out of fear or mere frustration;
A random discharge of bullets from a high-tech machine gun fueled by
The uncertainty of who the enemy really was,
Or if there was an enemy at all,
And whether the next futile death might be your own.
Now, only the dead are the heroes of war
For they can no longer tell their own stories;
Tell of the pain, the anger, the nightmares, the loneliness, the despair
That transformed them from sons and brothers into men for whom
The normal understanding of right and wrong was no longer relevant,
No longer of practical usefulness.
And so we tell their stories, the stories of the dead,
In whatever heroic terms we dare to use,
Ignoring the warning of those who returned alive who simply say,
No, it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all.