What Keith Douglas can tell us this Anzac Day
Keith Douglas is easily the greatest war poet in the English language, but you won't find anyone quoting his work at the ceremonies that New Zealand and other English-speaking nations hold to remember the wars of the twentieth century. Nor will you find Douglas' work in any of the self-consciously worthy anthologies of war poetry which are sold at museum gift shops and at charity events for veterans' associations.
If they were asked to name a war poet, most members of the public, in Britain and Australia as well as New Zealand, would probably cite Rupert Brooke, the handsome young gentleman who wrote longingly of the pleasant fields of England from an overstuffed troopship, or Wilfred Owen, who yoked the imagery of modern war to the pastoral rhythms of the Romantics.
Brooke was an execrable writer; Owen was a good writer who didn't live long enough to find the right way of expressing terrible twentieth century novelties like machine guns and mustard gas. Douglas, who died at the age of only twenty-four shortly after the D Day landings in Normandy, left behind not sentimental scribblings or promising apprentice work but a set of astonishingly mature poems. Douglas' work has won critical acclaim, as well as the acclaim of other poets - Ted Hughes saw him as a model, and Geoffrey Hill, a strong candidate for this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, has written reverently of him - but it has never enjoyed a substantial popular audience.
It is not hard to see why Douglas' poetry remains unpopular with the public, and why it never gets aired on Anzac or VE Day. Where Brooke and Owen write from the perspective of the victims of war, and indeed often impersonate these victims, Douglas writes unapologetically about the experience of killing. One of Douglas' best-known poems is called 'How to Kill':
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears
And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost...
Douglas grew up surrounded by the legends and crippled veterans of World War One, and with the expectation that he would face 'the test' of some new conflagration. At Oxford in the late '30s he combined membership of the Officer Training Corps with roles in amateur theatrical productions and appearances at poetry readings. Many of the poems Douglas wrote at Oxford look forward to the coming war. In a piece called 'Danse Macabre', Douglas imagines the bodies of the maimed and dying victims of the next war magically appearing amidst a group of elegant dancers on an Oxford stage; in another poem he mocks the snobbish, purblind aristocratic army officers he encounters, and imagines their bewildered deaths in the coming apocalypse. After World War Two finally broke out Douglas was assigned to a tank group, but when his group was sent to North Africa he found himself separated from them, and consigned to a safe desk job in Cairo. Angry at this fate, the young man spent much of his time drinking and carousing. He was soon writing home to his mentor, the pro-Hitler poet and cricket writer Edmond Blunden, to report that he had run over a native Egyptian on one of Cairo's chaotic roads. The 'worst thing' about the incident was 'the smell', Douglas jokily confided.
In a poem called 'Cairo Jag' Douglas contrasts the city, with its drinking houses and brothels and bored expatriates, with the brutally simplified world of the desert battlefields to its west:
Shall I get drunk or cut myself a piece of cake,
a pasty Syrian with a few words of English
or the Turk who says she is a princess--she dances
apparently by levitation? Or Marcelle, Parisienne
always preoccupied with her dull dead lover:
she has all the photographs and his letters
tied in a bundle and stamped Decede in mauve ink.
All this takes place in a stink of jasmin...
there are the streets dedicated to sleep
stenches and the sour smells, the sour cries
do not disturb their application to slumber
all day, scattered on the pavement like rags
afflicted with fatalism and hashish...
But by a day's travelling you reach a new world
the vegetation is of iron
dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery
the metal brambles have no flowers or berries
and there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
clinging to the ground, a man with no head
has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli.
Douglas eventually deserted his desk job, commandeered a truck, and drove into the desert to rejoin his old tank unit. He seems to have been an almost crazily brave soldier: one former comrade remembered how much the young officer enjoyed jumping out of his tank, running towards enemy vehicles, and lobbing a grenade or two down their turrets.
When Douglas was wounded, he used his short stay in hospital to knock off Alamein to Zem Zem, a prose account of the North African campaign which would eventually be translated into Hebrew and used as a training text by the Israeli Defence Force. Parts of Douglas' memoir have an almost celebratory quality: when he boasts, for instance, that the messages his tank group sent through its primitive intercom system 'resembled the lines of a wildly avant-garde group of poets' we are reminded of the joyous aesthetic of war promoted by Marinetti and his Italian Futurists. Douglas had enjoyed a reputation as an artist as well as a poet at Oxford, and he illustrated Alamein to Zem Zem himself.
Douglas' attitude towards war may have changed after he returned from North Africa to Britain. Literary fame had suddenly become a possibility: his work had been published in important periodicals, and TS Eliot was helping him assemble a book of his poems.
According to some commentators, Douglas was also unhappy with the idea that the spontaneous heroics he had shown in the deserts of North Africa might have been misinterpreted by his comrades and superiors. Douglas had little interest in British nationalism, or the struggle against fascism, or military discipline. He had entered the battlefield out of curiousity and a desire to test himself; once he had learnt about war and proved his courage he may not have been sure whether he wanted to fight again.
In some of the poems he wrote while he trained for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, Douglas expresses a weariness with army life, and a frustration at not being able to give more time to literature. In a poem which recalls Rimbaud's famous boasts about his unparalleled literary genius, Douglas claims that he could establish himself as the equal of any of the great writers of the past, if only he did not face the prospect of imminent death. Douglas asks future generations to remember that 'time, time was all I lacked'.
In his last, unfinished poem, Douglas looks forward to the D Day landings with a strange mixture of dread and exultation. Using an image that recalls his Oxford days, he describes the hundreds of thousands of soldiers about to embark for Normandy as 'actors waiting in the wings of Europe'. Douglas feels like he is about to smash through a dark pane of glass; he fears that he will find a 'shadow...or wraith' on the other side. In the last lines of his poem, though, he confesses that 'There is an excitement/ In seeing our ghosts wandering'.
A couple of days after coming ashore at Normandy Douglas was moving inland with his comrades through country which had been mostly cleared of the enemy. Standing in the open air with a couple of comrades, Douglas suddenly began shaking and crying. Shortly after recovering from this uncharacteristic attack of anxiety the poet collapsed. A sliver of shrapnel from a distant explosion had pierced his heart and killed him instantly, without leaving a wound.
I thought of Keith Douglas today, after reading a post at Kiwipolitico about the raid by New Zealand troops on an insurgent base near the border of Afghanistan's Bamiyan province. The operation, which was supported by American aircraft, killed nine insurgents and eight civilians. John Key has repeatedly claimed that New Zealand troops are stationed in Bamiyan not to fight but to assist in the 'training and mentoring' of Afghan security forces. As Kiwipolitico notes, though, the recent raid was an elaborately premeditated act of revenge:
[T]he point of the exercise was threefold: to exact utu on those who killed a NZ soldier; to provide a deterrent for other such directed attacks against NZDF personnel in Bamiyan province; and to send the message to the Taliban in neighbouring Baghlan province (from where the attack on Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol was organised and carried out) that Bamiyan is off-limits. The raid was personal...the raid against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was led by the SAS in concert with US troops and air cover...
This is not the first time that Kiwi troops have been complicit in the killing of civilians in Afghanistan. During the Western invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 2001 our SAS troops were deployed as target-spotters for American bombers. It is generally estimated that at least five thousand civilians were killed by air raids during the invasion of Afghanistan; thousands more have of course died in bombing raids during the guerrilla war which has followed the invasion. New Zealand troops were also implicated in the mass execution of prisoners of war by the pro-American Northern Alliance during the invasion of Afghanistan. An SAS unit is supposed to have handed prisoners over to the Northern Alliance warlord General Dostum, who then threw them into sealed metal containers, where they soon suffocated.
It is not only in Afghanistan where New Zealand forces have been linked to human rights abuses in recent times. Kiwi troops and cops played an important role in the Australian-organised coup which removed East Timor's elected government in the middle of 2006. Anzac forces landed in Timor after weeks of increasingly violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. The Anzacs claimed they had arrived to bring calm, but Alkatiri claimed that John Howard's government was actually responsible for stirring up the violence. Alkatiri had long been unpopular in Canberra because of his tough stance in negotiations over disputed oil fields in the Timor Gap. Howard and Alkatiri's opponents claimed that the Prime Minister decided to resign from office in the interests of the nation shortly after the arrival of Anzac troops, but Alkatiri claimed that he signed a resignation letter only after a gun was held to his head.
In the aftermath of Alkatiri's ouster, Australian and Kiwi troops clashed repeatedly and violently with Timorese civilians. In February 2007 Australian and New Zealand troops launched a spectacular raid on a refugee camp which housed a hardcore group of supporters of Alkatiri. After a tank smashed through the camp fence, Anzac troops ran through the area, firing live ammunition. After two civilians were killed rioters took to the East Timorese capital of Dili in protest, attacking the Australian embassy and stoning vehicles driven by Aussies and Kiwis (anti-Anzac riots broke out again in August 2007). Like the recent raid in Afghanistan, the assault on the refugee camp in East Timor was an act of utu: Anzac forces had been the target darts fired from the vicinity of the camp, and they wanted to teach the residents of the place a lesson. Why is the recent raid in Afghanistan being analysed and argued about on the blogosphere, rather than in New Zealand's mass circulation media and in parliament, and why do so few Kiwis know about the allegations of human rights abuses by troops and cops operating in their name in Afghanistan and East Timor? Why doesn't our Prime Minister even admit that we are fighting a war in Afghanistan, rather than taking part in some sort of glorified training exercise?
As bizarre as it may seem, many contemporary New Zealanders simply cannot believe that their army would do anything so unpleasant as actually kill other human beings, let alone defenceless innocent human beings. Forty years ago, New Zealanders were all too aware about what their troops were doing in Vietnam. Part of the population hated the war against the Viet Cong, and took to the streets; another part vigorously defended the conflict. Nobody kidded themselves that Kiwi troops were mucking about doing 'training and mentoring' exercises with the South Vietnamese a safe distance from the war zone.
Since the Lange-led Labour government banned nuclear ships from our waters in 1985, New Zealanders have begun to perceive their country's foreign policy and its armed forces in a new and peculiar way. Despite the fact that Lange maintained relatively warm links with America, refused to close the US air base in Harewood and spy base in Blenheim, and boosted the country's military budget, many Kiwis began to talk about their country as 'the Switzerland of the South Pacific', an island of enlightened neutrality in a conflict-ridden world. The National Party soon adapted to the new mood, and endorsed the nuclear free policy. Later, both National and Labour discovered that the best way to sell a foreign military deployment to the public was to present it not as an old-fashioned armed expedition where guns got fired and people fell down dead, but as an exercise in 'peacekeeping' or 'reconstruction', or some other fine-sounding but rather vague activity.
In the twenty-first century, New Zealanders display a schizophrenic attitude to the activities of their armed forces overseas. As we were roped into the post-9/11 'War on Terror' our military was deployed in more and more locations, from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Solomons to East Timor. Partly because of the duplicity of our leaders and partly because of the delusions we have acquired since the Lange era, we refused to accept that our troops were going to war. We were happy, though, to celebrate when one of our soldiers was given a Victoria Cross for shooting a large number of people one dark night in Afghanistan. Willie Apiata could be an old-fashioned war hero and a touchy-feely peacekeeper in the space of a single newspaper editorial or politician's speech.
If New Zealanders are to have a serious discussion about their military's role in Afghanistan and other conflict zones, then they need to wake up to the reality of what Apiata and his mates do for a living. Just like Keith Douglas, the men of the SAS are killing machines. Enormous amounts of money and materiel are expended teaching them how to kill, and when the opportunity has presented itself they have killed with alactrity in Afghanistan. We need a national debate on whether Apiata and his mates should be killing Afghans or not. John Key is very keen to avoid this sort of honest argument, because he knows that he can make no credible defence of the American-led recolonisation of Afghanistan and the endless war this recolonisation has created. Key wants to hide behind waffle like 'mentoring and training' and 'peacekeeping forces' because on this issue waffle is all he has.
With their often unpleasant honesty about what soldiers do on battlefields, Keith Douglas' poems are a corrective to the tendency of politicians and bad poets to waffle about war. If only 'How to Kill' and Douglas' other great poems could be read aloud at dawn services this Anzac Day.