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06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Soldier to Poet: Naming of Parts (Part III)

The views (and poetry) published here are those of Lt. Col. Edward Ledford -- they do not reflect the policies of the U.S. Army or NATO.

This is the third in a series of exchanges between "Soldier & Poet" in discussion of "War Poems" and their relevance to contemporary wars and warfare.

I. Naming of Parts
By Henry Reed

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.

CMD (Carol Muske-Dukes - addressing EL - Lt. Col. Edward Ledford, US Army, Kabul) -

Ed, I used to think of this poem as threatening but powered by the big thrill of irony -- plus the ironical use of "instructions" re learning to use a gun or a rifle -- the emphasis on learning the ins and outs of a killing mechanism in the middle of the idyllic gardens, filled with japonica. (somehow reminiscent of the South Pacific - this is a WWII poem). The use of repetition, anaphora, to make stark the contrast between the rules of engagement (or rules of rifle assemblage) and the world of Nature.

Now, years later, I see the poem as still very shadowed - but I see its humor: the busy unabashedly sexual world of the bees and flowers - even rifle parts! -- and the deadly-force "They call it Easing the Spring" diction and syntax, also erotic, but with death as its object.

The rhythms of the poem are inexorable, like marching boots, like the future bearing down on the recruits, who struggle to learn how to put the rifle together. This may be the last Spring for some, who will die in the South Pacific, the Aleutians, in Europe or North Africa.
The voice of the sergeant or commanding officer is deadpan ("Which in our case, we have not got") but filled with indirect warning. I'm sure that soldiers are still instructed in a manner fairly similar to this - and the language locates the poem outside history.
***
Lt. Colonel Edward Ledford, US Army - If it's about spring, it's about sex. But it's also finally heartbreaking. Eliot's "The Wasteland": "April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land . . . ."

In Afghanistan, it's spring: two bees mating tumble to earth in a mortal clutch snatched by a magpie as they hit the ground.

For the troops in Reed's the poem, their focus is not so much on the new life aspect of spring, either, but on killing and dying.

The first lines point me back to the creation myth and allegorical Eden. Adam "gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field." He was on the verge of something: shortly after -- the temptation, the fall, the migration to a world of pain, suffering, and death.

And those first lines do put us on the verge of something -- today we name; tomorrow is "what to do after firing." Between today and tomorrow, we're firing the weapons, and that means one thing - engagement, combat, casualties. These are apparently new troops in training, one could argue that the firing will be at a rifle range, harmless.

But let's not fool ourselves: the firing at the range is a cold rehearsal of killing, firing at paper or plastic silhouettes of the human form -- flat, faceless, nameless, anonymous representations of the innumerable and unnameable casualties, very many of whom will suffer agonizing deaths or agonizing lives.

Carol -- you noted the sort of timelessness of the poem, how "the language locates the poem outside history." Indeed. The poem predicts a similar scenario in December 2004 in Kuwait. Juxtaposed with Henry Reed's poem, the language in December 2004 scene mutates to something blackly comical.

The scene is in Kuwait. The setting is a less and less endearing and more and more trite town-hall meeting. Soldiers are gathered around. They will move north into Iraq the next day. The soldiers, we soon discover, apparently aren't feeling real dulce-et-decorum-est-pro-patri-mori.

Playing the role of leader, Donald Rumsfeld places himself among them. He opens the floor to questions and comments. Specialist Thomas Wilson raises his hand. He is called upon.

Wilson: A lot of us are getting ready to move north relatively soon. Our vehicles are not armored. We're digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that's already been shot up.. picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat.

Rumsfeld [in a scientific, theoretical, detached tone]: As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. [brightening, as if realizing something] If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up.

A female Soldier asks a next question, but the audience cannot hear it

Rumsfeld: It is something you prefer not to have to use, obviously, in a perfect world. It's been used as little as possible.

The former-Secretary of Defense's lines are nearly as poetic as the voice in Reed's "The Naming of Parts"

As you know, you go
to war

with the Army you have.

They're not the Army
you might want

or wish to have
at a later time.

If you think
about it,
you can have
all the armor
in the world
on a tank
and a tank
can be blown
up.

It is something
you prefer not to have to use,
obviously,
in
a perfect world.

It's been used

as little as possible.