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Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book

Volume 5 Number 1-4
March 1994




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Rooster Crows at Light from the Bombing: Echoes of the Gulf War, Anthony Signorelli and Paul Macadam, eds.

(Inroads Press, PO Box 239, Knife River, MN 55609) 1992. 89 pages

Reviewed by John Bradley, DeKalb, IL

"Almost two years have passed since the Gulf war started," write the editors of this anthology. "Two years. It's as if the country has already forgotten. We simply wanted to remind people of what happened, of what was done in our nation's name."

How quickly and how easily it has been to forget the first war broadcast live into our living-rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. Could it be that the live coverage makes it easier to forget, as opposed to in-depth discussion of what is going on and why? Or was it the nature of the very broadcasts themselves, presented to us in such a way as to suggest that this war was a bloodless, Star Wars adventure, complete with stirring theme song, thoughtfully provided by each network? Or is it because the "euphoria" (I'll never forget this image--the audience of a college basketball game rising to celebrate the news that the U.S. had begun to "liberate" Kuwait) gave way to a grim recognition that the Persian Gulf war really didn't accomplish very much?

Whatever the explanation, there is very little reminder of what our nation--or should I say, Iraq--went through, except for the small, occasional story on the strange symptoms some of our Gulf War veterans now suffer, or the death of a Gulf War veteran in a robbery. As one woman stated, it's as if the war never happened, except for those who lost someone. The need, then, for a "reminder" seems evident.

Rooster Crows at Light from the Bombing, taking its name from Bernard Shaw's eerie observation in Baghdad that "the strangest sound was a rooster crowing at light from the bombing," presents thirteen poems and eleven essays that give voice to memory. Some of the writers include Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Deena Metzger, and Michael Ventura. The editors smoothly interweave poetry and essays into sections ("Prelude," "From the Sands of Sorrow," "Explosion of Outrage and Contempt," "A Snowball of Ashes," "Facing the Dead," and "A Surviving Hope," creating a powerful pull upon both intellect and heart. Most of the work here, especially the essays, successfully avoid "the slide into mere sentimentality," as coeditor Anthony Signorelli puts it; a remarkable achievement when dealing with such an emotional topic.

One of the more striking points made by the writers in Rooster Crows is the double standard used when discussing the "sanctity of human life." "'We don't know why civilians were at that location,' stated Marlin Fitzwater, the White House Spokesman, 'but we do know that Saddam Hussein does not share our value for the sanctity of human life.'" William Stafford, in his poem, "Pretend You Live in a Room," does a wonderful job of bringing out the absurdity in such pious attitudes with the following line: "Hardly anyone/ got killed, except thousands of the enemy."

In his stunning essay, "The Sanctity of Life," Patrick Dougherty tells how the Persian Gulf war triggered this personal memory:

In Vietnam I was a nineteen-year-old marine. Sometimes, when we had a particularly hard day, we returned to our hilltop and played catch with a gook skull that was our squad's mascot. As a soldier at war, we believed strongly in the sanctity of life--our lives. Not theirs.

He shows how memory can haunt us with its unrelenting images from the past. But, at least in Dougherty's case, memory can also serve as a way of making abstract issues and ideas and even "the enemy" be perceived in a very human manner. "I tried once to make the enemy dead into nonhumans, and it did not work," he writes. "No matter what excuse I used, what rationale I tried, I kept coming back to their being people...."

How can only certain lives be sacred and others described as "fish in a barrel," targets at a "turkey shoot," or "cockroaches" (a term I heard used by a National Public Radio correspondent to describe armed Somalis)? Wendell Berry, in his essay, "What the Gulf War Taught Us," goes on to make even more uncomfortable observations. Regarding the use of war by a Christian nation, by a President who "prays," Berry notes that for Christians retribution is outlawed, "that is, in private life. In our national life, it remains the established and honored procedure." How different the Amish, he notes, with their belief in peaceableness:

Of course, as the Amish know, peaceableness can get you killed. I suppose they would reply that war can get you killed, too, and is more likely to get you killed than peaceableness; and that when a peaceable person is killed, peaceableness survives.

It is the attempt to restore to us our own humanity in the face of war that makes Rooster Crows at Light from the Bombing such a commendable anthology. Its poems and essays make clear Franz Kafka's "War is a monstrous failure of imagination." In her essay "One by One," Ann Patchett shows just how imagination can work as a force of life and love as she contemplates the war's American victims:

If I take the deaths in one at a time, I notice that marine lance corporal Michael E. Linderman, Jr., of Douglas, Oregon, was only 19, and I know what it was like to be 19, and I know what it was like to be 20. I notice that there wasn't a standard military portrait taken of marine private, first class, Dion J. Stephenson of Bountiful, Utah, and so they used his prom picture and you can see the hook on the strap of his bow tie. It was the kind of picture a newspaper would run if he was getting married, or if he'd been killed in a freakish car accident, coming home late at night. After you look at these pictures, the war becomes difficult to follow, because to be decent, you have to stop and love them and mourn their passing, and there are getting to be so many of them it's impossible not to fall behind.

It makes you wonder--what if? What if our children were to read in school essays and poems like the ones in this anthology? What if they began to expand their sense of the "sanctity of human life"? What if?

Signorelli and MacAdam have put together a thoughtful and moving collection of "echoes from the Gulf War." I am heartened by their commitment to memory and our common humanity. We apparently need such constant "reminding."

John Bradley teaches at Northern Illinois University and is editing an anthology of poems on the Nuclear Age.

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