“Just Wars, Punishable Bodies” + Five Questions


(Copper Nickel’s issue 28 features an essay by Paisley Rekdal titled “Just Wars, Punishable Bodies.” What follows is an excerpt from that essay, followed by five questions from our associate editors Kayla Gropp and Holly McCloskey.)



“For a war to be just,” writes Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica (Secunda Partis, Question 40), “three things are necessary.” First, war must be undertaken by order of a sovereign, not a private citizen; second, the war itself must be for a just cause; third, the combatants must fight for what Aquinas calls “the advancement of good.” It’s taken as a given that the Christian reader can identify what “the advancement of good” and the rightness of particular combatants looks like based on such terse preconditions. Aquinas leaves the rest to our imagination: he implies, rather than defends, the idea that only one side will be just, likely because only one side will be Christian, fighting not only for the good of its state but the moral good of its enemy.

For Aquinas, such preconditions were secondary concerns compared to the central question of his argument, which was whether war itself was defensible: a not insignificant concern for those raised in a faith whose sixth commandment requires them not to kill. In this sense, Aquinas’ argument elaborates on the thinking of his predecessor, Augustine, who pointed out that not only did the Gospel not forbid Christians to go to war, but that war was necessary for nations to ensure their own survival and secure international peace. “We do not seek peace in order to be at war,” Aquinas quotes Augustine. “But we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace” (Aquinas, Question 40). Augustine’s paradoxical proposition may dimly chime for some readers with Eisenhower’s 1955 “New Look” policy, which argued that the U.S. must build up its own nuclear arsenal in order to avoid a strike by the USSR, or perhaps with George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy introduction, in which the former president wrote:

“The United States enjoys a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence. In keeping with our heritage and principles, we do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage. We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty” (Harry van der Linden, “Just War Theory and U.S. Military Hegemony,” Rethinking the Just War Tradition, 63).

The knowing reader may raise an eyebrow at such assertions, but these beliefs reflect Augustine’s and Aquinas’ thinking, and have been shaped as well by the writings of Vitoria, Grotius and Clausewitz, thinkers who form the backbone of what military strategists now call “just war theory,” a theory which has had remarkable influence over Western nations’ militaries and the contemporary reader’s own ethics of war, even if the reader has read none of these writers.

If there is one sweeping generalization to be made about poems of war, it is that poets since World War I do not believe that nations fight for the greater good of humanity. And yet ideas about a war’s “just-ness” still frame popular depictions of combat in our media. World War II, for example, stands apart in our films and television shows from Vietnam, Korea or Iraq, in large part because of the Holocaust; if any war might fit Aquinas’ “just war” preconditions, it would be a war against ethnic genocide. But “just” was not the first word many people applied to the conflict at the time, in which over 25 million soldiers died, as well as 55 million civilians and 11 million concentration camp internees (“The War at Home: News and Censorship,” PBS).

Virtues are invisible beside dead bodies, and the American public was aware that a pursuit of peace neither prevented genocide from occurring nor offered war’s victims and their descendants compensation for the horrors they’d suffered at the hands of politicians they’d ushered into power, slaughtered by the technologies their own cultures had produced. In more recent history, “just war” theory has also allowed for the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan post-9/11 to be declared a self-defensive act, while the same theory was declared inapplicable to Nicaragua’s argument to bomb Washington D.C. in retaliation for the U.S.’s support of the Contras, even though these actions directly led to the overthrow of the Sandinista government (van der Linden, 53–4). In real-time politics, just war theory supports nations with the most global political capital: to believe in truly just wars would mean that we not only subscribe to the idea that justice applies with no regard for power disparity, but that all of us will refuse to resort to terrorist attacks, genocide, and nuclear weapons. The reality is different.

If Augustine and Aquinas did not, because they could not, anticipate the many technical and geopolitical complications of their arguments, they did understand that human force was the true scourge of war, thus ethical restraint in combat would become for both thinkers the only goal and guide to keep what both men called mankind’s “contemptible indulgence in violence” in check. In that, how we treat our enemy in combat and in captivity matters and, I might argue, how we depict our soldiers’ and enemies’ bodies. As Michel Foucault noted, our own soldiers are disciplined, while our combatants, in the field or in our prison camps, are punished: differences in language that may, at times, be easier to parse in theory than in practice when we micro-manage both soldiers’ and prisoners’ bodies, obsessively monitoring their feeding and weight, their exercise, their communications, even their sleep schedules (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 133–5). Such excruciating attention paid to the serviceman’s body appears throughout poems about war, perhaps most recently and explicitly in Bruce Lack’s 2016 poem “FNG” (Fucking New Guy) from his collection Service, about his deployment with the Marines in Fallujah. “FNG” is a prose poem written entirely in the imperative, focusing upon gendered codes of performance, in this case codes the FNG must subscribe to in order to be seen not only as a man but as a “good” Marine. Everything from the young man’s boots to his hands to his bedsheets is judged, Lack shows us, the volunteer’s body monitored in order to manage his effects in future combat.

“This is how you cut your own hair. This is how you roll your sleeves. This is how to blouse your boots. This is how to wear your cover. This is how to salute. Always keep your right hand free in case you need to salute. These are your friends now . . . This is town. This is where we eat when we go to town. This is where we drink.”

Lack’s blunt syntax drills home the ways soldiers are physically and socially defined by their group activities, as well as by their weapons, what Foucault argued constitutes a “body-weapon, body-tool, body-machine” complex in which the body gets “fastened” to the object it holds, linking the power of one to the other (Foucault, 153). In Lack’s poem, this power extends from the entire combat unit to the individual Marine, welding each man to the next so that they become seamless, a single corps that exists to support the hierarchical structure of command. If one of the classic forms of war propaganda is to dehumanize the combatant, lowering his body to the realm of the animal, or viewing it as part of a cog in an alien machinery, this strategy is equally at play in nationalistic rhetoric, in which military bodies are seen as extensions of their units and their nation, their actions justified by the state for which these soldiers act. In that sense, soldiers’ bodies are never their own; a soldier is always a metonym, never an individual.

Such, at least, is the argument of Randall Jarrell’s devastating war critique, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” in which Jarrell compresses the life and death of a single airman into a mere five lines, describing the gunner in passive, subhuman terms that reflect less upon the gunner himself than on the state that would make him die on its behalf. Here is the poem in its entirety:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The poem opens on two images of physical passivity: the first, the sleeping body of the gunner’s mother; the second, the body of the gunner himself who merely “falls” into the State. The gunner seems largely asleep throughout the poem; only in the fourth line does he truly waken to “black flak and the nightmare fighters”: an image which both extends the speaker’s unconscious state and also picks up on the previous line’s image of the earth itself as a nooselike web of dreams. Waking is the speaker’s most active moment: before and after this, the young man falls, hunches, or is sprayed out of his turret, activities that reinforce the speaker’s passivity. The speaker’s sleeping mother too is replaced by the icy maternal image of the State, inside of which the speaker “hunch[es],” like a seal fetus, the collar of his leather bomber jacket here a symbol for the gunner’s own body, as if he were covered not by human clothing but fur. The subhuman condition the speaker imagines for himself is of course reinforced by the flatness of that end line, the unsentimental ways in which his blood and physical remains are merely “washed” out of the turret with a hose.

For such a short lyric, the poem contains a remarkable compression of time and event. In Jarrell’s poem, the gunner is given birth to twice: first by his human mother, then by the state, which “loose[s]” him from the earth’s “dream of life.” This birth is also distantly recalled in that gory last line, suggestive of the cleaning of an operating table. In Jarrell’s poem, the gunner is born merely to die, a sense of bitter political analysis captured by the poem’s rhyming of “froze” with “hose,” which lends the poem the air of a moral epigram.

But if the ball turret gunner is figured as a feral child, passive in his resistance to the state that’s both bred him for war and led him to his own slaughter, in one important sense his immaturity protects him. Uneducated, barely conscious, the gunner is absent from the discussion of ethical intentions and just wars; he’s certainly outside all realms of political agency and power. In many ways, Jarrell’s depiction of the ball turret gunner is an accurate portrait of the average soldier conscripted for war. Usually an adolescent; less educated; physically, emotionally, and morally still maturing, soldiers are young because the young are perceived to be psychologically and physically malleable, as well as socially recuperable after the fighting has stopped. They are also, in war, imagined as expendable. This, at least, is what Jarrell’s poem suggests: it is the gunner’s youth which also makes him so innocent. We can have any number of feelings about the justice of this war, but about the gunner’s death, we can have only pity.

And yet, the bitter finality of that last line suggests an adult perspective the previous four lines lack. That line is Jarrell’s alone, the image a devastating and perhaps final, abortive birth into the speaker’s true consciousness. The gunner may not know what precipitated his entrance into war, but he certainly knows his social value after it.

Jarrell’s poem, published in 1945, is tonally consistent with much of World War II poetry, a war that had an enormous impact on modern American poetry because of the number of prominent American poets who enlisted. Randall Jarrell, e.e. cummings, Anthony Hecht, George Oppen, Louis Simpson, Kenneth Koch, James Dickey, Howard Nemerov, Karl Shapiro, John Ciardi, Richard Hugo, and Harvey Shapiro were just a few of the poets who served, while other equally prominent poets such as Robert Lowell, Stanley Kunitz and William Stafford became conscientious objectors or draft resisters. Like their World War I counterparts in both England and the U.S., none of these poets cast the war in terms of being “right” or “just”; intention meant far less than outcome, and the war these men experienced was far more complex and traumatic than Aquinas’ just war theory would suggest.

[. . .]

What is justice if and when we do not recognize our nations as just, if we cannot believe that our advances in technology, culture, and civil rights have resulted in moral progress? So many of the poets I’ve written about treat the decision to fight as something prescriptive and fatalistic, their bodies expendable, death an inescapable fact. Part of me is used to thinking this way about war; what surprises me then is only how anodyne such critiques have become, blunted through repetitive tropes and images, the message only acceptable to me because, well, that’s the way we’re supposed to write about war.

And I suppose that’s why I’m interested, too, in the bodies of war’s combatants and victims and witnesses, because of course there are other people than soldiers who suffer the costs of war: men and women who were not recruited so much as swept up into war’s maelstrom. Their bodies, too, matter in our depictions of and understanding of what a “just” war might look like. But when I think about the problem of representing war, it strikes me that the problem war poems raise is not dissimilar to the problem Aquinas worried over: either you believe wars can be just, or you believe wars are always fought to enforce one side’s power. If you choose the former, then questions of moral certainty, social progress, civil rights, as well as the physical abilities and social construction of all the bodies engaged in or by war must be taken into account. If the latter, however, “just” makes no difference. Wars reduce people to facts: our enemies are not human, the conquered must be destroyed. It is a philosophy that allows one the moral right to kill, to forgive oneself the act of killing. But it is also a philosophy that damages the repatriated soldier, for once he has dehumanized his enemies, he must also see how this same language might dehumanize him. If we believe in just wars, we choose to believe that nations can work toward a greater moral understanding about how and when to fight: to some extent, we believe the torments soldiers suffer have some edifying public value. If we believe that wars are only and finally about the brute expression of power, representing physical torment only inflames our voyeurism. The only moral certainty left is that war must never be fought.

[. . .]



COPPER NICKEL: Our understanding is that “Just Wars, Punishable Bodies” is part of a larger project. Could you begin by telling us something about that larger project?

PAISLEY REKDAL: I’m writing a collection of critical essays about poetry and war. Basically, why do we write poems about war? What do we think poetry can express or represent about war that other artistic media can’t? Each chapter looks at how war has been depicted by different poets, as well as how it has responded to different national and historical conflicts, gender dynamics, and technologies and environments.

COPPER NICKEL: In the essay you say that poets since WWI have generally not believed “that nations fight for the greater good of humanity,” and you note that so many modern poets writing about war “treat the decision to fight as something prescriptive and fatalistic, their bodies expendable . . .” Have you noticed anything particularly new or different in the poetry (or, more broadly, literature) coming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or does the war poetry of our current moment mostly extend the trends and themes of 20th century war writers?

PAISLEY REKDAL: This is an excellent question. In some respects, our current war poetry does generally extend the anti-war (or at least anti-war industry) sentiments most explicitly expressed by WWI and WWII poets. In other respects, however, because we have such a range of aesthetics at play, the poems are quite different. There are a lot of avant or LANGUAGE poets who explore how contemporary war is so intensely mediated, both by TV and by institutional language that can be found everywhere from newspapers to film.  We see this in writers like Barrett Watten and Julianna Spahr and Rob Halpern, who also writes about the ways that war, capitalism, and homosexuality get twined together in really terrifying ways. We have more narrative-lyric poets who use erasure as a form to mimic the ways that governments redact military documents, which we see in the work of Philip Metres and Solmaz Sharif. We have poets who have fought, like Hugh Martin and Brock Clark, who walk a tight documentary line, trying to depict what war is like and the ongoing effects of wartime trauma, but in fairly direct language. Most importantly, we have poems written from those on the “other” side: we get to read Dunya Mikhail and the poets that appear in the anthology “Flowers of Flame.” We have a lot more women writing about war, as journalists (Eliza Griswold), as spouses, and also as fighters. The expansion of publication itself means a wider array of voices, and most of these seem influenced in some form or other by documentary poetry. I think the anti-war sentiment remains, but what poets nowadays seem more interested in is the structural component to war: how does capitalism in particular benefit from war? How has our media language evolved to mask the real effects of war? How does race and class and gender change who goes to war, who particularly suffers from war, and why?

COPPER NICKEL: How (if at all) has being a female writer impacted your thinking about war poetry/literature in your essay and/or in your larger project?

PAISLEY REKDAL: I come from a family that includes a fair number of military men. Most of these men were either drafted or felt compelled to serve in some form or other. As a woman, I grew up always being aware that war was never something that I would have to experience directly. This didn’t make me feel guilty, but curious. What was this male world I was both protected by and from? Certainly, not every culture kept women from fighting: Russian women fought, Vietnamese women fought, Israeli women fought. And yet we largely read war literature by men, even though there are poems written by women soldiers and military personnel. Why erase that? Who does that erasure benefit exactly? I think being a woman makes me aware of all the other people that war touches but who don’t tend to get heard—whether it’s refugees or the children of soldiers or female soldiers. Even natural environments are affected by war—and we tend to forget that, too.

COPPER NICKEL: Could you talk a bit about drafting “Just Wars, Punishable Bodies”? How did you decide which poets/poems you wanted to talk about in the essay?

PAISLEY REKDAL: There are so many poems I could have used, largely because the attention to the soldier’s body is everywhere in war literature. I wanted to deal with race and ethnicity, of course, and I also wanted to deal with the ideas of “justice”: WWII always comes up as an example of why war might be just. But the poems from that war that are the most canonical in our literature might bely that automatic thinking.

COPPER NICKEL: Who are some younger, contemporary poets/writers writing about war that you’re particularly excited about?

PAISLEY REKDAL: I really like Philip Metres, Hugh Martin and Coco Fusco, who is actually an artist. They are doing some very interesting work that spans a variety of aesthetics.