Blasted Battlefield
Century of peace

'Wars are much like road accidents. They have a general and a particular cause at the same time. Every road accident in the last resort is caused by the invention of the internal combustion engine....The police and the courts do not weigh profound causes. They seek a specific cause for each accident - driver's error, excessive speed, drunkenness, faulty brakes, bad road surface. So it is with wars.' (historian A J P Taylor)

A fair analogy? It's true that wars have more than one cause, with their roots in place long before the first shot. It's true that there would be no war if the machinery for it hadn't been invented, or if there had been no inventors or warmongers to pay them. It's true that, too often, the short-term causes that lead to war are assessed, rather than the conditions that created them: it's easier to dish out blame and retribution that way. Yes, it's a neat comparison.

Too neat. It's dangerous - irresponsible - to think of war as a happening beyond control. If you must compare war to a vehicle, then choose the tank: designed by human beings to kill and devastate efficiently. A tank driver's error is to fail in that, though no-one arrests him for failure except possibly the people he meant to target. Or death.

It's a fatal error to leave out the human element when thinking about war. It is human beings who invented war, run it, wage it. Every decision in war, from entering it to sorting the mess out afterwards, is made by individual human beings, sometimes on their own, sometimes by default. Those who influence them have a choice, too. The use of war is never compulsory, whatever reasons people may come up with to persuade you that it is.

So it's vital to be aware of the chain of human responsibility, and where each one of us is on it. The four poems that follow suggest some starting points.

The first, 'The hand that signed the paper', looks at the corrupting power of leaders. Such leaders include not just brutal dictators, but also those whose stated principles are humane.The second poem, 'The Castle', is perhaps more complicated than it looks. The army and its castle could stand for any individual fighter, who always runs the risk of being defeated by a trick. The third poem, 'The Responsibility', goes straight to the human point - but is also aware of the issue of the weapons system itself: someone is responsible for that too, and its existence changes the nature of a society even when it isn't in use.

The last poem ('The Voice of Authority: a language game') is about more than language and concerns more than a game. When you've read it, and perhaps given a thought to the questions that follow it, ask yourself another: who or what is the O'Grady in your life?

- being accountable for your actions
- being trustworthy
- deserving credit for something
- deserving blame for something
- standing on your own

Whatever their circumstances, all human beings are called to fulfil at least one of those definitions, and often.

What has poetry to do with issues like these? If nothing else, poems can alert us to essential truths that we may have forgotten or find easy to ignore. As for the poets - they take responsibility for their poems: they are sent out under the poets' names. In a different way, the choices each of us makes, whether to act or do nothing, have our names on them. Like a stone thrown in a pond, what we do (including writing poetry or working for peace) spreads out ripples that affect other people, influence other events




the first world war
the 1930s
the second world war
crimes against humanity
the nuclear age
other wars
- Introduction GO
- The hand that signed the paper GO
- The Castle GO
- The Responsibility GO
- The Voice of Authority GO
women's voices





'Guadalcanal': the largest of the Solomon Islands, occupied by Japanese troops during the Second World War. It was the site of fierce fighting (August 1942 to March 1943) before American forces recaptured it. 21,000 Japanese and 5,000 USA soldiers were killed.
'Bluejacket': sailor in the US Navy
'aft': at the rear of the ship
'cured': preserved
'lye': a strong alkaline liquid for thorough cleaning
'cast': appearance. Death has been traditionally symbolised by a skull in almost every civilisation and culture.
'Fujiyama': a dormant volcano, the highest mountain in Japan. It is often featured in Japanese art, is snow-capped in winter, and has been regarded as sacred since ancient times.
'Alas! I did not know him...': a reference to Shakespeare's play 'Hamlet'. Prince Hamlet meets gravediggers who have just dug up several skulls. They tell Hamlet that one is the skull of Yorick, a court jester. Hamlet remembers how Yorick had entertained him when he was a small child. Holding the skull in his hands, says: 'Alas! Poor Yorick. I knew him...

By 1910 Japan had already seized territory on mainland Asia: southern Manchuria and Korea. In the early 1930s a new government - nationalist, militarist, and eager to continue empire-building - launched an invasion of China and seized the rest of Manchuria.

On December 7 1941, without warning or declaration of war, Japanese aircraft bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. America and Britain immediately declared war on Japan, which now became caught up in the Second World War. Japanese troops swept through south-east Asia and part of the Pacific. By 1943 they had occupied Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, the Philippines, and some Pacific islands including the Solomons. Allied troops had already begun to drive them out again. The Guadalcanal campaign was the first land offensive by the USA against any of the opposing states in the Second World War. The campaign also involved 5 naval battles in which many ships were damaged or sunk.

After the USA dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan surrendered. It was occupied by a transitional Allied administration, led by the US general Douglas MacArthur, and was demilitarised. Democratic government with a 'Peace Constitution' and peaceful foreign policy was successfully introduced. (The Allied occupation ended in 1952, but American military influence is still there to this day.).

Soldiers have brought home souvenirs of war for as long as there have been battles to provide them. Archive footage of the 1942-5 Pacific war was recently discovered showing US soldiers shooting wounded Japanese and using bayonets to hack at the corpses while looting them. Ex-servicemen told of the widespread practice of carrying off gold teeth, ears and heads from dead - and sometimes still living - Japanese soldiers. In the Vietnam war there were similar reports of decapitation (and photographs of soldiers proudly holding the heads) and of severed ears and fingers.
Such acts are illegal under international law. Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention says that warring sides must 'search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled'. In the prevailing brutality of war, it remains an instruction hard to enforce.

This is what one commentator said about the poem: 'The subject, considered cold and without the literary link and universal relevance which the poet has given it, is an unpleasant one. In his hands it is perfectly acceptable, a little wry, and calls forth our understanding and pity'.

The 'literary link' is the echo of Hamlet's musings over Yorick's skull. (Shakespeare doesn't let Hamlet pull any punches, however. Hamlet is nauseated by the contrast between the living Yorick he remembers and the grinning skull he is handling now. He suggests the clown's skull should be made an object lesson for any woman: whatever her cosmetic skills, her face will be a skull one day - 'make her laugh at that!'. Even dead emperors have ended up like this - 'and smelt so. Pah!'). What, if anything, does this literary echo do? Do such echoes make truths more palatable? Do they provide a kind of cosmetic for ideas that might otherwise be revolting?

'...The subject...calls forth our understanding and pity': of what, for whom? The poem certainly gives opportunities to experience one or the other, or both, for the living sailor. It does the same for the dead Japanese. But perhaps the head we should really enter is the poet's. He is one who watches and imagines. What does his judgement seem to be? Is he tolerant of the 'two-headed' sailor? If so, why? Is it because of the young man's dedication, thoroughness and skill in preserving, making 'elemental', the human head 'hacked off' on a bloodstained beach? Or his careless youth? Or some other reason?

And the dead Japanese - does the poet give him a life by imagining his thoughts? The 'remembered moonlight on Fujiyama': does this poetic, tranquil image soften the image of the scrubbed skull 'bodiless, fleshless, nameless'? (Though earlier in the poem the eye-sockets were 'thoughtful' hollows.) Does the snow-capped peak push out of mind the reality of violence done?

And where does the last verse leave us? The troubling choices of interpretation persist to the end. 'Scoured' suggests cleanliness, not eradication. 'Keeper' suggests care, not indifference. 'Elemental, historic', suggest something lasting, not a life that is over; but 'parentless' suggests grief, especially when the idea is right next to 'thinks of home'. The sailor, predicts the poet, won't quote 'Hamlet', or lament that he never knew the man whose headless corpse lies on a now-distant shore; does this mean that the young man is illiterate, or innocent, or insensitive?

The poet is clearly not insensitive - but to what? After all, it would appear he was there, watching 'our' bluejacket, on the beach and on the ship with: so, he's a fighting man himself. Perhaps we can look with 'understanding and pity' at him: caught, maybe, in action that he hasn't questioned, and so has no answers for?