Iraq: War and Remembrance

Iraq: War and Remembrance

Fallujah. Mosul. Tikrit. The deadly names leap from the headlines and resonate once more. And I remember the day in 2008 when I read the obituary of Adrian Mitchell in the New York Times during the raging Iraq War.

I had known neither his name nor his works as a British anti-war poet. I was struck by the inclusion of the opening stanza of his most famous poem, ”To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)”. The power and imagery of the first line, “I was run over by the truth one day” had a stunning impact. It kept repeating for hours through my head. Mitchell who died at 78, had been widely quoted, saying “Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” He read “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam” for the first time to a crowd of thousands in Trafalgar Square in 1964, and updated the poem over the years to suit changing events.

It is now 2014. Insurgent Sunni and extremist forces have captured northern provinces and are advancing toward Baghdad. Senators John Mc Cain and Lindsey Graham are calling for American drone strikes to save the embattled Shiite army. They criticize President Obama once more for bringing our troops home from Iraq. However, the American people are war weary. All polls report that the majority believe the Iraq war was not worth over 4500 military deaths and one trillion dollars in national treasure.

A debate has been escalating since President Barack Obama’s recent speech at West Point. He spoke to the graduating cadets and the world when he called for a United States foreign affairs policy that aimed at restraint and diplomacy rather than military force and deadly wars in dealing with crises in countries overseas. Obama is a Nobel Peace Laureate and it should have come as no surprise to his critics that he has viewed his role as Commander in Chief through a broad lens. He planned and ordered the pursuit and death of Osama bin Laden. Yet, he did not strike Assad in Syria with threatened missiles when negotiations with Russia accomplished the goal of monitored deportation of all poison gases from Syria, bound for destruction.

I am thinking again of Adrian Mitchell’s anti-war poem. I believe he would substitute Iraq for Vietnam if he were alive today. As a former RAF pilot, he knew first hand the human costs of war. Here it is for you to read and consider.

“To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)”

I was run over by the truth one day,
Ever since the accident I walk this way.
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain
Couldn’t find myself so I went back to sleep again
So fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam

Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.
Made a marble phone book and I carved out all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains.
They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy chains
So stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Where were you at the time of the crime?
Down by the cenotaph drinking slime
So chain my tongue with whiskey
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

The Cenotaph, Mitchell refers to, is in London in Whitehall. Like other cenotaphs around the world, it is a tomb erected in honor of a person or group whose remains are buried elsewhere. The word cenotaph comes from the Greek kenos meaning empty and taphos, tomb. The Cenotaph in London was built from Portland stone between 1919 and 1920. The only decorations are a wreath on each end and the words, “The Glorious Dead” chosen by Rudyard Kipling. The Cenotaph is the site of the annual remembrance held on 11:00 a.m. on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to November 11, World War I Armistice Day.

Some years ago, during a visit to London, my husband and I were part of the crowd gathered at Whitehall to witness the laying of wreaths at the base of the Cenotaph by Queen Elizabeth and officials from other members of the Commonwealth. This followed a parade of the remaining WWI veterans to the Cenotaph, most in wheel chairs, and veterans of WWII, all in full uniform. It was a very stirring and solemn ceremony. The British observe November 11 with reverence and respect. Having witnessed the British ceremony that day at the Cenotaph, I can better understand the hatred of war that Adrian Mitchell felt when he wrote his famous poem. It is as timely today in the 21st century as it was then.

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3 thoughts on “Iraq: War and Remembrance

  1. Wonderful poem that grabs us with, “I was run over by truth one day….” Whew! President Obama must keep this in his psyche every day that he has to make tough decisions despite the critics. And he does. Great writing, Joyce.

  2. Great parallel between Mitchell’s poem and the challenges we face today. Let’s hope for the right decisions to be made for this one and our leaders take the time to reflect on history! Thank you for such an illuminating piece!

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