Learning War by R. L. Barth

R. L. Barth’s Learning War: Selected Vietnam War Poems (Broadstone Book, 72 pp. $18.95, paper) is a powerful collection of poetry based on Barth’s experience with the Marines during the war. This book brings together poems from a half dozen of Barth’s previous collections. He is also the author of No Turning Back: The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (2016), a group of poems related to that seminal battle in the French Indochina War.

The 74 short poems included here—some epigrams, some couplets—average a mere eight lines each. But that’s enough to get the job done.

The book is divided into three sections with titles such as “A Child Accidentally Napalmed,” “A Letter to the Dead,” “One Way to Carry the Dead,” “Don’t You Know Your Poems Are Hurtful?,” and “Tonight You Bitch …” A handful of poems appear as though they were written from a War, a Staging Area, the Bush, an Observation Post: Near An Hoa, and the World.

Here are three complete poems.

“War Debt”

Survive or die, war holds one truth:

Marine, you will not have a youth.

“Initial Confusion”

A sergeant barked, “Your ass is Uncle’s!” though

It wasn’t clear if he meant Sam or Ho.”

“Epitaph” 

Tell them quite simply that we died

Thirsty, betrayed, and terrified.

In another poem Barth uses the phrase, “War’s war,” and then we find ourselves sharing a World War I trench with the British poet Siegfried Sassoon. These are poems of the infantry. Fighting takes place under a “leech-black sky.” Life and death decisions are sometimes based on a roll of the dice.

The troops deploy. Above the stars

Wheel over mankind’s little wars.

If there’s a deity, it’s Mars.

Patrolling silently,

He knows how men will die

In jungles. I am he.

He is not I.

At night, such lovely ways to kill, to die.

Even suppose a man is brave one time –

Is truly brave, I mean – will he be brave

A second time?

Two poems that could have served as bookends for this collection are these:

“Saigon: 16 VI. 1963”

In chaos, judgement took on form and name:

The lotus flared; more men burned in your just flame.

“Saigon: 30 IV. 1975”

We lie here, trampled in the rout,

There was no razor’s edge, no doubt.

Though the poems are short, I suggest not to read them quickly and then move on. This is not a book to be rushed through.

Read a poem, then read it again. Give it your full attention. There are things to be learned in these short poems, things to never be forgotten.

Read ‘em and weep.

–Bill McCloud