Sunday Poem: War, and the Pity of War


Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow (Adolph Northen)

Do you remember Spiro T. Agnew? Anyone less than fifty probably doesn’t. Not that you’d want to, really – Richard Nixon’s Vice-President didn’t leave a glorious mark on history. Amongst other things, he was a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War, calling its opponents “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”. Well, I was one of those snobs.

I was in my Earnest Period, penning verse to change the world. It helped, of course, that I was in charge of the school mag, which spread my works far and wide. In spite of this, when Agnew went to Vietnam in 1970, telling the troops, ‘the people back home are pretty darned proud of you,’ he had no idea his comment would spark a damning critique on the other side of the Atlantic. Otherwise he would surely never have said it. When Nixon read the poem, he came down on Agnew like a ton of bricks, perceiving, correctly, that henceforth all attempts to get public opinion on their side were doomed.

I want to say now to you boys here in ’Nam, from the great to the smallest of small,

The generals, the captains, the GIs, the cooks – we’re pretty darned proud of you all.

You may make mistakes, we admit that you do. It’s My Lai that sticks in my mind.

But Calley was right and to tell you the truth, we’re pretty darned proud of his kind.

So cheer the old flag and keep off the drugs, and grip your gun tight in your hand,

And fight like true men, so we’ve reason to say, we’re pretty darned proud of our land.

Agnew, of course, was an easy target for earnest, effete, intellectual snobs. As was William Calley, convicted of the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians in what was known as the My Lai massacre, in which up to 500 villagers were killed. Calley’s trial and sentence (life imprisonment, though in fact he served less than four years of house arrest) divided America. In 2009, Calley said, ‘There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry…. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd Lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.’

The lines I wrote were pretty trite and self-righteous, but that’s how I was in those days. So I’ll end with the words of a real poet, Wilfrid Owen, who was killed in action in 1918, one week before the armistice: Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Some things, alas, never change.


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