The Horror of Iraq, in Poetry

January 5th, 2007 - by admin

Edward Guthmann / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-01-05 22:52:25

FRESNO, California (January 5, 2007) — Before he was deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Sgt. Brian Turner had seen movies and read novels about men at war. The stories were mostly hero narratives: a group of soldiers captures a bridge, a platoon frees a buddy captured by enemy forces.

“But when I went to Iraq,” Turner says, “I didn’t find anything like that. All I found was boredom as a backdrop to everything, punctuated by very intense moments. I couldn’t thread all that together.”

Keeping a journal was one way he coped. That, and writing a series of poems that describe the dust and the heat, the bombings and the shrapnel, the pointlessness of the conflict and the suicide of Bruce Miller, a 23-year-old private who stuck the barrel of a machine gun down his throat.

Those poems are now collected in “Here, Bullet” (Alice James Books, $14.95), a tough and eloquent volume that won the Northern California Book Award for poetry and a PEN Center USA “Best in the West” Literary Award in Poetry.

“Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place arguably more incomprehensible than the moon — the war in Iraq,” wrote a New York Times Book Review critic, “and deserves our thanks.”

The book is full of powerful images of death and dying, but Turner, 39, says he doesn’t see it as an angry screed against President Bush or US military policy. “I wanted to add to what people back home already knew” — death counts, — “but at the same time I think we also need to know the humanity and the love, the loss, things on a deeper, emotional level. That to me is the domain of poetry.”

A quiet person with soft blue eyes and a manner so gentle that it’s difficult to imagine him as an infantryman, Turner is drinking a mocha in an upscale Fresno coffee bar. He grew up in this city, with a father who served during the Vietnam era and a grandfather who landed on the beach in Guam during World War II. All the Turners were military men, but all of them, Turner says, were against the US invasion of Iraq from the beginning.

“None of them believed in this war. And they were behind me if I wanted to go to another country or if I wanted to go to jail.” The night before he shipped out from Fort Lewis in Washington state, “my mother called me and she said she was willing to buy a plane ticket and send me to Perth, Australia, because we have family there.”

Turner also thought the war was a disastrous mistake. He had enlisted in the Army in 1998, at 30, largely to get out of debt and create financial stability for himself and Elena, the Russian woman he married during the year he taught English in Pusan, Korea. He signed a four-year contract, served in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000 and signed a second four-year contract in 2001 — months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

When Turner talks about Iraq and his decision to join a military effort he knew to be wrong, he seems unusually calm. He’s not insensitive to the horrors of Iraq — his poems demonstrate as much — but he seems relatively untroubled by the ideological gulf between his beliefs and his participation.

In his poems, he releases the passion and anger he won’t express in conversation. In “Caravan,” the most overtly political entry in his book — and one that he strategically placed toward the end of the volume to not turn off conservative readers — his conviction is unmistakable:

“Today, in Baghdad, a bomb
kills forty-seven and wounds over one hundred,
leaving a crater ten feet deep. The stunned
gather body parts from the roadway
to collect in cardboard boxes
which will not be taped and shipped
to the White House lawn, not buried
under the green sod thrown over, box by box
emptied into the rich soil in silence
while a Marine sentry stands guard
at the National Monument, Tomb of the Unknown . . . “

At the time of his deployment to Iraq, Turner says, “I think I had emotional reactions, but I think I tried to push them down and bury them very deeply.” He struggled with the option of fleeing to Australia, “(but) I didn’t feel like I could leave America forever. I love this country and my family’s here and everybody’s here.” Prison was a more viable route, “but I didn’t want to go to prison.”

Turner ultimately chose to stick by the guys in his unit — men he had trained with and lived with for the better part of two years. Serving in Iraq “wasn’t about democracy or nation-building or helping these people get back on their feet or anything like that,” he says, ” ’cause I didn’t believe in the mission. For me, it was about not letting down Tony Fiorillo, David Jackowski and Tom Bosch.”

From December 2003 to Halloween 2004, Turner was stationed primarily in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. He remembers running through the rubble of a Mosul police station after 16 Iraqi police officers were killed, and says he’ll never forget the face of the 12-year-old boy who shouted, “Let free my father, my father no bad man!” as he took the boy’s father prisoner and drove away with him.
“That kid will always remember my face,” says Turner, who is working on a poem about the incident. “Even if we never meet again in our life, he has my face as the image of who took his father from him.”

Writing the poems in “Here, Bullet” gave Turner a means of coping. Surprisingly, he says he kept them to himself and never mentioned the poems to the men in his squad. He mailed them back to his parents, along with his journals, as “a way to tell them what was going on.” Three of the poems were published in the Georgia Review while he was still in Iraq.

But the poems, he says, didn’t offer the release that one might expect. “I mean, if I write a book about Iraq, say, seven years from now or even next year, it might be a cathartic experience. This sounds maybe overly dramatic, but when I was in Iraq (I was thinking) ‘This is what, Thursday? I might be dead by Monday, so what poem do I have to write today — if this is the last thing I’m going to write about?’ ”

Turner, who is divorced, lives in a recently built home in Fresno with his girlfriend, Michelle Swanger, a health care worker he met after returning to Fresno in February 2005.
Since coming back from Iraq, he says, he’s been surprised that more people haven’t criticized his participation in the Iraq occupation. “I expected many more people to challenge me and ask why I wasn’t stronger in my beliefs, and why would I follow through with something like that. But it hasn’t been all that much.”

The poems, he says, have been equally embraced by people on the left and the right. “That’s what I was really hoping for with this book, that it would be part of a larger dialogue about the war.

“I’ve been asked before, ‘Do you regret going to Iraq?’ but I don’t want to look on my life like that. Maybe there’s some good in sharing these poems. Maybe that’s the whole reason I was in the military.”


It happens on a Monday, at 11:20 a.m.,
as tower guards eat sandwiches
and seagulls drift by on the Tigris River.

Prisoners tilt their heads to the west
though burlap sacks and duct tape blind them.
The sound reverberates down concertina coils
the way piano wire thrums when given slack.

And it happens like this, on a blue day of sun,
when Private Miller pulls the trigger
to take brass and fire into his mouth:
the sound lifts the birds up off the water,
a mongoose pauses under the orange trees,
and nothing can stop it now, no matter what
blur of motion surrounds him, no matter what voices
crackle over the radio in static confusion,
because if only for this moment the earth is stilled,
and Private Miller has found what low hush there is
down in the eucalyptus shade, there by the river.
PFC B. Miller
(1980-March 22, 2004)

Here, Bullet
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.

Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.

Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

The wrong is not in the religion;
The wrong is in us.
— Saier T.
At dusk, bats fly out by the hundreds.
Water snakes glide in the ponding basins
behind the rubbled palaces. The mosques
call their faithful in, welcoming
the moonlight as prayer.

Today, policemen sunbathed on traffic islands
and children helped their mothers
string clothes to the line, a slight breeze
filling them with heat.

There were no bombs, no panic in the streets.
Sgt. Gutierrez didn’t comfort an injured man
who cupped pieces of his friend’s brain
in his hands; instead, today,
white birds rose from the Tigris.

The Al Harishma Weapons Market
At midnight, steel shutters
slide down tight. Feral cats slink
in the periphery of the streetlamp’s
dim cone of light. Inside, like a musician
swaddling a silver-plated trumpet,
Akbar wraps an AK-47 in cloth.
Grease guns, pistols, RPGs —
he slides them all under the countertop.
Black marketeer or insurgent —
an American death puts food on the table,
more cash than most men earn in an entire year.
He won’t let himself think of his childhood friends —
those who wear the blue uniforms
which bring death, dying from barrels
he may have oiled in his own hands.

Akbar stirs the chai,
then carries his sleeping four-year-old,
Habib, to bed under glow-in-the-dark
stars arranged on the ceiling. Late at night
when gunfire frightens them both,
Habib cries for his father, who tells him
It’s just the drums, a new music,
and the tracery of lights in the sky
he retraces on the ceiling, showing the boy
how each bright star travels
from this dark place, to the other.

© 2005 by Brian Turner (Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine)

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