It's after midnight and I wonder what thoughts flit through the minds of Barack Obama and John McCain as they slide into sleep, as they spiral down the hypnagogic well.
Although much of the election talk these latter days focuses on the ailing US economic system, I trust thoughts of war are not far from the consciousness and conscience of both McCain and Obama . . . thoughts, that is, of American men and women in the war zone at this exact moment.
In the spirit of such necessary remembrance, I offer this poem:
A young soldier squints into thick black night
hoping no hostile sapper is cutting through
barbed wire, a bayonet and grenades tied
to his waist . . . invisible. This mute scenario
lies at the heart of three generations' bedtime
stories: my Lolo and my Papa in the US
Army, Philippine Scouts, death march in Bataan,
my brother Pepito in the 'Nam, nightmares
of Agent Orange. That young soldier could have been
any one of them . . . or me, on guard mount at Fort Ord
during Vietnam. Almost dreaming machine gun
recoil in our hands. Screaming, an oncoming horde.
Never again . . . young women and men should dream
of breezes in trees, soft rain, sunshine. Never again.— Vince Gotera, from Poets Against the War (2003).
This poem is inextricably connected to President Bush's policies . . . my own protest against what has come to be called "The Bush Doctrine." I wrote this sonnet as part of the Poets Against the War movement and website . . . you may remember Sam Hamill's outraged response to Laura Bush's suggestion of a poetry symposium at the White House in early 2003. Having just heard of the president's proposal to use "shock and awe" saturation bombing against Iraq, Hamill organized a poets' protest and within weeks, thousands of poets took part.
The First Lady cancelled her planned symposium, but by mid-February, when she had hoped the symposium would take place, over 5000 poets from around the world had contributed some 9000 poems. I am proud that "Guard Duty" was one of those poems and that it was eventually selected for Sam Hamill's Poets Against the War print anthology.
"Guard Duty" is rooted as well in the history of Gotera men serving in the US Army. My father and grandfather were in the elite Philippine Scouts of the US Army . . . both of them fought in WWII, both in the infamous Bataan death march, both POWs. My half-brother Pepito and I both served in the US Army during the Vietnam war; he was sent to "the 'Nam" and I was not, making me a Vietnam Era vet. (All of this is described in more detail in my essay "Love and War, Contrapuntal: A Self-Interview," from Pinoy Poetics, edited by Nick Carbó.)
On a related front, there is no good news for the movement to restore US veteran status to Filipino American and Filipino soldiers of WWII. A little background: a quarter million Filipino men were recruited to fight in WWII, and FDR promised them the same status and treatment as American war veterans. After WWII ended, the US rescinded this status . . . an appalling injustice that now spans six decades.
Earlier this year, the Senate passed a bill to restore veterans' rights and benefits to Filipino WWII vets. Unfortunately, time has run out for the parallel bill in the House, though many complained that the House bill had become too watered down, calling for a relatively small lump-sum payment rather than restoration of full veteran status. As Tuesday's election nears, it's worth noting that Senator Obama was a co-sponsor of the Filipino Veterans Equity Act.
Some background links on the Filipino Veterans Equity issue: (1) a recent call to action from the National Federation of Filipino American Associations; (2) an AP news release on the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and its support for Filipino veterans; and a Pacific Citizen article on the recent failure of the House bill.
In any case, back to poetry and war: although the end of my poem "Guard Duty" could seem overly romanticized to some readers, let us hope nonetheless that poetry can, in the long run, stand up to violence. That words really can end wars, that a true and long-lasting peace is indeed possible.