Bukowski and Vietnam
by Erich Christiansen
Back in March, I read at the 4th annual “Praise Bukowski” night at the Bowery Poetry Club. I did the poem I had rehearsed, “Something for the Touts, the Nuns, the Grocery Clerks, and You.” But in preparing earlier in the evening, I came across a sequence of poems that I hadn’t encountered in a long time. It comes near the end of The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, and deals with the Vietnam War in particular, and the military in general. Even though I ended up going with the one I had planned on, I thought that it would be timely to revisit this little-discussed theme in Bukowski’s work. Especially since I started to write this article on March 19, the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War.
As you would expect, the poets at the “Praise Bukowski” event dealt with his recounting of the daily life of the working-man, his legendary drunkenness, and the lowlife world he recounted. But it should be bourn in mind that Bukowski first came to prominence during the Vietnam War—and the counter-culture that opposed it. While his writing wasn’t preoccupied with these events, it wasn’t immune to them, either.
In some ways, Bukowski was a man of his time, but also out of step with it. On the one hand, he was oriented toward alcohol and tobacco rather than weed and psychedelics, the working-class rather than collegiate non-conformists, and bar fights rather than pacifism. But at the same time, he started his career in a decade that embraced outsiders to the system when all establishments were suspect—making him a natural to be lionized by those seeking alternatives. This was also a time of popularity for, for example, Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman who wrote about philosophy and sociology in aphorisms jotted between boxes—even though Hoffer soon revealed his conservatism. Furthermore, the draft disproportionately targeted working people and the poor. So being a worker and struggling for survival, Bukowski was able to speak for those who were actually about to go to Vietnam. An attitude of protest that for middle-class students was a matter of conscience was, for the working poor, a matter of survival.
The first poem in the sequence is called “communists” (uncapitalized).
we ran the women in a straight line down to the river
clinging to the fear in their rice-stupid head
clinging to their infants
mice-like sucklings breathing in the air at odds of
one thousand to one;
we shot the men as they kneeled in a circle,
and the death of the men held almost no death,
it was somehow like a movie film,
men of spider arms and legs and a hunk of cloth
to cover the sexual organ.
men hardly born could hardly be killed
and there they were down there now, finally dead,
the sun straining on their faces of weird
some of the women could fire rifles. we left a small
detachment to decide upon
them. then we fired up the unburned huts and moved on
to the next village.
Here Bukowski describes a typical search and destroy operation that would have been conducted by United States troops in Vietnam. The title places the scene immediately, both in its historical context and in the bitter tinge of its irony. The irony lies in the implication that this was the justification for such an action against people that are clearly civilians: that they were enemy combatants or sympathizers. That is to say, that they were ideologically Communists.
But Bukowski includes nothing overtly ideological, focusing instead on the stark physicality of terror and murder. In fact, one might almost be tempted to see the title as ambiguous, holding open the possibility that the troops massacring the village are Communist North Vietnamese troops. But this reading is quickly dispersed by a careful choice of details. The speaker refers to the women’s “rice-stupid heads,” a slur on their ethnicity. He compares the men’s death to a “movie film.” Not only are movies a quintessentially American invention, but this kind of detachment evokes someone sent to another country to fight, not someone engaged in a civil war over their own land. So this is not a poem about “the horrors of war” in any kind of general “humanitarian” way, but rather about American crimes and American responsibility.
Bukowski’s choice of narrating the story from the point of view of one of the soldiers is telling. He doesn’t claim the objectivity of a third-person narrator. He doesn’t take on the righteous or pathetic tone of the description of one of the victims, not presuming to speak for someone of another culture. He identifies with (in the sense of “taking on the identity of”) the American soldier—who, statistically, is probably very much like him. That is to say, a working man, of low income and lower formal education, often from rural or industrial areas. These are the people who don’t have the connections, the inside knowledge, or the student status to avoid the draft, or who, in a time of a “volunteer” army, are most desperate for the economic incentives that, in many circumstances, only the military can provide. We can speculate that this is a situation that Bukowski could picture himself in, had he been younger during the Vietnam War, or had the luck of the draw been different in earlier wars. The situation of a person thrown into a situation he didn’t create and called upon to do horrible things there.
Nevertheless, he doesn’t allow this type of identification to let this character off the hook. Bukowski portrays his as being both cruel and passive, hateful and removed. In addition to the racial slur against the women, the soldier calls the infants “mice-like sucklings,” working up a dehumanizing contempt for them also. He makes similar animal comparisons to the men “of spider arms and legs.” At the same time, he describes the actual violence blankly: “we shot the men as they kneeled in a circle.” He is detached from it, as if an observer of something far away, or even fictional: “it was somehow like a movie film.”
At the same time, there’s a certain ambiguity that runs through these descriptions. The infants are “breathing in the air at the odds of/ one thousand to one.” As for the men: “the death of the men held almost no death…men hardly born could hardly be killed.” He describes the “weird puzzlement” on the faces of the dead men lying in the sun. On the one hand, he recognizes the helplessness of the babies and the broken spirits and malnutrition of the men. This could be a glimmer of something like empathy. However, the ambiguity lies in the fact that this could also be read as an expression of contempt for these conditions. The implication could be that the soldier sees his victims as destined to lose and as already, on some level, dead: as “life unworthy of life,” as the Nazis would put it.
The ambiguity of this imagery may reflect the ambivalence of the soldier himself. His orders are to eradicate villages populated by seeming non-combatants. In some way, he has to make himself psychologically capable of doing so. Herein lies the tension between cruelty and dissociation. He begins by hating his victims, then retreats from responsibility by watching what’s happening as if it were a movie. The hate could be something he was naturally inclined toward, if he were a prick, or just a state he put himself into to accomplish the mission. Either way, what remains consistent is the move from investment to denial.
This denial and detachment is compounded in the last stanza. When they discover that some of the women can fire rifles, they leave behind a contingent “to decide upon/ them.” Of course, the decision is whether or not to kill them, but the soldier doesn’t say this; he dare not say it. And he certainly dare not mention the babies. They will either be killed with their mothers or left to starve without them. Maybe they could be cared for by the women who can’t shoot; the soldier doesn’t mention this either. Thinking about that would disrupt the movie—and there are other villages to attend to.
If I seem to emphasize the movie image, which in a certain sense could be seen as a throw-away line, it’s because of the resonances with which that allusion comes down to us through history. Vietnam was a televised war; news footage brought the fighting into people’s living rooms every evening, as the saying goes. Of course, this had an effect opposite to the one that Bukowski describes. These broadcasts shocked the public into questioning the war, and ultimately rejecting it. But a concern like Bukowski’s resurfaced during the Persian Gulf War, in which the Pentagon was determined not to make the same mistake it had during Vietnam. The coverage of the war was heavily censored and notoriously distant and detached. The overwhelming feeling was that watching coverage of the bombardment of Baghdad was like playing a video game. More importantly for our discussion, this was accurate in a sense, because much of the military technology operated like video games.
However, an interesting thing ended up happening. Even though the distancing of technology had made war consciously less real for its prosecutors, the real nevertheless returned through the troops’ subconscious. Slavoj Zizek cites cases that appear to confirm this. Returning soldiers and airmen were asked questions about their participation in combat. Frequently, individuals would describe face to face and hand to hand encounters with the enemy, even when their service records showed that they weren’t, and never had been, in a position to do so. The technology of missiles launched from planes and tanks and ships masks the sense perception of what we’re doing with those missiles, and can potentially displace our sense of responsibility for their effects. But it would seem that our deep psychology retains that sense of guilt and responsibility, retaining the image of the victims as if they had died in our hands.
The empathy with which Bukowski positions his voice within the poem, it seems to me, comes from his social position and life experiences. This comes across in his description of the men who are to be executed. Their death “held almost no death,” because they were already ground down, already suffering, already robbed of many of the things that make life worth living. They had suffered so much that the spark of life had been snuffed from them. They are “men of spider arms and legs,” starved to the point at which their limbs are so shriveled they invite no human comparison. They lack proper clothing, too with only “a hunk of cloth/ to cover the sexual organ.” The speaker reiterates, “men hardly born could hardly be killed.”
I would argue that, as a poor working man, as someone who has wandered from town to town seeking work, who has lived on skid row and done the hardest and most degraded jobs to survive, that the evidence of this kind of poverty and suffering would be something that Bukowski’s poetic eye would notice. This is not the work of an ideologue trying to glorify the victims as heroic fighters. Nor is it the pitying pose of someone of privilege lamenting the world’s horrors, or trying to speak for someone of another culture or class. This is the testimony and the empathy of one of the world’s poor who are always the victims and the executors of the military ambitions of the rulers and the rich.
One of the things that this poem captures so starkly—and what is so timely now—is the way that, in a colonial war, the distinction between combatant and civilian disappears. In the end, this makes the war proceed in a potentially genocidal manner. Jean-Paul Sartre addressed this in the essay “Vietnam: Imperialism and Genocide.” Sartre points out that total war started in the 19th century and took its deadliest toll in the First World War; since entire nations were hurling their economic resources at each other, it stood to a deadly sort of reason that the war was also against the enemy economy and population, as well as its soldiers. But as horrible as the slaughters of these wars were, they seldom degenerated into outright genocide because of the threat of reciprocal force from the enemy. On the other hand, when it came to establishing colonies, there were no such restraints. The colonial forces overwhelmed indigenous populations militarily—and far from being dissuaded from genocidal tactics, the circumstances of the imperialists encouraged them. In the sense that, since the indigenous population outnumbered the occupiers, the most effective way for the latter to keep control over the former was by selective massacres. These were genocidal gestures, in that they were inflicted on a segment of an ethnicity simply because they were of that ethnicity, not for any reasons of combat. But this was also self-limiting, in terms of all-out genocide, because what the European powers were trying to do was to establish an economic order that they could exploit. Killing the entire population would not have achieved this. Guerilla fighters realize this, and fight what is now referred to as an “asymmetrical” war. They strike clandestinely and without warning, then disappear back into a supportive population. The occupiers realize that they are fighting an entire people, and thus treat the entire population as the enemy.
The United States in Vietnam, however, had no such motivation for restraint. Even though American companies had certain vested interests in Vietnam, Sartre argues that these were not that deep that they couldn’t have been abandoned for strategic interests. Rather, the United States was in a situation of neo-colonialism, which tries to maintain colonial controls on now-independent nations. The idea is no longer to enslave any particular country, but rather to make a negative example out of any kind of anti-imperialist revolt. Thus the United States had no qualms about crushing the Vietnamese opposition by any means necessary. And because of the principles of guerilla warfare, in which the people as a whole were treated as the enemy, these means included Agent Orange, constant terroristic bombing of North Vietnam that deliberately targeted civilians and infrastructure, and forcing entire villages to relocate into concentration-camp-like “New Life Hamlets.” In a short time, it became clear that, despite the rhetoric of helping the United States’ South Vietnamese allies fight Communism, that this was in fact a war against the Vietnamese people as Vietnamese people.
And of course, as our poem deals with, this also included raids on, and destruction of, villages considered to be complicit with the enemy. The infamous “Zippo” patrols forcibly cleared the area and then burned the huts to the ground. Often, the slightest protest was met with a violent response. And sometimes, when another course of action was inconvenient, the inhabitants were killed outright. As the title of the poem suggests, these action were performed to combat the specter of “communist” enemies, but in practice, were done to terrorize the population as a whole.
There are, of course, clear parallels to the current situation in Iraq, which makes this poem, and the whole legacy of the Vietnam War resonate with us now. Sartre writes that, since the colonizers are the aggressors, their tactics have to be decisively harsh and terrorizing to deter resistance. So when an administration concocts a war, selling it to its own public through lies, what else could be used to try to subdue a population than the tactics of “shock and awe?” In Vietnam, the economic imperatives soon took a backseat to the strategic ones. While the initial interest in Iraq undoubtedly had to do with its oil supply, the conflict soon had more to do with making that country an example on the world stage. In Iraq too, as in Vietnam, you have an occupying force that had convinced itself that they came as liberators, only to find a people that didn’t want them there, that saw them as the occupiers that they actually were. And this situation is exacerbated by the facts of a guerilla war, in response to which the Americans have to daily monitor and violate the populace as a whole, because en masse, they have become the potential enemy.
There can be only two ways out of such a war: the willingness to exterminate an entire nation or the malaise of a country’s growing disgust at a long and seemingly pointless war bringing about a withdrawal.
The next poem in the book, “family, family” is not, at first, related to the last one. It’s the narrative of a couple changing their baby’s diaper. The father, seeing the child upside down, has a moment of panic: “and the kid doesn’t look like/ me,” which leads to the chilling impulse,
so I get ready to
kill them both
I don’t even
look like myself
He concludes by realizing the fragility of his family’s safety, from forces both within and without. He says “I
all the while
does not blow up
in all our
It’s probable that Bukowski didn’t consciously intend any connection between the two poems. But the fact is that they appear next to each other; could we ask what resonates between them? Both deal with families in danger: one from invading troops, one from one of its own members. When we hear the father in the latter poem pointing to the pressures of the outside world to put his violent urges in context, we have a choice. We can either hold that he is in bad faith, trying to divert responsibility from himself. Or we can speculate: could this father be the now-returned soldier that narrated “communists?” When one gets used to violence against women and children and to solve problems through violence, what guarantee is there that this training won’t follow the individual into the civilian world?
A complete reading of this poem would probably combine both approaches. Social and environmental factors form a person; but ultimately, the individual can’t use these factors to evade personal responsibility.
The piece “poem for the death of an American serviceman in Vietnam:” comes next in the sequence. This is one of the few instances of Bukowski departing from his trademark style of gritty realism, whether narrative or lyrical. Here, he makes his point through full-blown surrealism.
shot through a hole in the
9 miles wide—
out it came:
those Indian head pennies
those old dead whores
the sick sea walking like
This is the classic strategy of surrealism. When reality veers out of the ordinary to such an extent, when the mind is forced to grapple with ultimate issues of life, death, and desire that defy mundane thought, often the best way of recreating that experience artistically is to allow the free flow of the irrational, subconscious mind, and then to analyze the images. Or not analyze them, but to see the operation of the irrational itself. And at this point, we see how Bukowski’s approach utilizes the technique of absurdism also. That is, the illustration of the absurdity of events and institutions by associating them with patently ridiculous or meaningless imagery.
It should be noted that here, too, children and their vulnerability are included in the flow of images.
past bottles of orange
Despite the absurdism and counter-reality of these images, they do have the logic of dreams. For me, this evokes the photographic evidence of children burning from napalm, or poisoned by Agent Orange. Orange was the code name for the deadly defoliant, but also one of the colors of fire. Napalm was jellied gasoline, from which one can never, once wetted, ever drip dry. Just as in the last two, this poem acknowledges the vulnerability of children, the most defenseless victims of violence.
The final stanza says,
(he died then, stuffing balloons with
marbles as the prince
The surrealism of the first lines is grounded with the implications of the last words. As Bukowski would have been particularly sensitive to, working people and the poor are the ones who fight wars that the rich have envisioned and started—and the plight of the former often appears mocked by the latter.
The following piece, “guilt obsession behind a cloud of rockets:” also partakes of this surreal aesthetic. Again, the connection to Vietnam is tenuous in the lines themselves, but the title puts it into context. A main theme of the poem is death, but the title makes sure that we don’t assume that this is natural death that is part of the natural order. Rather, this is the intolerable absurdity of death resulting from unjust war.
dummies stuffed with wax and
a deeper dark than any dark
we have ever
if death is so fearful
then life must be
This stanza is Bukowski’s way of reminding us that war, though it makes headlines, is not the only suffering that occurs. Just because we embrace life doesn’t make our conditions of life less oppressive or unjust.
These poems also have certain resonances through the next one, “even the sun was afraid.” This is a poem about watching a bullfight, in a style reminiscent of Hemingway, one of Bukowski’s influences. The bullfight goes awry because the fighters aren’t very good, so they end up needing to take extreme measures to kill it, including the butcher finally coming out and hacking away at it. Placed where it is in the sequence, this scenario can suggest a metaphor for the Vietnam War. Here you have an event that plays with a stacked deck; it is more ritual than sport. Because, after all, the bull dies whether it wins or loses. When the bull refuses to be killed, it disrupts the flow of the proceedings—but is seen as a failure of the fighter, not a victory of the bull. We can see this as being parallel to Vietnam, in that, that war was a situation in which the most powerful industrialized nation on the planet attempted to dominate a small, agrarian nation, and failed. And failed in spite of an overkill reminiscent of that practiced by the bullfighters and their crew. The United States lost in spite of helicopters, napalm, Agent Orange, and dropping more bombs on North Vietnam than were dropped in all of World War II.
The last poem I’d like to look at is “finish.” This piece combines elements of realism and surrealism in a scenario of social breakdown and martial law. But it’s due to this latter that I include it here. The speaker is waiting passively for troops to arrive, who will either kill or imprison him.
air-conditioned troops go from house to
from room to room
jailing, shooting, bayoneting
we have done this to ourselves, we
we are like roses that have never bothered to
bloom when we should have bloomed […]
when the troops come up here
I don’t care what they do for
we already killed ourselves
If we choose to read these poems as a sequence, then it ends a sit began: the troops are coming to kill civilians. But here, of course, the situation is different: American civilians are the potential victims. And Bukowski charges us with deserving it, because we didn’t do enough to stop it.
While circumstances have not yet become that dire, Bukowski is historically accurate in seeing the connection between external war and internal repression. The rule of empire abroad must be accompanied by the suppression of domestic forces that work against it. Vietnam was inevitably accompanied by Kent State. The War on Terror had to bring the Patriot Act along with it. And Bukowski holds the American public to be complicit with all of these crimes, for the general apathy that allowed them to happen.
The reason why I wanted to look at this often over-looked aspect of Bukowski’s work is that he speaks for a group whose voice is not generally considered in discussions of this type. The fact is that in America, the very poor, especially when they’re white, are often very conservative. The very people Bukowski wrote about, those working back-breaking jobs for little pay, those living in rooms rented by the week, the alcoholic and the unemployable, are often the very people who seek a meaning for their existence in religion, nationalism, racism, xenophobia. They are among the most vulnerable to the calls of patriotism. Like the people who lived at the end of my block in Omaha. They had virtually nothing and had to collect cans for a living. Yet they had signs supporting every Republican candidate who ever ran.
But Bukowski’s not buying it. Being on the bottom of the latter lets him see what a con game the ladder itself is. He knows that in any imperialist war, the rich depend on the poor to carry out their will. And if we fit his war poetry into his work as a whole, we see this class perspective his comments on Vietnam are imbued with.
It’s June now—time of the long, hot trudge of days between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Between the time when we stand over the graves of the war dead and the time when we recreate the explosions that killed them. Between two different ways of trying to make their deaths mean something. Once in the heat of the jungle, now in the heat of the desert, another pointless war with its pointlessly murdered. In this swelter, we need voices like Bukowski’s to remind us that, behind the polished marble and expensive Roman Candles, there is terror, and absurdity, and infinite pain.
Bukowski, Charles. The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1969)
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Between Existentialism and Marxism. Tr. John Matthews (New York: Pantheon, 1974)
Zizek, Slavoj. The Fragile Absolute. (London, New York: Verso, 2000)