David R. “Poppa” Alexander predominantly makes use of rhyme in his poetry, though “A Grunt” is freestyle. Likewise, while he was a prolific writer (he died in 2006) many of his poems seem rather amateurish when compared to poets like Wilfred Owen or Brian Turner. However, after discovering his literary efforts online I took to his poetic fare based on his sincerity, humanity, and accuracy regarding his personal experience as a Vietnam veteran.
Alexander’s poem “A Grunt” became an instant time-machine for me. He spent his time in the jungle several years before me, but his recollections are timeless for not only those of us who had to inhabit similar terrain in the same era, but for every soldier who engaged a common enemy on foreign soil.
It is bad enough to be sent to fight in a war you never started, in a country you cannot easily pinpoint on a map, in a culture where you cannot tell friend from foe, and with an objective to kill an enemy you rarely see; but then you find out the environment can kill you just as easily as the NVA… and worse, you discover your own Government has authorized the use of chemical agents that will kill friend and foe alike, for decades to come.
Alexander sets us in the environment immediately, as seen in the first stanza:
Trudging along in the muddy jungle floor
A foul smell of rotten vegetation and musty slime
Leaches, bugs, mosquitoes, snakes, and worse
Midnight dark at noon
Not exactly a joyous walk in the park. And where many readers might conclude the fourth line refers only to inclement weather – which does occur quite often there – those of us with jungle experience realize Alexander is equally referring to the canopy; confirmed with the first line of the second stanza: “Water dripping from the canopy above.” The jungle has single, double, and triple-canopy: referring to the growth level of the trees. Single-canopy lets in the most light, double-canopy the mid-range, and triple-canopy hardly any light at all at certain times.
The thick jungle makes it difficult to traverse. You cannot maintain a straight line and there are very few, if any, reference points to focus on: especially at night. And Alexander touches on this in the second stanza: “Only a compass and direction on which to lean.” And he reminds the reader that the soldier is not alone. Even when the enemy cannot be seen their presence is always felt. After all, the enemy is far more adept in this land; they have been fighting here for untold generations.
Every noise was a haunting and startling cannon roar
For within the jungle darkness no one is safe
Slowly moving with the agile cunning of a great cat
The NVA would surely like to catch us here
And Alexander shows us that the unit tries to think of everything that will save them:
No radio, for fear of being heard
No cigarettes, no stopping for food or water
No time to rest if we wanted to live
Confidently we moved remembering the training we had
The days, weeks, and months of repetitive training instill the proper thoughts, muscle memory, and habits, which Alexander shows as well:
Inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot, yard-by-yard
One foot after the other, one brother following another
Point man was dangerous and was changed often
Every man depending on the others to get them through
And the author continues to relate what only experience teaches. He spotlights how clearings are equally as dangerous as the thick canopy, for different reasons.
The reader is then introduced to another clearing that surprises the unit: war is full of surprises. Alexander was in ‘Nam in the late sixties, and, like most troops, found out about defoliation when they happened upon it during a mission.
This is 1967 and these areas are becoming more and more common
A strange smell is on everything we touch
A bittersweet smell of some type (of) oil
Another mystery of Vietnam
But a search of the strange area finds no enemy and allows them a short rest. Food, smokes, and a quick communication to base camp alleviates some of the stress and feelings of alienation… but it doesn’t last:
So goes the day until there is the roar of a grenade
Then nothing but fire from hell
The enemy has found us but we are as prepared as we could have been
We return fire immediately, I’m so proud of my men
The battle rages with artillery being called in until it is decided to evacuate by helicopter. It is not mentioned in the poem, but veterans of that war know evacuations were predominantly authorized in situations where the unit is greatly outnumbered; otherwise HQ would rather the unit kept tallying up more KIA numbers of NVA.
Alexander closes out the poem by pointing out a few realities faced by the grunts. First, right after the evacuation they had to go back in on another mission. Second, there is no romantic version of a real soldier’s life (unlike many media accounts). And finally, he confirms to the reader that they would eventually learn about Agent Orange – much too late for many.
I agree that Alexander’s poems do not exhibit the literary merit of a Walt Whitman or Wilfred Owen. However, the average veteran or common man of today will understand and relate to Alexander’s poems much easier than literary royalty. It is comparable to the law being espoused in Harvard legalese or in laymen’s terms.