Review of “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” by Walt Whitman

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“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” is a Walt Whitman poem in the Drum Taps section of Leaves of Grass. Ironically, the section begins with a poem called “First O Songs for a Prelude” which deals with a different kind of march – the patriotic pep-talk inspiring and praising the quick response to take up arms and go to war. But as the reader traverses Whitman’s poetic fare in this section the ebullient flag waving gives way to the somber realities the author would experience or observe. Although Whitman was educated, older than many in uniform, and dealt with the wounded, his personality and writing style favored the common man. After all, he still aspired to be and maintain the position of America’s Poet.

While reading this poem I had no trouble imagining Whitman, while working with the wounded, observing a slew of platoon buddies seeking news of fallen friends, or seeing the newbies drawn to the carnage as if receiving a christening before their baptism under fire. And Whitman, always the writer, could not help but empathize and imagine himself in their shoes.

“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” places the reader into the mind of an average soldier in the Civil War. Like most common troops this young man endures the drudgery, the forced marches from one unknown location to another. The body wearying travel is usually only broken-up with momentary rest periods, or battle preparation followed by skirmish after skirmish – until the brass, on one side or the other, decides they have had enough loss at this location and sends them to another before confronting the enemy again.

The soldier marches with the column in darkness. This time they are the ones in retreat: “Our army foil’d with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating.” And retreats are often made under the cover of darkness, and usually throughout the night with only momentary stops. It is during one of those brief halts that this poem primarily focuses on. They draw toward, then rest beside a large church, dimly lit, that is now a makeshift field hospital.

The soldier knows it will be a brief stop, but he is drawn to the “impromptu hospital,” and he sees “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” It is one of those experiences no one ever thinks about during the rally ‘round the flag speeches when seeking volunteers to recruit. And I have no doubt that Whitman experienced the pride of patriotism shown in the beginning Drum Taps collection, just as he experienced a change after witnessing the savagery of war. Yet each individual deals with it in their own manner. Some, usually the newbies, have an innocent morbid curiosity. Others have an intense compassion for their fellow man. And still others will not be caught dead around a hospital (unless wounded). Whitman, however, always seems to portray a sense of compassion during these somber encounters:

“At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding

to death, (he is shot through the abdomen).

I staunch the blood temporarily, (the younster’s face is white as a lily).”

And instead of blocking out the scene this soldier wants to see it all: to remember it. And I cannot help but feel that a similar event evoked those feelings in Whitman during his war experience. The curiosity of the writer is so clear in the following passage:

“Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to absorb it all.”

And the scene he describes is not eye-candy; it is human horror, a living nightmare. And this nightmare cannot be contained – not even within the church (such an iconic symbol used in the contrasting reality).

“The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill’d.

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the

death-spasm sweating.”

This soldier takes it all in. He does not shield his eyes or turn away.

Is Whitman merely recalling personal experience? Or is Whitman still keen on being the poetic voice of America? After all, how does a young country evoke change if it is not willing to confront its problems head-on, with eyes wide open?

The problems facing the Nation at this time were especially hard because they turned brother against brother. It was a solemn duty, a responsibility, to get America back on track. But the outcome was impossible to predict in the initial stages of the war. And Whitman shows us in the use of metaphor. After the soldier takes in the harsh reality, the rest period is over; it is time to resume the march:

“Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, fall in;

But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me.

Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,

Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,

The unknown road still marching.”

Like the soldier, the Nation was marching on an unknown road: it marched against itself, and even the best possible outcome would create a rift between the warring states that would require generations to heal.

 

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A Man is a Man by His Actions

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I’m a boy from the slums where livin’ is rough

Fought daily for survival, you’ve got to be tough

One on one is expected, but one against many is too

Arise and keep swingin’ or they’ll walk all over you

 

If you can’t take a fall and quickly bounce back

You’ll never earn respect, and they’ll never cut you slack

You learn to be ruthless, when ruthless is called for

But don’t let it change you, not deep in your core

 

Being ruthless is not the same as being mean

It’s taking others down, but keepin’ it clean

Purely for self-defense or in defense of others

Continue to respect life: fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers

 

From slums to foreign soil when fightin’ for “Uncle Sam”

For freedom and G.I. brothers… fuck the political flim-flam

Busted and bloody, but I returned standing tall

But don’t give me no praise, give it to those who gave all

 

Dad said, “A man is a man by his actions

not from his years on Earth;

he sweats courage and bleeds honor

and guards integrity for all it’s worth”

Dad in Navy

War touches all

The following is a term paper based on several books written about the Vietnam War; but it is just as relevant for any war… and for any time.

[Take your ego and preconceived notions out of the equation and it’s never too late to learn.]

Fly the friendly skies0001

War touches all

War is greedy. A little thing can release it, but after it is let loose it cannot easily be tamed. It has no loyalty, not even to those who cast it forth. It seeks to ravage anything and anyone it touches, and it touches everyone. And anyone touched by war will never be the same. But individuals who experience war firsthand will, inevitably, bear a bigger cross: a burden uniquely forged by their experience and perspective. Continue reading

“A Grunt” : poetic review

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.