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.



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.]

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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.

No greater love: a short story (Part 1 of 3)

Commotion in the auditorium aroused the attention of Dan Douglas. He was here by special invitation, though he has never done any public speaking.

What am I going to say?

The pastor said there was no reason to prepare. But this was a full house. Surely they want something more than just winging it.

Dan is a Vietnam veteran. He pulled two tours in Southeast Asia in the early seventies. And, though he was highly decorated, he would gladly return them all, considering the lingering effects spawned during incidents which garnered him three purple hearts: but left him partially disabled.

Likewise, at times like this, when an abundance of ambient sounds cannot be easily discerned, and his own state is agitated, he finds his focus reverting back to those earlier days when friendships forged in preparation and survival of humanity’s worst become life-long bonds.


Fort Dix, New Jersey, 1969: a Southern California surfer, a West Texas cow puncher, and a combination street smart, holy rolling, blues boy from New Orleans are thrown together. Yet how they ever became friends is still up for debate. Even their barracks buddies swore they were three aliens jabbering away in different languages. Dan was always “stoked,” and talked about “righteous waves,” and “bikini babes with legs for days.” Mad Dog Mason countered with rodeo exploits, how he missed his horse, NASCAR racing, and unfettered pride in the Lone Star state. And James Waxton, known as Rev, because of his habitually reading the Bible, was a living archive of Delta Blues and Bourbon Street Jazz: and he would gladly sing it any time of the day or night.

Yep, the trio took to claiming their friendship was forged through heaven, hell, and eight downbeats from Basin Street. And a boot camp officer, noticing how the trio was inseparable, called them a “reverse Oreo:” two vanilla cookies on the outside with a little chocolate in the middle.

Dan could not help smiling as the memories began to cloud out the auditorium, and all things present.

Yep! Two glorious weeks of leave before shipping out overseas, and I’m going home.


Dan looked up and saw Rev staring at him with a concerned look.

“You alright?”

“Yeah,” said Dan. “Why?”

“Cuz’ you haven’t responded to our last three questions,” Rev said, “or to Mad Dog calling you a love-struck fool.”

Dan glanced toward Mad Dog, who saluted him with the wrong hand, while giving him ‘the bird’ and gulping down the last of his brew.

“Well?” Rev said.

“Well what?”

“Are your parents going to meet you at the airport tomorrow?”

Damn! Dan thought. I guess I had daydreamed a bit, because I don’t recall that being asked.

Mad Dog cut in before Dan could respond. “I told you he’s not going home to be with his parents. He’s gonna’ try out some of my roping and riding techniques on Diane.” And he blew a kiss in Dan’s direction, and fluttered his eyes.

Dan let it slide. After all, Diane was the major theme of most of his thoughts. His arms ached to hold her. And if it’s this bad after five months, how bad will it be after a year in ‘Nam?

“You’re doin’ it again,” Mad Dog barked. “Maybe we should’ve gone out to celebrate.” No response from his friends. “Come on you two, we just graduated for christsakes!”

His slip of the tongue drew the appropriate glances from his buddies, so Mad Dog, upon realizing what he had said, apologized to Rev. It was a rather unique sight to see in a military barracks. Rev is all of a hundred and fifty pounds, dripping wet. Mad Dog is well over two-hundred. Yet out of his respect for his little buddy, he will watch what he says — and he will only curb his tongue around Rev.

Rev has that distinct quality. He somehow attracts an unusual loyalty from anyone who takes the time to get to know him. Most of the GIs laughed at him initially, with his Bible reading, going off to pray, or nursing a soft drink while the rest of them polished off something more substantial. Yet he hung in there when many macho-fakes dropped out. He earned their respect.

However, the trait was just a part of Rev’s personality. It was prevalent even before he became a Christian. Since his father was imprisoned for life, and his mother was a Beat Street whore addicted to “H”, he grew up on the street. And his ability to gain loyalty from the dishonest, and often dangerous, street element helped him survive, and even thrive in the shadowy recesses of New Orleans underworld.

Hell, even the drill instructors fell under his spell, Dan recalled.

He was remembering how the DIs enjoyed calling the new recruits derogatory names upon their arrival.

“You will answer to Ass Digger,” a barrel-chested runt of a DI told Dan.

“And you’re the resident Steer Queer,” the DI informed Mad Dog.

Mad Dog then earned a hundred pushups for snapping back: “Do I get first dibs, or is it sloppy seconds after you?”

Before the vertically challenged DI selected a name for Rev, he overheard him tell another recruit that Christians are Spiritual Jews. So the instructors began to mock him with the title of “Little Chocolate Jew Boy.” But it changed within weeks.

Rev saved the life of a walking clusterfuck: a raw recruit whose IQ was ninety-nine cents short of a dollar. Just the type of draftee you want to bring to the artillery range and hand over explosives to.

The SOB fell asleep during the lecture, then tried to fake his way through the exercise, and set up a claymore mine in his own direction: a feat in itself, since claymores have front and back stamped on the casing. And, though the DIs missed it, Rev didn’t, and tackled him just as he depressed the clicker. Neither was injured, but they finally booted the Jughead out, since he blew a dozen holes in the Company Commander’s jeep. And the DIs took to calling Rev “Preacher Man” and “Little Samson” after that.

The trio continued to reminisce about the graduation, the course, and what they would do on leave. And, instinctively, they continued polishing brass and spit-shining boots during the conversation. Drilled in habits are hard to break.

They were soon joined by three other barracks buddies: J.J., Rico, and Tommy “the Chinaman” Lee. They had just come from the enlisted man’s club. The military is big on keeping the hierarchy strongly ingrained. Everyone has to work together, but you live and play with your peers. That’s why most military bases have three clubs: an officer’s club, an NCO club, and an enlisted man’s club.

“You guys didn’t hang around here all night, did ya’?” Rico said spitting out half the words in his over lubricated state.

“You shoulda’ joined us,” J.J. said. “It was funny as hell to see the Chinaman puke all over his date.” A comment that sparked GI laughter and it would permeate the rest of their bullshit session.

“I thought it would improve her looks,” said the glassy eyed Chinaman.

“It was a her?” Dan said with mock surprise.

“The jury’s still out on that one,” J.J. said. And the BS banter continued to steam forward as they continued to imbibe while packing their personal belongings and military issue for their upcoming departures.

When most their gear was ready and the night was winding down, Rico began to stare at Rev through clouded thoughts and bloodshot eyes. And it took nearly ten minutes for his alcohol dulled senses to formulate something to say.

“Hey, Bible Thumper,” he began slowly. “You ain’t said shit hardly.”

“Shit hardly,” Rev said while burping up his soft drink. And everyone except Rico laughed.

“Listen — listen — Bible Thumper,” Rico said. “I bet when you go home you pray for the war to end before the rest of us — heart-takers and — women-breakers — get a chance to be heroes.”

“I ain’t never broke a woman in my life,” Dan said.

“I broke a cherry,” the Chinaman said while crunching a beer can on his forehead.

“Don’t you mean popped?” Dan said.

“Like popped goes in the weasel,” J.J. said, and laughed himself to tears as his fermented brain caught the image he suggested.

Mad Dog had not cared for the insinuation of Rico’s remark, but had to wait until he vacated the latrine to reply.

“Watch out, Rico,” Mad Dog said as he made his way back to the group. “Rev has a mainline to heaven. He might ask God to keep you overseas permanently.”

Rico’s eyes grew wide, and his head bobbed in his intoxicated condition, while trying to contemplate the ramifications of Mad Dog’s comment. And the others laughed for the umpteenth time: though J.J. was still laughing at his weasel popping image.

As the laughter subsided Dan began to wonder: Why doesn’t Rev ever get pissed off at Refried Rico for his stupid badgering?

“Listen up, you clowns!” came the familiar voice of Corporal Lewis. “Privates Waxton, Mason, and Douglas: if you can get your gear together asap, you can leave. The military hop bumped three off for disciplinary action. You can take their places.”

The immediate hooting and hollering from the trio ignited jealousy in the three who would remain, but not enough to stop them from well-wishing and the usual farewells. Neither trio believed they would ever see the others again. Rev, Mad Dog, and Dan were the only ones shipping out to the same unit.

 I’m glad my pals are going with me overseas, Dan thought, as the trio exited the barracks. But right now, all I want is to get on that hop and go home.


A pat on Dan’s back returned his thoughts to the present. It was the pastor.

“Are you ready for this?”

Dan shrugged.

“Don’t worry. You’ll do fine.”

Another shrug.

“I’ll signal when we’re ready.”

As the reverend departed Dan rescanned the auditorium with a hint of admiration. The Reverend has come a long way. He has a large church, wonderful family, and thousands of friends. It’s hard to believe this all came about because of a friendship over thirty years ago.


[*See what happens to the friends when they finally get to Vietnam in Part 2.]