This poem was written during the Fallujah campaign in 2005. It is also listed on the Poets Against the War web site.
under the fallujah sun
The body lies there,
bloating in the heat.
Down the street,
the battered street,
A lonely figure,
sprawled in death.
No one near.
No loved ones.
Only the body,
lying in the gutter.
in their body armor,
crabwalk past the body.
Eyes constantly moving,
spying every tiny movement.
The scrap of paper,
blown by the wind,
draws instant attention.
As does the dust devil,
swirling near the mouth of the alley.
The only thing beneath the notice
of the constantly vigilant eyes
is the unmoving body of the woman,
beneath the searing Fallujah sun.
The thoughts behind the poem.
I rarely offer an explanation for my poems. Poetry, like art, is meant to make the viewer think. The artist or poet has failed if they have to explain it. This poem is a little different, so I did not hesitate when someone asked me to explain it.
This poem could have been written about any war, at any time, in any place. It happens to be about Iraq. It wasn’t meant to be a condemnation of the marines or even a condemnation of the Fallujah campaign. It is more like a reminder that, as General Sherman said, “War is hell”. The perpetrators and practioners of war try to hide that fact behind words like “smart bombs”, “surgical strikes”, and “collateral damage”.
In reality, war is about mangled bodies, torn limbs, dead children, steaming guts, and copious amounts of blood. War is not clean and sanitary. On the contrary, it is about dead fathers, crippled brothers, missing husbands, lost sons, brutalized daughters, butchered wives, and grieving mothers.
This war isn’t about Saddam or WMD, it is about the more than one hundred thousand people who have died and the hundreds of thousands more who have been maimed and injured – men, women, and children. All of this done in my name – and against my wishes.
Numbers like one hundred thousand dead are difficult to picture. Try imagining a pile of bodies that large. After a certain point, it begins to dull the senses. I wanted to reduce that horrific image to a single body to drive the point home.
The woman in the poem isn’t any particular person. The poem was inspired by the news reports during the offensive. Although there was no particular photograph or report that inspired it, there is little doubt that there were bodies in the streets of Fallujah during the campaign. That is what brought the imagery to mind.
The strange thing is that she has become real to me since I wrote the poem. I find myself wondering if she was found by someone who knew her or if she just vanished from the lives of her friends and family. Did she receive a decent burial or is she in an anonymous grave? Did she have children? Did they survive? Are they orphans?
Why was she on the street during this dangerous time? Was she a dutiful daughter trying to reach an elderly, shut-in parent or grandparent? Was she searching for food for her hungry children or medical help for an ailing child? Was she simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
There are other questions – hard questions.
What would I say to her children if they asked me why she had to die? How do you explain to them that she was just “collateral damage”? How do I explain to the children yet to be orphaned that I was against the war, yet did nothing to end it? Where does my responsibility end – at the ballot box? Is that how I justify my inaction when I think about this in the future? I did my part – I voted against Bush. Does that really excuse me?
I was going to end this post with the well-known quote from Edmund Burke – "All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." – however, there is a quote by Albert Einstein that I think is even more powerful – "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing."