Because they were prisoners,
because they were polite and friendly and lonesome and homesick,
because they said Yes, they knew
the names of the bombs they dropped
but didn’t say whether they understood what these bombs
are designed to do
to human flesh, and because
I didn’t ask them, being unable to decide
whether to ask would serve
any purpose other than cruelty, and
because since then I met Mrs. Brown, the mother of one of their fellow prisoners,
and loved her, for she has the same lovingkindness in her
that I saw in Vietnamese women (and men too)
and because my hostility left the room and wasn’t there
when I thought I needed it
while I was drinking tea with the POW’s,
because of all these reasons I hope
they were truly as ignorant,
as they seemed,
I hope their chances in life up to this point
have been poor,
I hope they can truly be considered
victims of the middle America they come from,
their American Legionnaire fathers, their macho high schools,
their dull skimped Freshman English courses,
for if they did understand precisely
what they were doing, and did it anyway, and would do it again,
then I must learn to distrust
my own preference for trusting people,
then I must learn to question
my own preference for liking people,
then I must learn to keep
my hostility chained to me
so it won’t leave me when I need it.
And if it is proved to me
that these men understood their acts,
how shall I ever again
be able to meet the eyes of Mrs. Brown?
It’s about time we updated this blog. And it’s about time we had a Levertov poem up on it.
I really like Levertov – at her best she’s one of the most stunningly lyrical poets of her generation. Today’s poem is taken from The Freeing of the Dust (1975) – one of her most political collections, featuring a whole series of ‘protest’ poems about Vietnam. Of these, The Pilots is easily my favorite, not so much because of its technical brilliance or the quality of its imagery (though it is a deeply eloquent poem) but because of the way it so perfectly captures the fundamental dichotomy between the abstraction of war and human reality of those who fight it, the way it’s so easy to hate War as an idea, and so much harder to condemn those who fight it in person. What do you say to the families of those killed fighting what you believe is a fundamentally unjust war? What do you say to the Mrs. Browns of the world, who are kind, generous and sincere human beings, and yet who take pride in the fact that their sons are out there attacking and killing innocent people?
The Pilots is set in Vietnam, but the questions it raises, the choices its narrator is faced with, remain (sadly) as relevant today as they were three decades ago.