World War II has had a considerable impact on the life of all people, especially those, who took an active part in military operations. In this regard, the new experience of taking part in the war was particularly challenging for representatives of the younger generations, who have just joined the army and needed the time to adapt to the war, but often they had no time. At this point, it is possible to refer to two poems uncovering the experience of narrators of taking an active part in the military operations during World War II, World War II by Edward Field and How to Kill by Keith Douglas. Both poets refer to their early experience of fighting in the war and both authors show that young people had to learn to kill and struggle for survival from the first moment they got involved in that war. At the same time, the two poems show the readiness of the main characters to self-sacrifice for the sake of their homeland and fulfillment of their mission that reveals their true patriotism which was much greater during World War II than it is now.
World War II by Edward Field conveys the early war experience of the narrator. The author shows his shock and horror with the war from the beginning of the war, which put him immediately in the life-and-death situation, when he has to struggle for survival:
It was midwinter and the waves were mountains
and the water ice water.
You could live in it twenty-five minutes
the Ditching Survival Manual said.
Since most of the crew were squeezed on my raft
I had to stay in the water hanging on. (Field, 1-6).
In such a way, the author has to struggle for survival even before he gets involved into the fight. He stays in the ice water in the midwinter but he has no other choice and he has to carry on, if he wants to survive.
At the same time, the narrator shows the unparalleled unity of American soldiers and their devotedness to each other. The narrator is ready to share everything with other soldiers, even though it puts his own life under a threat:
My raft? It was their raft, they got there first so they would live.
Twenty-five minutes I had. (Field, 7-8).
In such a way, the narrator shares the raft with other soldiers to help them to survive, although his own life and survival are under a question:
Live, live, I said to myself.
You’ve got to live. (Field, 9-10).
The author persuades himself that he has to carry on and live. At the same time, other soldiers are also ready to sacrifice their life for him:
There looked like plenty of room on the raft
from where I was and I said so
but they said no.
When I figured the twenty-five minutes were about up
and I was getting numb,
I said I couldn’t hold on anymore,
and a little rat-faced boy from Alabama, one of the gunners,
got into the icy water in my place,
and I got on the raft in his.
He insisted on taking off his flying clothes
which was probably his downfall because even wet clothes are protection,
and then worked hard, kicking with his legs, and we all paddled,
to get to the other raft
and tie them together. (Field, 11-23).
In fact, the author depicts a heroic act of an unknown soldier, who replaces the narrator in the water, being fully aware that he can just freeze to death in the ice water as the narrator almost does, when he finally gets out of the water. In such a way, the author shows that heroism was routine during wartime, while such acts are virtually unthinkable today.
The author shows that death was as routine as heroism during the war:
The gunner got in the raft with the pilot
and lay in the wet.
Shortly after, the pilot started gurgling green foam from his mouth
maybe he was injured in the crash against the instruments
and by the time we were rescued,
he and the little gunner were both dead.
That boy who took my place in the water
who died instead of me
I don’t remember his name even. (Field, 24-31).
In fact, the author stresses that he did not even know the name of the boy, who has saved his life replacing him in the water. In such a way, the poet gives implications that such heroic acts were absolutely normal and occur frequently since people, who did not even know each other, sacrificed their lives for each other easily.
This is why the author places emphasis on the fact that death could strike anyone in that pointless and bloodthirsty war:
It was like those who survived the death camps
by letting others go into the ovens in their place.
It was him or me, and I made up my mind to live. (Field, 32-34).
At the same time, the author shows that only exceptional people could be true heroes since, he himself, was still concerned with his survival that was quite natural for any person, in face of a deadly threat:
I’m a good swimmer,
but I didn’t swim off in that scary sea
looking for the radio operator when he was washed away.
I suppose, then, once and for all,
I chose to live rather than be a hero, as I still do today,
although at that time I believed in being heroic, in saving the world,
even if, when opportunity knocked,
I instinctively chose survival. (Field, 35-42)
In such a way, the poet reveals the fact that people participating in the war were driven by their instincts rather than by their reason and it is their instincts that helped them the survive and uncovered the best part of them:
As evening fell the waves calmed down
and we spotted a boat, not far off, and signaled with a flare gun,
hoping it was English not German.
The only two who cried on being found
were me and a boy from Boston, a gunner.
The rest of the crew kept straight faces. (Field, 43-48).
Thus, the narrator and the gunner survived relying on their instincts mainly and their survival was just a piece of luck, while others died. Such proximity of death naturally made people desperate but still they performed their functions because they were true patriots and compatriots helping each other like the little gunner.
In this regard, How to Kill by Keith Douglass uncovers an internal struggle of the narrator, who learns how to kill to survive during the wartime. At the same time, similarly to the narrator of World War II, the narrator of How to Kill also has to struggle for survival and he undergoes the rapid transformation from a child into a man because he has to survive relying on his primary instincts that help him to learn how to kill to survive:
Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill. (Douglass, 1-6).
Similarly to Field, Douglass also relies on instincts which prove to be essential during the war to survive. The narrator perceives himself as a machine created for killing. At the same time, the narrator reveals the fact that to kill is not an easy thing to do because he has to kill other people, who are just like him, who have mothers, lead routine life just like himself, but he has to kill to survive and to help his country to win the war:
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears (Douglas, 7-12).
In such a way, Douglass also shows that death has become routine during the war. He kills as if he does it day after day. Nevertheless, numerous deaths he witnesses and causes have not deprived him of humanistic attitude to other people, including his enemies. He apparently mourns on the person, whom he killed but he apparently had no other choice:
And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost. (Douglas, 13-18).
The poet emphasizes the easiness of death but, unlike Field, who depicts people, who are ready to die for their homeland, Douglass shows people, who are ready to kill other people for the same purpose. However, the author emphasizes the dehumanizing nature of the war, when human life turns out to cost nothing to the extent that he allegorically compares the death of a man to the death of mosquito to show how insignificant the death during the war has become and how human life has been devaluated:
The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches (Douglas, 19-24).
In such a way, the author shows horrors of the war, when people kill each other easily. In fact, they have no choice and they have to kill because this is the question of their survival and they have no time to think during the battle.
Thus, the two poems discussed above uncover the heroism of American soldiers, who take part in the war and who are ready to die any moment for their homeland. On the other hand, the poems reveal the devaluation of human life with the death becoming a routine.
Douglas, L. How to Kill. Retrieved on December 5, 2013 from http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/how-to-kill/
Field, E. World War II. Retrieved on December 5, 2013 from http://voiceseducation.org/content/edward-field-american
Keegan, J. The Second World War. New York: Random House, 2008.
Petersen, W. Das Boot. New York: Random House, 1981.
Remarque, E.M. All Quiet in the Western Front. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.