W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation
By Sanford Kelson (reviewer)
W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation — Vietnam, America and the Written Word,
edited by Jean-Jacques Malo
After I read the book, it confirmed that the editor's introduction is superb, thus the next paragraph is taken from it verbatim:
Studs Terkel introduced Ehrhart as "the poet of the Vietnam War." Librarian and scholar David A. Willson called him a "master essayist." Donald Anderson termed Ehrhart's memoir Vietnam-Perkasie "the best single unadorned, gut-felt telling of one American's route into and out of America's longest war while Michael Uhl, writing in The Nation tagged Ehrhart's memoir Busted "an American original." Historian H. Bruce Franklin wrote that Ehrhart is "the preeminent figure in Vietnam literature...and himself unsurpassed as a poet."
Ehrhart considers his work to be much more diverse than generally acknowledged and that he is much more multi-dimensional than a Vietnam War poet. I am merely an interested reader and cannot judge art as scholars and students of poetry can. Nevertheless, not being competent in a subject never stopped me from opining on it, to wit: All of Ehrhart's works are indeed exceptional.
Ehrhart's combat experiences caused him to quickly, maybe intuitively, conclude that the war was severely and morally wrong. After discharge, and some emotional re-adjustment, he immersed himself in study of how and why the US got into Vietnam and mastered the subject. His experience and study, coupled with being the moral man that he is, informs his poetry such that he cannot be honored in anyway but as the poet of the American War. Plus, his essays, books and verbal skills are also exceptional and special.
Many people are attracted to his war poetry but I suggest that people might also explore his non-Vietnam War work. Yes, the Vietnam War spoke to Ehrhart and he writes about the war in a powerful way, however, he applied what he heard to other aspects of his life. It would be correct to conclude that his morality and understanding and passion for life, sparked to a considerable extent by his war experience, qualify him as a renaissance man. Ehrhart considers himself a "normal" poet and not as somebody who can only speak about the Vietnam War.
Ehrhart says that all of his poems are a part of his own story and that story is his life. His life is sometimes political, sometimes not, and sometimes mixed. He gives examples, one of which is: "Take my poem Responsibility. Its first stanza is about me waking up after a night of love, but from there the poem turns to Central America and the whole dictatorial system of the region." The poem shows how private and public awareness can blend into one another and is also only one example in the book of how his thinking and maturing over three decades has evolved. This book may enlighten the reader, as it has me, about aspects of life that might not otherwise be discovered.
The book consists of 19 interviews conducted over three decades by diverse people including, for example, high school students and honored scholars. I have randomly selected examples of Ehrhart's responses to various interviewers' questions, intertwining some of the responses, to wit:
Ehrhart gets the feeling that scholars tend to forget what they are actually talking about in their academic studies of the war. In response to a question involving scholarship about the war, Ehrhart said, in part, that he tries to remind scholars that the war is not an abstract thing ."..we are talking about millions of lives that were destroyed, we are talking about bodies coming apart forcibly ... that this stuff was real, killing was on a grand scale."
I believe that Ehrhart may not be able to talk, write or even think about the war without being passionate and that is why his writing is so powerful. It is why he connects so well with his readers and listeners. Scholars, without the war experience, cannot connect with others in this way.
Furthermore, the war experience, I believe, has made Ehrhart much more attuned to the good things in life, which he also writes poems about, like love for his wife and daughter, for the high school students who he teachers, and for his friends and nature, too. He relates that all his writings are in the final analysis about his life and therefore it's all very personal. He gives an example: "US tax dollars were spent at a million and a half a day on killing in El Salvador." He says it was done in his name. Erhrart says, "If that isn't personal I do not know what is." If Ehrhart had not served in Vietnam would he have ever come to this same deep feeling?
Ehrhart acknowledges that people find some or much of his work controversial. How's this for an example of controversial?
"Americans should have learned that their leaders often make decisions based on a terrible combination of arrogance and ignorance, and that Americans should always be skeptical when their government says, 'We need your children to fight and die for their country now.' Americans should have learned that what their government leaders tell them is not always the truth. Americans should have learned that the ones who start wars are seldom the ones who fight and die in them. Americans should have learned to mind their own business and stay out of the business of others. Americans should have learned to ask hard questions and pay careful attention to the answers. Americans should have learned that political questions cannot be solved by military means. However, the Reagan Wars in Central America in the 1980's, our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other situations the US has gotten involved in around the world since 1975 clearly demonstrate that few Americans, certainly not those with access to the levers of power, have learned any of those lessons. It makes me very sad."
Americans who are not skeptical may find the above controversial but is it? Those who do find it so may challenge Ehrhart's patriotism. Bill responds to that charge thusly:
"What do we even mean by patriotism? Love of country? Should I love a country that has the highest murder rate in the world, the highest rate of incarceration, the highest rate of infant mortality in the developed world, the greatest maldistribution of wealth in the developed world, the worst health care delivery system in the developed world? Should I love a country where it is illegal to smoke marijuana but it's okay to wage unprovoked war against Iraq on the fabricated pretext that US security is threatened by weapons of mass destruction? Should I love a country where politicians work for the people who pay for their obscenely expensive election campaigns? Should I love a country that spends more on military weaponry than the entire military budgets of all other countries in the world combined while 20 percent of its children go to bed hungry every night? What do we mean by patriotism? Blind obedience? Willful ignorance of one's own history? I listen to the patriotic drivel that comes out of the mouth of people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who were nowhere to be found when I was slogging through the rice fields of Vietnam getting my ass shot at, and I think of Samuel Johnson's dictum that, 'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.' I love my wife. I love my daughter. I love my friends. I love to go jogging in Valley Green. I love walking into my classroom every morning and engaging my students. I love it when I write a good poem. I pay my taxes. I vote in every election, even the primaries. I do what I can to make the United States an honest country, a country I might be proud of. So far, my efforts don't seem to have made much of a difference. As for 'patriotism,' it's just a mushy abstraction that doesn't really mean much when you take a hard look at it."
"Why do Americans find it so difficult to acknowledge their country's history and the problem of that history," Ehrhart asks. Hmmm, if readers of this review have any reflections on why it is so difficult, consider sending those reflections to VVAW and maybe they will be published.
Part of my answer to "why," if I may go first with my reflection, is that Bill recognizes that his book sales do not do very well and it may be because so many of his books, as he says, deal with "politics being personal which does not make good art and it certainly does not make relaxing reading."
But, maybe good art and relaxation are not the highest and best uses of communication? Maybe understanding the personal nature of politics is a higher use? Bill says: "I simply have things to say, and I'm trying to say them as clearly and compellingly as possible."
In one of his poems Bill "clearly and compellingly" wrote: "silence to injustice/large or small is simply cowardice." Maybe this is why so many Americans watch sports TV every chance they get instead of considering why its government sends so many of its young men and women to kill or be killed, mostly, if not always, for lies. To consider this might provoke guilt and action and maybe, as Bill may be suggesting, many are just too cowardly to put themselves in such a position. Ignorance is safer. Don't read Bill Ehrhart. But, does intentional lack of knowledge of injustice hide or excuse cowardice?
Bill observed that the draft was a force for anti-war protest by college students but as soon as their "asses" were no longer on the line they went home, i.e., fell silent. From the 1970s on, veterans became the driving force of the anti-war movement. These vets' asses were no longer on the front lines either but, nevertheless, they formed and organized VVAW and Bill acknowledges that their voices are still engaged in anti-war activism.
These vets are in it for the long haul because it is the right thing to do. It is not a hard haul just because it is long. It is a hard haul because so many immersed in our entertainment and consumer culture do not want to see, hear or understand and, therefore, these vets are considered disturbers of peace and quiet. And, they pay a personal price for it as Bill explains about his own life in this book.
I wonder whether being considered disturbers of the peace exacerbates Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Is thanking vets for their service instead of inquiring about that service often a "polite" way to dismiss the vets? A greeting that is more of a farewell?
Bill is a member of VVAW and he is still engaged, passionately engaged, in the anti-war movement, which will be assisted by this latest book: "W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation — Vietnam, America and the Written Word."
Sanford Kelson was in the US Army from 1963-66, Sgt E-5, 171st Infantry Brigade, Alaska. He is a lawyer, mediator, and educator.