Thursday, July 18, 2024

How to Be a War Poet — Part 4

In a new series of 12 monthly essays, poet, journalist, and U.S. Army veteran Randy “Sherpa” Brown explores how military service members, family members, and citizens can develop a practice of poetry toward improved mindfulness, empathy across the “civil-military divide,” and even political or social action. 

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How to Be a War Poet — Part 4
“War Poetry Never Dies: The Thin Red Lines that Connect Generations”

When I travelled to Fort Knox, Kentucky to take my first boot-steps in the U.S. Army, I brought with me a copy of William Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” During fireguard duty—every night, we’d take 1-hour shifts acting as human smoke-detectors in our extremely flammable WWII-era barracks—I’d keep myself awake by memorizing ye olde bardic bits. One fragment that has never grown old is King Harry’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, rallying the troops against the French:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

I wasn’t, of course, the first shavetail to latch onto the whole “band of brothers” thing. British Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) famously referred to the ship captains under his command as such, starting with the 1798 Battle of the Nile. And “Band of Brothers” was both the title and epigraph to a 1992 book by historian Stephen E. Ambrose, which also became a popular cable TV mini-series in 2001.

In a World War II narrative comprising 10 episodes, the HBO series tells the story of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment—part of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagle” Division. With the first episode airing just a few days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the HBO series was formative to many veterans of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Besides “band of brothers” references, there are other poetic threads to be pulled from military history. The Crimean War (1853-1856) saw an alliance of the United Kingdom, France, the Ottoman Empire, and others fight Imperial Russia over, among other things, the rights of Christians in Palestine. The war echoes even today, in poetic bursts that are still oft-quoted. Catchphrases such as: “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” are regularly uttered in military ranks, whether in offices and foxholes.

The Battle of Balaclava (Oct. 25, 2854) was notable for the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” in which a British commander of unarmored, sword-carrying cavalry disastrously misunderstood a superior’s order, and attacked an Russian artillery position head-on, under blistering fire. Six weeks later, basing his lines on battlefield reports published in newspapers, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson commemorated the valor of the doomed troops. The short narrative poem, titled “Charge of the Light Brigade,” includes lines that sound like the start of a “there I was” war story among veterans of any era:

[...] Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
   Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
   Rode the six hundred. [...]

Earlier and elsewhere in the same battle, a British infantry commander with too few troops to defend against the attacking Russian cavalry reportedly said, “There is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand.” Defending in a line formation only two-soldiers-deep—the doctrinal manual called for four—the red-coated Scotsmen of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders successfully stood their ground. Some lived to tell the tale. (A famous 1881 painting by Scottish painter Robert Gibbs, titled “The Thin Red Line,” further adds to the resulting mythology.)

The phrase “Thin Red Line” became a lasting and popular metaphor—a reminder that any given country’s armed force is a limited resource. One of my go-to poems in discussions with veterans, British poet Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem “Tommy,” includes more than one “thin red line” reference. Similar to perhaps to the American “G.I. Joe,” the nickname “Tommy Adkins” is historically a fictional, universal nickname for a British soldier. Written in the embittered voice of a common “Tommy,” Kipling’s poem recounts a list of grievances, contrasting citizens’ patriotic fervor during wartime with their begrudging poor treatment of soldiers during peace:

[…] Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap. 
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit. 
Then it’s Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ’ow's yer soul?”
But it's “Thin red line of ’eroes” when the drums begin to roll [...]

Metaphors can expand and evolve over time, of course, and “thin red line” is no different. For example, “The Thin Red Line” is also the title of a 1962 novel by World War II U.S. Army veteran James Jones. The book is semi-autobiographical, and regards American troops fighting on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal.  The novel has generated two movie adaptations, in 1964 and 1998. The 1998 version was directed by Terrence Malick, and is a philosophical and cinematic masterpiece—an art-house war movie. In terms of capturing the brutal absurdities of war, I’d rank it up there with other favorites, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979). The titular line from Jones’ book isn’t quoted directly in the 1998 movie, but for the author, “There’s only a thin red line between the sane and the mad.”

The “Thin Red Line” is also ancestor to the “Thin Blue Line,” a phrase that has poetic origins as a reference to the U.S. Army in a 1911 poem by Nels Dickmann Anderson, but in modern times usually refers to law-enforcement personnel. The “Thin Blue Line” is variously characterized as a symbolic line separating order and chaos, or civil society and criminality. One potential problem with the metaphor is the implied “us vs. them” relationship between a coercive paramilitary force and the citizenry that force is intended to protect. The modern “Thin Blue Line” phrase originated in 1922, in a series of defensive speeches by New York City Police Commissioner Richard Enright. It was the title of short-lived TV panel show produced in Los Angeles in the 1950s, and was a phrase popularized by a racist,  militaristic, and public-relations-focused Los Angeles police chief named William H. Parker III.

Various sloganeers and bumper-sticker manufacturers have tried to make other “thin lines” happen, usually in context of a decolorized American flag. (So much for “these colors don’t run”?) There are designs featuring a “Thin Green Line” that commemorate safety, conservation officers, or industrial workers. And “Thin Orange Line” designs for search-and-rescue personnel, emergency medical services, or construction workers. And even “Thin Red Line” flags for firefighters, rather than military personnel.

Obviously, it isn’t very standardized. Or even fully thought-out. Everyone seems to want to stand out in their own thin lines. To me, these ugly black flags seem more about declaring martyr status as a somehow under-appreciated, underdog minority. They are flags of claimed victim-hood.

I have, however, come to expand my personal canon regarding the “Thin Red Line” as metaphor. Rather than as an “us vs. them” crowbar, I think that it can be more usefully framed as something more akin to the “The Long Gray Line.” I first encountered this phrase in a the title of a 1989 book by historian Rick Atkinson, who traced the life-stories of three cadets of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Class of 1966. The title evokes the tradition of envisioning the corps of cadets and its graduates as a long-running continuum of gray uniforms, reaching back into the past and marching toward the future. There’s also a 1955 movie directed by John Ford, “The Long Gray Line,” that uses a similar metaphor.

I think that if I’m going to continue to think of myself as part of any “red line,” it’ll be in this sense: A “Long Red Line” of citizen-soldiers (and poets) past, present, and future.

After more than 20 years “part-time” in U.S. Army uniform—including more than a few on full-time federal active duty—leaving my life as a citizen-soldier was difficult. I no longer saw the same friends and colleagues every month, or shared a common experience and mission with them. I came to realize how much I’d come to define myself in terms of that “Minuteman” mythos—someone who was ready, willing, and able to drop everything to run to the proverbial sound of the guns. (Because I was part of the Iowa Army National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division, I was just as likely to deploy to the sounds of tornados, floods, and blizzards.) And yet, as a veteran, I still consider myself to be connected. That doesn’t give me the right to lecture my fellow citizens on how to carry or display a flag, or whether to kneel or non-kneel during prayers or sporting events. And it doesn’t entitle me to special parking spaces and sales discounts. But it does give me a potential connection, I suppose, to a community of sorts. Part of a tradition, perhaps. 

It might not be as well-known as Gibb’s “Thin Red Line” image, but there’s a 1988 military painting by Donna J. Neary, commissioned by the U.S. National Guard Bureau, that depicts a particular moment in my former unit’s history.  Her “The Red Bull in the Winter Line” depicts an World War II infantry assault against German soldiers at Mount Patano, Italy. The “Winter Line” refers to a series of German and Italian fortifications, that defended the route to Rome.

Inadvertently channeling a bit of Tennyson, I later wrote a poem about the unit’s “Red Bull” shoulder patch. The patch, coincidentally, was originally designed by Iowa painter, Marvin Cone, as he and his fellow Iowans were training in the New Mexican desert for World War I. In a nod to the title of Neary’s painting, I titled the poem “From a Red Bull in Winter” (The full poem appears in my 2015 collection, Welcome to FOB Haiku):

[…] The army wears its stories on our sleeves.
Every scrap is a battle, every stitch is a past.
We are canvas, leather, dust, and blood.
At airport gates and main street parades,
the right shoulder patch carries with it
Africa and Afghanistan, Italy and Iraq.
But you are more than these threads, these fragments, those bones:
You continue the march. You are the present, armed.
You are the “Attack!”

Whether it’s “cannons to the left of us, cannons to the right” or “‘Tommy, this’ and ‘Tommy that,’” reading (or writing!) a few lines of war poetry can connect us to a long line of citizens and soldiers past, present, and future. Poetry puts us in the boots of those who have served before, and hooks our chutes to a larger histories and experiences. Poetry can ground and center us—as veterans, as family members, as people with experiences with the military—and it can build bridges of mutual understanding, appreciation, and empathy.

War poems, after all, are war stories. Not the kind that seek to discourage discussion, full of “you had to be there” bluster and brick. But the kind that start with “there we were” and end with an invitation: “can you imagine?”

Like the song says, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

But old poets? Man, they can live forever.

All it takes is a few lines, written in red.

Next: Scouting the literary terrain: How and where to find war poems.

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Randy “Sherpa” Brown is a 20-year retired veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard, and the author and named editor of more than six military-themed poetry collections, anthologies, and chapbooks of poetry and non-fiction. One recent such project is “Things We Carry Still: Poems & Micro-Stories about Military Gear,” which he co-edited with fellow war poet and military spouse Lisa Stice (“Letters in Conflict: Poems,” 2024). Since 2015, he has served as the poetry editor of As You Were, the literary journal of the non-profit organization Military Experience and the Arts. He also regularly shares tips and techniques regarding military-themed writing at The Aiming Circle, a patron-supported community of writing practice. More info:

Thursday, June 20, 2024

How to Be a War Poet — Part 3


In a new series of 12 monthly essays, poet, journalist, and U.S. Army veteran Randy “Sherpa” Brown explores how military service members, family members, and citizens can develop a practice of poetry toward improved mindfulness, empathy across the “civil-military divide,” and even political or social action. 

* * * * *

How to Be a War Poet — Part 3
“The Naming of Parts: How to Field-strip a Poem”

Last month, we suggested that a poem is a radio.

This month, we suggest that a poem is a gun. But that “gun” is not the right word.

Today, we have the naming of parts.

Before he was reassigned as a code-breaking translator of Italian and Japanese during World War II, British poet Henry Reed was first drafted into the Royal Ordnance Corps, where he served between 1941-1942. In his 1942 poem “Naming of Parts,” first published in New Statesman and Nation, he gently parodies a recognizable event in every soldier’s life: The introductory instructional brief.

No vocation, discussion, or relationship begins without a shared vocabulary. (Ask Tarzan! Ask Jane!) So any instruction—any event through which learning is to take place—necessarily begins with a definition of terms.

In his “Naming of Parts”—the first of an eventual series of six “Lessons of the War” poems—Reed alternates between the droning voice of an Army lecturer, and the distracted inner voice of a basic trainee. The topic at hand is basic rifle marksmanship. It begins: To-day, we have the naming of parts …

In my mind’s eye, I can see the classroom instructor using a pointer to indicate various figures on a diagram, or perhaps an oversized physical model of a rifle. I can also see a daydreaming student’s focus drifting fuzzily outward, perhaps through a window, to beckoning views of red and pink japonica flowers, which “glisten like coral in all the neighboring gardens.”

During my childhood years lived near Dayton, Ohio, my parents enrolled me into what I would later conclude was some sort of weekend youth hunter-safety instruction. I recall that it was sponsored by the Jaycees, but perhaps it was something more like the National Rifle Association. My parents are not gun people, nor am I. I suspect their motivations at the time were to provide me some summertime distraction, or possible connections to new friends.

Through the instruction, for example, I learned basic vocabulary terms, including “muzzle,” “sight,” and “butt.” (You can imagine the grade-school snickering.) After lectures and movies, we applied our new knowledge at an indoor BB gun range. Top shooters—of whom I was proudly one, two years in a row—moved on to team competitions, in events conducted on other summertime weekends, where we represented our geographic communities.

Where trophies only collect dust, however, some lessons were burned as aphorisms into my reptile-brain core, for later application as teenager, parent, and even citizen-soldier. For example: “Treat every weapon as if loaded.” And: “Never point a weapon at something you don’t intend to kill.”

After this indoctrination, I officially put away childish things. I was done playing with toy guns, and ever treating guns as toys.

Years later, through his drill-sergeant minions, Uncle Sam would build and reinforce upon these fundamental lessons. At Boot Camp, U.S. Army recruits learn that the term “gun” applies only to artillery pieces: In all other cases, “weapon” is preferred. Or the even-more-specific “rifle.” (Every service has its respective list of similar shibboleths. In the nautical branches, for example, I’m sure that sailors are similarly drilled to distinguish between “boats” and “ships.”)

There is even a sing-song didactic cadence—a parody inspired by the U.S. Marine Corps’ 1942 poem “The Rifleman’s Creed”—about the difference between one’s “rifle” and biologically male genitals. The phrase was immortalized in the Vietnam War movie “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), in which a drill instructor marches his skivvy-wearing platoon around the barracks. Each recruit bears his rifle at right-shoulder-arms, while cupping with their left hands their respective crotches. “This is my rifle, this is a my gun,” they chant. “This is for fighting, this is for fun.”

Today we have the naming of parts. Specifically, the naming of five basic concepts in poem-making: The foot, the line, the stanza. The volta. And the metaphor. With an awareness of these five key terms, I believe one can unlock any poem. Enough to discuss a poem and share it with others. Enough to handle a poem safely, and to point any dangerous ends in a safe direction.

(Disclaimer regarding the following definitions: I am not a professor of poetry. I am only a practitioner. If you want fancy book-learning, read more fancy poetry “how-to” books. Caveat emptor. “Take what you need; leave the rest.”)


The individual soldier of poetry is the foot, which is a unit of rhythm. A foot is a repeated rhythmic sequence of two or more syllables. The number of “feet” in a line of poetry determines its “meter.” In John William’s celebrated score for the movie “Jaws,” the shark-beat “Da-DUM” is akin to a poetic foot; while the phrase “da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM” is akin to a meter of three—a “trimeter.”

People with degrees in poetry can wax on and rattle off complex discussions about the differences, say, between “iambic pentameter” and “dactylic hexameter.” Let them. As a lay reader and soldier-poet, I don’t necessarily need all that that academic pomp and nuance—I just need to know enough to appreciate how things in poetry go bang, and whether to squeeeeeze a poem or to keep my finger off the trigger.

Think of “meter” as something akin to “cadence.” Different poems have different rhythmic cadences—and sometimes, like the troops’ shuffle after a marching-drill command of “route step,” no rhythm at all.

Bonus tip: Simply reading a line of poetry out loud often reveals what words or syllables a poet intends to be emphasized. Often, working and chewing a poem in our mouths reveals new music. For example, I often revisit Natalie Merchant’s (as part of 10,000 Maniacs) 1987 song, “Gun Shy,” and revel in the various ways she articulates, navigates, and enunciates this phrase: “Stock and barrel, safety, trigger, here's your gun.”


A line of poetry is a phrase. When talking on the radio, to avoid detection by the enemy, soldiers are often trained to break transmissions longer than 3-seconds into multiple phrases with the procedural word “break.” Line-breaks in poems do similar service, to various effects.

I say again:

They visually.


The phrase.


In prose, we group thoughts into paragraphs. In poetry, we group thoughts into stanzas. A stanza is a group of lines arranged in a visual pattern. One or more blank line-spaces provide white-space, separating and organizing stanzas.

In Italian, “stanza” means “room” or a “station.” I think of stanzas as similar to assembling troops in formations. If a line of poetry can be compared to a squad of soldiers standing abreast, a stanza can be thought to appear as a group of squad-lines standing together as a platoon.


In U.S. Army doctrine, one of the nine principles of war is ... “Surprise!” Nearly every poem has a moment of surprise—a “volta” or “turn”—a pivot-point at which something magic happens. Sometimes, it is a moment of clarity, an “a-ha” moment at which the reader is made to realize that the thing being addressed by a poem is, perhaps, not the thing at all. When the familiar becomes unfamiliar, or the unfamiliar becomes familiar.

And the volta can sometimes shift, as readers grow in our understanding and appreciation of poetry. Our potential appreciation of the poem “Naming of Parts,” for example, may grow with the revelation that, given the wartime shortages of 1942, Reed and his fellow recruits may not have had access to any actual rifles (or only to obsolete ones) during their classroom indoctrination. I say again: The trainers were forced to drone on about war, rather than provide soldiers any “hands-on” training with the weapons they would be expected to use on the battlefield.


The engine of poetry is metaphor. A metaphor is an implied comparison of two objects, people, and/or actions. A “simile” is a related concept—it is an explicit comparison. When we say something is “like” another, it is a simile. “Poetry is like an engine” is a simile. “Poetry is an engine” is a metaphor.

Poets (and poetry readers) are insatiably hungry for new metaphors—new ways to illuminate and describe and express the human experience. Poets try to avoid chewing the same terrain, regularly choosing instead explode clichés, to provide thoughts and images in fresh combinations. Why? So that their words will fly past readers’ defenses hot and straight and normalpast cover, past concealment—to (SURPRISE!) accurately hit their intended targets.

In conclusion, here’s Henry Reed again:

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
          They call it easing the Spring.

We have today the naming of parts. After naming the parts, we can engage in conversations. About poems. About wars. About what we understand, and what we do not understand. About how we have changed, and how we have not.

Today, we have the naming of parts.

Next: War Poetry Never Dies: The Thin Red Lines that Connect Generations.

* * * * *

Randy “Sherpa” Brown is a 20-year retired veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard, and the author and named editor of more than six military-themed poetry collections, anthologies, and chapbooks of poetry and non-fiction. One recent such project is “Things We Carry Still: Poems & Micro-Stories about Military Gear,” which he co-edited with fellow war poet and military spouse Lisa Stice (“Letters in Conflict: Poems,” 2024). Since 2015, he has served as the poetry editor of As You Were, the literary journal of the non-profit organization Military Experience and the Arts. He also regularly shares tips and techniques regarding military-themed writing at The Aiming Circle, a patron-supported community of writing practice. More info:

Thursday, May 16, 2024

How to Be a War Poet – Part 2

In a new series of 12 monthly essays, poet, journalist, and U.S. Army veteran Randy “Sherpa” Brown explores how military service members, family members, and citizens can develop a practice of poetry toward improved mindfulness, empathy across the “civil-military divide,” and even political or social action. 

* * * * *

How to Be a War Poet — Part 2
“War Poetry Saved My Life”
As a grade-school member of an active-duty U.S. Air Force family in the 1970s—years before Marie Kondo and Swedish Death Cleaning were popular pastimes—I learned to cull toy boxes and declutter closets every 3 to 4 years, at the whims and orders of Uncle Sam. Moving vans and shipping containers, after all, can only carry so many boxes of stuff.

The constant churn of military life may be one reason that service members, veterans, and family members are often quick to judge things on the basis of utility: Is it multi-purpose? Does it take up much space? Do I have to hand-carry it? Do I have more than one? Do I need more than three? How many can I fit onto a C-130? Is it air-droppable? What does it DO? 

I am not an Ivory Tower poet. I don’t have an M.F.A.  Most of all, I don’t sit around thinking Big Thoughts about red flowers and pink unicorns. I want to use my poetry to make people laugh, question, and think. I accidentally rediscovered poetry as a practice partly because I saw a potential way to entertain my Army buddies, none of whom would ever admit to reading or even understanding poetry. 

Of course, in the military, poetry is hidden everywhere in plain sight. For example, in basic training, soldiers are often taught in sing-song cadences and rhyming chants. Remember “This is my rifle, this is my gun ...”? To me, that’s poetry.

So I started out with haiku, because everybody from Second Grade on up knows how—or thinks they know how—to write a haiku. Not every haiku I write is great haiku—the kind that reveal imperceptible, universal truths when frogs hop into ponds—but I can regularly deliver serviceable haiku. Useful haiku. Haiku that highlight what it can be like to serve and sacrifice while wearing the uniform of one’s country. If someone learns or perceives something new, that’s what I’m after. If I can make people laugh, that’s gravy.

I don’t get hung up on syllable counts, although I choose to adhere to that American grade-school rule of “5-7-5” and a total of 17. I often group my haiku together in titled sequences of five, written from the perspectives of poet-characters who are not necessarily autobiographical. And, yes, I’ve done enough poetry-book-learning to know that haiku about human nature are technically labelled as “senryu.” I choose these impure haiku techniques because they help me find readers—the type of readers I want to reach. The ones “who don’t read poetry,” like my old Army buddies. The ones who don’t even know what the acronym “M.F.A.” stands for, but joke that the first two letters must rhyme with “Other-Trucker.”

Luckily for me, if you write enough haiku—if you kiss enough pond-jumping frogs—every so often, you end up writing something profound. To illustrate, I’d like to offer this one, part of a series titled “a Radio-Telephone Operator writes haiku”:

Last-calling station
I read you Lima-Charlie.
Welcome to my World.

Beyond triggering obsessive-compulsive syllable-counters, what does the radio-operator haiku poem DO? As the writer, I hope first that it captures attention long enough to amuse or entertain. I hope that it invites questions and conversations—what does “Lima-Charlie” mean, Sherpa? How is it pronounced? (Glad you asked, as it provides this bonus teachable moment: It’s pronounced “LEE-ma-CHAR-lee,” which is the way that radio operators would phonetically spell out the letters “L” and “C.”) I even hope that it sparks in some readers—perhaps those with experiences with radios, whether on military or civilian wavelengths—recall similar moments of connection through silences and voids.

To those readers in particular, the poem’s encoded purpose delivers “Lima-Charlie”—radio-operator-speak for “Loud-and-Clear.”

To those readers in particular, it may seem as if we are temporarily connected—the reader and poet—despite our distances in time and space.

To further illuminate what a poem does, here is my 2021 poem “break, break, break”:

any poem is a communications tool;
the instructions are embedded as code

punctuation and line breaks 
encrypt and specify

how it must be read
but not (necessarily) what it means

think of it
as “Push-To-Talk”

like a radio
for the mind

I remember my very first training sessions on Vietnam-era push-to-talk FM tactical radios. (This was in the 1990s, so the technology was already more than 20 years old at the time.) To make our language more efficient, we learned procedure-words (“pro-words”) such as “over,” “out,” “roger,” and “wilco.” We were taught to break our messages into 3-second phrases. Any longer than that would risk detection-finding by the enemy. The enemy—whoever it was, Soviet Russians probably—was always out there, listening, ready to lob artillery rounds at our antennas. 

Our FM radios operated in the Very High Frequency (V.H.F.) spectrum. In those same days, however, I was reading military thrillers written by Tom Clancy, and about the military’s use of Extremely Low Frequency (E.L.F.) radio transmissions. By dangling miles of wire antenna from planes orbiting overhead, operators could slowly transmit extremely brief and simple messages—think three-letter codes, such as “QZB”—to distant submarines, even when the latter were operating under the water’s surface.

I now think about those three-letter codes and 3-second conversations every time archeologists piece together text-fragments of ancient poems.

What we know of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, after all, is assembled from scraps—only one complete poem written by her remains. More recently, researchers successfully used medical-imaging CT scans and machine-learning algorithms to virtually unwrap and read parts of a 2,000-year-old Roman scroll found carbonized in the ash from Mount Vesuvius. What they found were elements of the Hebrew bible. Bottom line: Poetry can last a long time. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but poetry is a cockroach. Poetry will outlast us all.

Or, put more poetically: Every poem is a message in a bottle. Every poem is a time-capsule. Every poem is a paper lantern. Every poem is a letter home.

What we put into these messages is up to us. Even when we feel powerless to effect change, we can bear witness to the world around us, and to our reactions to it. (If you’d like to learn more, the phrase “Poetry of Witness” was coined by Carolyn Forché, and describes a poetic practice responding to and generating from topics of trauma, war, genocide, occupation, and violence.) We can also use poems to commemorate the people, places, and times that have meaning to us. We can use poems to celebrate moments of joy and creation. We can use poems to provide ourselves moments of mindfulness—focus, reflection, and clarity. We can use poems to create connection, inspire conversation and discussion, and achieve empathy with others.

All of this sounds a bit magical and Mary Poppins, I know. And I promised you that I wouldn’t promise you rose gardens and pink unicorns. So let me put on my Uncle-Sam-Wants-Your-Poetry hat, and point to what poetry can do for you. I can’t promise you that poetry can save your life. But I can tell you that it probably saved mine.

Here, I’m going to avoid giving voice to the mistaken logic that poetry is expressive writing, and that expressive writing about traumatic experiences can help people avoid thoughts of suicide and despair. Just as I am not a poetry academic, I am not a healthcare professional. Too many well-intentioned MFA-qualified workshop organizers—oblivious to the harmful “all veterans are broken” stereotype underlaying their efforts—forget this point. I have often said and written that “writing about war can be therapeutic, but it sure as #$%& ain’t therapy.” If you are having intrusive thoughts about self-harm, I remember enough of my mental-health first-aid battle drills to know this: I will stay with you as a buddy, and help transport you to a professional place of healing. That is all I am qualified to do.

But I am going to tell you that poetry saved my life. Although I am no saint, I am a better, happier, more-tolerant and -accepting person because of poetry. Through poetry, I’ve found community, camaraderie, and comfort—it is something I can daily talk and laugh about, regardless of the latest dumpster fires on social media, or horror stories in the news. Poetry has supplemented and buttressed my Christian faith, my connections to friends and family, my empathy for others.

The past decade hasn’t been easy—not just because I retired from my part-time career in uniform, and began unraveling my self-image as a citizen-soldier. Many of the patriotic assumptions with which I grew up, and subsequently committed much of my professional lives—both as a journalist and as a part-time soldier—now taste of ash in my mouth. The revealed fragility of our Constitutional and social institutions against racists, thugs, fabulists, and grifters, has often left me disillusioned and without voice—or even an idea of what I’d try to say or do, if I had any idea of what to say or do. 

To hack my attention-rattled brain, I’ve often sought refuge in media comfort-food, including old war movies, Buddhist comic books (you laugh; I’m serious), and writing minimalist war poetry. (An aphorism: “You know you’re in trouble, when you write war poetry as an escape.”) In hunting the good stuff, I’ve begun to realize that poetry can not only create clarity, but it can also create a kind of constructive confusion. After all, poetry can make the familiar unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar familiar. (Want to learn more? Check out the Russian Formalists!) It can help us find common terrain, depolarize conversations, and explore grey areas. 

In short, poetry can create space. Space to include and meet others. Space to think and feel. Space to breathe.

At the February 2024 national convention of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (A.W.P.), I was fortunate to experience excerpts of a new poem by Philip Metres, in which he addresses the senseless and systematic killing of innocent people in Gaza. (Metres’ poem, “Dispatches from a Country of Erasure during a Genocide,” has now been published at the LitHub on-line journal.) In the silence that followed, fellow panelist and war poet Paisley Rekdal helped the stunned audience navigate through the moment:

“Poetry doesn’t do anything to make things happen, beyond activating a response from the reader. And, in that way, the reader becomes an extension of the poem,” Rekdal said, before continuing: “Of course, the poem activates nothing without the reader’s consent. The danger is that the reader will say, ‘OK, I’ve felt something. My part of the transaction is complete.’”

In order to do anything, a poem must be activated. In us. In what we do.

Poetry isn’t the only tool in the artist’s tool kit, of course, There are those who might choose to write or read fiction. There are those who might choose to act in plays on stage, or to express themselves through dance. Any creative act is an opportunity to create space, to explore possibility, to prompt empathy and change—in one’s self, and in one’s communities.

Read a poem. Write a poem. Take a breath. If and when you are ready and able, take action.

What does a poem do? It connects you to others. It ain’t therapy. But it might save your life.

Or maybe even your soul.

* * * * *

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, contact the National Veterans Crisis Line:

Dial “988” and then press “1”

Or text: 838255

* * * * *

Randy “Sherpa” Brown is a 20-year retired veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard, and the author and named editor of more than six military-themed poetry collections, anthologies, and chapbooks of poetry and non-fiction. One recent such project is “Things We Carry Still: Poems & Micro-Stories about Military Gear,” which he co-edited with fellow war poet and military spouse Lisa Stice (“Letters in Conflict: Poems,” 2024). Since 2015, he has served as the poetry editor of As You Were, the literary journal of the non-profit organization Military Experience and the Arts. He also regularly shares tips and techniques regarding military-themed writing at The Aiming Circle, a patron-supported community of writing practice. More info:

Thursday, April 18, 2024

How to Be a War Poet – Part 1

Editor’s note: April is National Poetry Month (U.S.)! Starting this month, in a new series of 12 monthly essays, poet, journalist, and U.S. Army veteran Randy “Sherpa” Brown will explore how military service members, family members, and citizens can develop a practice of poetry toward improved mindfulness, empathy across the “civil-military divide,” and even political or social action. An earlier version of this first essay originally appeared in the April 2020 on-line edition of Consequence Forum.

* * * * *

How to Be a War Poet — Part 1
by Randy “Sherpa” Brown

say you are a poet /
are you not already at war?
— the 2021 poem “how to be a war poet,” Randy Brown

No one gets into poetry for fame, glory, or money. As a “recovering journalist” (note: that’s a joke), I often quip that I’ve finally found a vocation that pays less than newspaper reporter: that of “citizen-soldier-poet.”

After years of writing and editing for newsstand consumer “how-to” magazines, concurrent with a 20-year career in the Iowa Army National Guard, I rediscovered poetry at a 2011 weekend writing workshop for military veterans. Hosted by a non-profit organization called “Writing My Way Back Home,” it was conducted on the campus of the University of Iowa, Iowa City.

After a 50-minute session reading soldierly poems—I don’t recall specific titles, so I’ll mention here Wilfred Owen’s 1917 “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 “Tommy” as two titles I now use in my own literary activism with veterans—we were prompted to write freely for 10 minutes: “Write about smells, sounds, and other sense-based memories you associate with your experiences with the military.”

(Here’s a quick tip for workshop organizers wishing to bridge the civil-military gaps in mutual understanding and empathy: Framing the prompt around “experiences with the military” works for “civilian” audiences as well. After all, every one of us—taxpayer, voter, citizen—has at least some connection with the culture and consequences of war.)

A few months earlier in 2011, I embedded as a freelance journalist with a brigade of Iowa citizen-soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. There, I’d again experienced the familiar tang of diesel-truck fumes, the staccato-chop of helicopters overhead, and the lulling background buzz of Uncle Sam’s electrical generators. But I had also encountered the frictions of changed contexts and perspectives.

As a member of the media, for example, I was prohibited from wearing a camouflage uniform or carrying a weapon—foreign concepts to any graduate of Army basic training. More than once during those weeks, I woke up in my bunk, sweating and panicked, hands flailing in the dark, trying to find my AWOL rifle. (You think old habits die hard? Boot camp habits die harder. I call it the “Ghost of Drill Sergeants Past.” He still visits me occasionally.)

So, at the workshop, I wrote my first war poem.

It was about a hug.

The hug had bothered me for months. It was not a big event. It was not “news.” It was a small and unworthy thing—insufficient materiel, I thought, for even a blog post or postcard back home. And yet, it irritated my brain with the persistence of grit in an oyster. When I first arrived in Afghanistan, my former brigade commander—a man I respected and still feared, and who commanded the lives of 3,000 of my fellow Iowans—had greeted me not with a handshake, nor with a salute (I was now a civilian, after all), but with a hug.

I had spent months trying to figure out what that meant.

It took a poem for me to figure it out.

Author and Iraq War veteran Jason Poudrier (“Red Fields,” 2012) once told me about how he uses the practice of writing poetry to freeze moments, and to hold them up to inspection from different angles. Poetry, he said, allows for metaphor, uncertainty, contradiction, nuance. One thing can mean many things. Memories can be acknowledged—even honored—without having to be resolved. Then, after they are written down, they can be placed on a shelf—perhaps to be forgotten, perhaps to be reflected upon again later. Perhaps, even to be published, and shared with others.

The words that resulted from 10 minutes of workshop-prompted reflection were later polished and published as “Normally, a serious man”:

Normally a serious man,
the brigade commander gives you a hug
and later a coin.

You keep turning up like a bad penny, he says.
You have followed him
across deserts and oceans.
First in uniform, now out of it.
You dress yourself these days.

Friends downrange frequently call attention
to your color-filled wardrobe.
You are only following the rules, you tell them.
Camouflage, according to the Army, might make you a target.
The colonel’s coins are numbered.
Two hundred and forty-nine have come before,
but you are a first:
once part of the tribe, but no longer in the fight.
You showed up like Justice,
who also jumped on the plane late.
He got killed while pinned down
trying to secure a helicopter crash.

You are here to share in stories like that.
The coin is worthless, of course,
but it will pay your way back across the water,
once you have found yourself
at war.

“Why the hug?” you ask your buddies later.
It is because you are like a puppy, they say.
You remind the Old Man of better days.
You are no longer dangerous.
You are a puppy.
You are a penny.
You are home.

In 2019, I co-edited a Military Writers Guild-sponsored anthology, “Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War.” Our contributors included poets and playwrights, novelists and educators, soldiers and sailors, think-tankers, historians, and more. Each was a practitioner of writing about war and national security topics, across various genres, platforms, and literary forms.

In one essay, “Recovering the Rhythm of War,” author and veteran Bill McCloud (“The Smell of the Light”) told about how he generated his 2017 collection of poems after re-reading a stack of 52 letters—words he had originally written as a U.S. soldier serving in Vietnam in the years 1968-1969. “When we first return from war, many of us choose either to not talk about it at all (for a variety of reasons), or to talk about it strictly by describing our own personal experiences. We make no attempt, early on, to fit ourselves into the big picture,” McCloud wrote. “I was ready to fit myself, the everyman, into the puzzle.”

My part-time military career was full of disappointments and joys, but it was hardly the stuff of movies and recruiting posters. I’d been an average soldier—at best, a middle-manager in uniform. I was never the smartest, strongest, or highest-ranking person in the room. My Army job involved pushing buttons, connecting wires, and delivering messages. I never fired my weapon in anger. I did sling a few sandbags at home in Iowa. And I eventually got a “combat patch” for overseas peacekeeping duty. Still, as a National Guard member, I was proud to serve my community and my country. Through my service, I had experiences and made friends I’d never have otherwise encountered.

For me, poetry has been one way to assemble those fragments of memory, to add personal and historical contexts to them, and to extract potential meaning from them.

When I read Owen’s words from 1917, denouncing the platitude he calls “the old Lie”—that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country—I think about the betrayal some of today’s veterans feel when reflecting on the ways we left Iraq and Afghanistan.

And when I read Kipling’s words about how civil society fails its military veterans—the 19th century equivalent to a meme about “Thank You for Your Service”—I think about how my fellow citizens spent a year “building capacity” on behalf of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, but returned to unemployment, uncertainty, and eroding civil rights at home.

And when I read McCloud’s essay and new poetry from the Vietnam War, I connect my own “everyman” military experiences to a larger societal puzzle: We are each part of a long narrative. We are each boots on the ground. We are all in this together.

Poetry makes this conversation possible. I’ve seen it during poetry readings, veterans writing workshops, and book events. I’ve also seen it during breakfast, while reading the social media feeds of my fellow poets.

Do you want to be a war poet? If you are a writer or a reader—someone who engages, on page or on stage, with the world and news and people around you—you probably already are.

Next month: Poetry can be therapeutic, but it sure as $#%@ ain’t therapy. So what good does it do?

* * * * *

Randy “Sherpa” Brown is a 20-year retired veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard, and the author and named editor of more than six military-themed poetry collections, anthologies, and chapbooks of poetry and non-fiction. One recent such project is “Things We Carry Still: Poems & Micro-Stories about Military Gear,” which he co-edited with fellow war poet and military spouse Lisa Stice (“Letters in Conflict: Poems,” 2024). Since 2015, he has served as the poetry editor of As You Were, the literary journal of the non-profit organization Military Experience and the Arts. He also regularly shares tips and techniques regarding military-themed writing at The Aiming Circle, a patron-supported community of writing practice. More info:

Monday, April 1, 2024

Chapbook Brews ‘War Poems about Coffee’


With a tip of the campaign hat to both April Fools’ Day and National Poetry MonthMiddle West Press LLC has today launched a new digital chapbook featuring 10 humorous “war poems” about coffee.

The $3 sampler, available as a Kindle e-book, collects new and previously published poems by the award-winning citizen-soldier-poet Randy “Sherpa” Brown, as well as the classic drill-sergeant essay “Listen Up, Maggots! It's National Poetry Month!”

Find the digital chapbook at Amazon here at this link.

Randy “Sherpa” Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit—the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division—as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He served in uniform for 20 years, with one overseas deployment in 2003. He subsequently authored the award-winning poetry collection “Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire.”

He is a former editor of community and metro newspapers, as well as national trade and consumer newsstand magazines, and is now a freelance writer, editor, and independent publisher. His essays, journalism, and poetry have appeared widely both on-line and in print.

His on-cover book credits include co-editing the anthologies “Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War” and “Things We Carry Still: Poems & Micro-Stories about Military Gear.” Brown is a three-time poetry finalist in the annual Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Writing Awards, administered by the Chicago-based literary magazine Line of Advance

Learn more about Randy Brown at:

Middle West Press LLC ( is a Johnston, Iowa-based editor and publisher of non-fiction, journalism, and poetry. As an independent micro-press, it publishes one to four titles annually. Its projects are often inspired by the people, places, and history of the American Midwest.