Mike Murry’s Searing Poetry: Some of Its Meanings

General William Westmoreland

General William Westmoreland

W.J. Astore

Readers of The Contrary Perspective are privileged to read the searing “polemical” poetry of Mike Murry.  A Vietnam veteran, Murry writes insightfully and powerfully about U.S. culture and history.  His poems are challenging in the best way, because they challenge us to think again about America’s legacy and the harm we often inflict, whether knowingly or unknowingly, on the world.

About his last poem, “A Clockwork Phoenix Epiphany,” Murry has a few words of explanation about its context and meaning, which some readers may find helpful in interpreting it:

Westmoreland, of course, is William Childs Westmoreland (1914-2005), the commanding general of U.S. military operations in Vietnam until 1968.  History will forever condemn Westmoreland for his infamous racist comment: namely, that “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner.” In other words, according to Westmoreland, the Asian populations of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos — three million of whom the U.S. military killed — didn’t really care how many of their numbers we exterminated. Westmoreland stands-in for the American military’s murderous obsession with Asian body counts as the main measure of “success” in Vietnam.

Another infamous U.S. military quote from that colossal crime has achieved iconic status: namely, that “‘It became necessary to destroy the village to save it,’ a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the [Vietnamese] town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.” — As reported by Peter Arnett on 7 February 1968.

Furthermore, the notorious Phoenix program conducted by the U.S. military and C.I.A. set annual goals and paid bounties for dead Vietnamese bodies — many delivered and counted more than once — on the supposition that “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC (Viet Cong).”

For more on the Phoenix program, see Frances FitzGerald’s classic study of the war, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, but all the scholarship in the world still boils down to the slogan we had back in the day: “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.”

The irony of the program comes from the fact that no matter how many “NLF agents” (National Liberation Front) the U.S. reported “neutralized,” the more of them seemed to materialize out of nowhere. The same goes for the last thirteen years of “neutralizing” the Taliban in Afghanistan. “If it’s dead and Afghan, it’s Taliban,” except that only the first part of that sentence has any truth to it. Unsurprisingly, we have nothing but the old corrupted statistics that the body-count business always produces, no matter what General Tommy Franks said about what the U.S. military does or doesn’t do. Hence the reference in the first stanza to “body counts” as the only thing — other than a looted treasury — that the U.S. military typically produces to justify its existence.

And, of course, the famous novel and movie, A Clockwork Orange, gets a slight twist when I call it a “lemon,” the idiomatic meaning of which needs no explanation. With all the above in mind, then, as well as the opening nod to Shelley and Dante, I put things together in my opening stanza as:

A poet woke midway through his life’s course

Another dreamed beside a public way

But this epiphany comes as remorse

 

That our lost war should rise another day

A clockwork lemon, Phoenix irony,

With villages destroyed and left to lay

 

In their salvation’s ashes, newly free

To resurrect themselves in civil strife;

To stay and die or else to live and flee:

 

Westmoreland’s choice to those who “value life”

Less than we value ours while taking theirs

Computing, as we do, statistics rife

 

With body counts our panic-proffered wares

We sell again our sullied, soiled affairs

Just to make a few things clear about my poem and its opening stanza: the “lemon” reference doesn’t have anything to do with Anthony Burgess and his novel — other than making a pun on the fruit in the title. The idiom, “lemon,” for its part, refers to the U.S. government’s policy in Southeast Asia: a lemon if any policy ever deserved the metaphor. And the word “clockwork” refers to the thoughtless, grinding mechanism of the war, one absent any sense of human agency or creative imagination. In her classic book The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman called this sort of bureaucratic inertia, “working the levers.”

The Contrary Perspective knows that our readers enjoy ferreting out the meaning of Murry’s poetry for themselves.  But we also hope that younger readers, lacking first-hand knowledge of the Vietnam War, may find this explanatory note to be useful in expanding their appreciation of Murry’s searing poetry.

8 thoughts on “Mike Murry’s Searing Poetry: Some of Its Meanings

  1. I confess reference to Operation Phoenix escaped me in this poem; I only connected with the Phoenix bird rising (“rise another day,” specifically quoting the poem). A few quick points: 1.) Gen. “Wastemoreland,” as we in the anti-war movement preferred to call him, made another infamous statement. He declared that the coordinated attacks by liberation forces at Tet (Lunar New Year) in late January 1968 showed those forces were absolutely desperate and had exhausted themselves. A little more than seven years later, of course, they liberated Saigon; 2.) the son of another infamous general, Col. George S. Patton III, can be seen in the documentary IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG boasting that his troops are good kids, but thank goodness also “a bloody good bunch of killers”; 3.) for Contrary Perspective readers from post-Vietnam times who would like to see really good documentaries on that war, I highly recommend the aforementioned film, plus HEARTS AND MINDS. There was also a TV series (History Channel, perhaps?) called “Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War.” I only watched the final three installments, dealing with the wind-down of the war, and they were excellent. They were reasonably fair and balanced; that is, rather than raving condemnations of “the International Communist Conspiracy,” they were pretty objective. I’m guessing the entire series is that way. Stream them, rent them, buy them even (I know, what an old-fashioned concept!), they are very worthwhile. I shudder to think what, if anything, the generation currently in school in this nation is being taught about this war! These projects are likely good antidotes, though.

    • The Phoenix, a mythological bird who continuously rises again and again from its own ashes, serves as a metaphor for U.S. military policy in one third-world country after another. No matter how many times the policy consumes itself in its own failure, it rises again, most recently in the ludicrous attempt by General David Petraeus to dust off the so-called “counter insurgency” doctrine from its undead grave in Southeast Asia only to see it die again — disastrously — in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      As well, the United States did have a specific policy of ripping apart Vietnamese society through something called the Phoenix program, about which Frances FitzGerald wrote:

      “The program in effect eliminated the cumbersome category of ‘civilian’; it gave the GVN, and initially the American troops as well, license and justification for the arrest, torture, or killing of anyone in the country, whether or not the person was carrying a gun. And many officials took advantage of that license. Some of the district and province chiefs engaged in systematic extortion rackets, arresting the rich of their districts twice and three times a year. Other officers settled their old scores or terrorized their fellow officers. The Phoenix program permitted them to indulge in all the practices classical to an irresponsible secret police.”

      The irony of the eternal Phoenix program, then and now (under whatever euphemism the U.S. military applies to it today), comes from the fact that no matter how many times it resurrects itself and fails, the more appealing it becomes to the “military mind,” or at least the American version of that oxymoronic concept.

  2. Regarding the phrase, “Westmoreland’s choice,” in the poem’s introductory stanza, I had in mind something that I had read back in 1972-73 when, as a foreign exchange student in Taiwan, a professor in my Sino-American Relations course asked me to write a paper comparing and contrasting the American military intervention in the Chinese Civil War of 1945-1949 and the American military intervention in the post-WWII Vietnamese wars of national independence: first in supporting the French attempt at reconquest (1945-1954) and then directly (1954-1973). Specifically, from one of my principal sources, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972), by Frances FitzGerald:

    “Up until now, [Westmoreland said in 1965], the war has been characterized by a substantial majority of the population remaining neutral. … In the past year we have seen an escalation to a higher level of intensity in the war. This will bring about a moment of decision for the peasant farmer. He will have to choose if he stays alive [emphasis added]. Until now the peasant farmer has had three alternatives: he could stay put and follow his natural instinct to stay close to the land, living beside the graves of his ancestors. He could move to an area under government control. Or he could join the VC.”

    A journalist then asked General Westmoreland: “Doesn’t that give the villager only the choice of becoming a refugee?” To which Westmoreland replied. “I expect a tremendous increase in the number of refugees.”

    The U.S. military under General Westmoreland’s “leadership” implemented a deliberate policy of driving vast numbers of Vietnamese peasants off their land and into stinking slums on the outskirts of provincial towns and cities ostensibly under the “control” of the inept and corrupt Saigon government. General Westmoreland had given them a “choice,” you see:

    To stay and die or else to live and flee:
    Westmoreland’s choice to those who “value life”
    Less than we value ours while taking theirs.”

    When my professor in Taiwan asked me to sum up the conclusions I had drawn from my paper, I quoted the final line of Barbara Tuchman’s book Stillwell and the American Experience in China:

    In the end, China went her own way as if the Americans had never come.”

    To which I added, “And history will say the same of the Americans in Vietnam.” Today, over forty years later, I would add: “Ditto for Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and …”

    So much for Westmoreland’s Choice. I hope that this helps explain what I meant by the phrase.

  3. Another telling observation from Frances FitzGerald about the “military mind” of General William Westmoreland at work planning military strategy and tactical operations on the basis of nothing more than a flawed (not to mention, bizarre) metaphor. Call this one The Termite Theory of Counter-Insurgency Warfare:

    “In early 1967 Westmoreland gave a most complicated and interesting explanation for the rationale behind the President’s “ceiling” on the number of American troops. “If,” he said, “you crowd in too many termite killers, each using a screwdriver to kill the termites, you risk collapsing the floors or the foundation. In this war, we’re using screwdrivers to kill termites because it’s a guerilla war and we cannot use bigger weapons. We have to get the right balance of termite killers to get rid of the termites without wrecking the house.” To continue this extraordinary metaphor, the American force had managed to wreck the house without killing the termites; they had, further, managed to make the house uninhabitable for anyone except termites. In a different manner, they had made the [American-created puppet government] house unlivable as well.” — Fire in the Lake, p. 460-461 (Westmoreland quoted in Newsweek, 27 March 1967 – almost a year before the Tet Offensive of 1968

    We can certainly see General Westmoreland’s “Termite Theory” at work in Iraq today, as Al Qaeda — who didn’t even exist in Iraq when Saddam Hussein ruled the country — successively overruns one area of that country after another — in many cases with U.S.-supplied weapons obtained in Turkey, Jordan, and Syria. As Noam Chomsky wrote years ago in his book Failed States: “The catastrophe in Iraq is so extreme that it can barely be reported.” And the U.S.-instigated catastrophe just keeps getting bloodier by the day. Deputy Dubya Bush’s stud-hamster vendetta against Saddam “he tried to kill my daddy” Hussein has resulted in not only an ungovernable country, but practically an uninhabitable one as well. Like the mythological Phoenix, General Westmoreland’s Termite Theory of destroying houses with screwdrivers — to “save” them, of course — continues resurrecting itself from its own ashes, decade after decade, as the U.S. mi?itary — a.k.a., the Lunatic Leviathan — lurches from one self-created disaster to another. Africa, anyone?

    As William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” General Westmoreland lives!

    • Let us not rob the US behemoth of blunder any due “credit”: According to NPR News this afternoon (10 June 2014, US East Coast time) the rebels who just seized the city of Mosul in Iraq make “al-Qaeda” queasy, such is the level of their extremism. I put in quot. marks the name of this supposed nexus of evil because I am not sure there really is such an organization, since its leading light, the allegedly deceased bin-Laden, was put in business in Afghanistan by none other than the CIA.

      • I don’t know if you’ve ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Breakfast of Champions, but he has an episode in that book about some desperate Puerto Rican slum dwellers who seized on lurid news reports — about an alien invasion by “an intelligent gas from Pluto” — to style themselves The Pluto Gang. By doing this, they hoped to gain notoriety and status that they hoped would lead the city government to fear them enough to drive the drug dealers out of the neighborhood and possibly even pick up the garbage. These rapidly evolving off-shoots of Al Qaeda remind me of nothing so much as The Pluto Gang dividing and multiplying like a tragi-comic cancer on the world. Every street corner of the middle east will soon have its very own Pluto Gang militia.

        And as for the U.S. murder of so-called “mastermind” Osama Bin Laden, it reminded me of the day Ho Chi Minh died and the U.S. news media began confidently predicting that the loss of his leadership would make the Vietnamese give up their decades of armed struggle for national independence. Fat chance.

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