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.