John Coyote has written a raw and powerful poem, Killer on the Road, about being a soldier. The style is terse, the language rough. The odd grammatical lapses, whether from art or habit, lend the poem a particular ragged urgency, like the sharp edge of a rusty piece of scrap metal. This comes just in time for the latest debate, about whether or not to bomb something, anything, in Syria.
We suffer no shortage of moral pronouncements from either side, each more strident than the last; Coyote gives us something more precious, and far more useful: a portrait of a human being caught in the crosshairs. In fact, it’s two human beings, caught in each other’s crosshairs, colliding, willy-nilly, in a reality of neither’s choosing. For once in our most recent polemics, we see the enemy, a suicide bomber, in his full humanity:
They killed his brothers.
They came to his country and torn it down to rubble.
He believed in a eye for a eye.
He will be in paradise soon.
Tears fall from his eyes as he think of his wife sleeping alone.
Suddenly, the suicide bomber is no longer a symbol, a cause, but an ordinary man, steeling himself to do what he believes he has to do, however delusional that may be. Coyote makes no excuses here, pushes no particular agenda. He simply points us to a reality we routinely choose to ignore: beneath the bomb filled jacket beats the heart of Homo Sapiens, one of us. It doesn’t mean he’s justified in his actions. It’s a mirror, pure and simple. This is not a particularly new insight; battlefield correspondence from soldiers down through the ages reveals the same. What’s new here and now is the permission to see it while we are still engaged in the conflict. The soldier who, reacting instinctively to a threat, kills this man, ends up looking into this mirror, too long, perhaps, for his own good:
He hold pictures of a man’s wife with two children.
He wonder why he has to kill this man?
He should of been home tossing a football with his brother or something.
He cries for the Iraqi he killed.
Old Sargent said he was a hero.
At this point, it’s too late for redemption:
He would do his duty and go home.
He don’t talk of God or Jesus anymore.
He just wishes for the blood to leave his hands.
There is no happy ending here, no satisfying resolution. Scales drop from the eyes, but a lot that’s good in human values drops with them.
It’s a picture we need to hold onto while we’re making decisions that can kill not just bodies, but human spirits as well. Coyote is clear about where he stands: stay home, no more killing. Others might come to a different conclusion; there is the matter of precedent concerning chemical warfare to consider. Either way. Just let’s go into it with eyes wide open.