The poetry is in the pity

As a book of poems written by members of the British Armed forces is published, the soldier and poet James Jeffrey explains why he chose to record the horrors of war.

November marks both the release of the book Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets and the two-year point since I returned from Helmand province, Afghanistan, where I was attached to the Welsh Guards Battle Group during 2009.

Four of my poems are featured in the book and I am supportive of its launch and grateful to be included. Yet when I discovered the choice of title, my heart sank. The notion of heroism is the last thing motivating war poetry, be it mine or that written by the First World War poets I studied as a schoolboy. Underpinning such poetry is the urgent petition to reveal the truth that war is anything but heroic. It is a mess, bereft of the heroes of popular imagination. Afghanistan preceded by two Iraq tours forced me to confront that. And from it comes my poetry.

Previous war poetry has been written so well that I find myself questioning the use of even trying. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others, encapsulated the horrors of the First World War so viscerally: their poetry is insurmountable.

Owen's statement – "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity" – is well known, but another line, in the same preface to his collection Poems (1920), is not: "This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them."

How, if that was the situation after the First World War, could it be any different with Iraq and Afghanistan? English poetry is still not fit to speak of heroes – rather, as Owen further stated: "All the poet can do today is to warn." My poem "Coward" attempts this by reflecting on the wounds of today's soldiers: "I see the surgeon's work/ The politician's choice/ The people's lot."

Sassoon, wounded twice, awarded the Military Cross and nominated for a Victoria Cross, had no time for poetic allusions to heroism. In 1917, despairing of what he had witnessed, he wrote a letter entitled "Finished with the War: A Soldier's Declaration". It was published in The Times on 31 July and read out in the House of Commons.

In it, he stated: "On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise."

Any reference to the heroic in Iraq and Afghanistan is a similar deception that disregards the agonies endured by both soldiers and civilians, which my poem "They Don't Seem to Realise" addresses: "It is indeed hard to say much/ Thinking of dead children/ The bags of scooped up flesh."

It appears that Owen and Sassoon's warnings have been lost among the din of today's heroic references and presentations glamourising combat. Recent book titles have included Dressed to Kill, Real Heroes: Courage Under Fire and In Foreign Fields: Heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The last example appears to draw on Rupert Brooke's oft-quote "The Soldier": "If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there's some corner of a foreign field/ that is for ever England." Brooke died before seeing action. It is likely his poetry would have shifted in tone if he had lived to witness the carnage of the First World War.

This what happened to Sassoon. At first, his poetry, like Brooke's, viewed war through a romantic lens. But the poetry for which he is remembered is not cited so widely as Brooke's more palatable words. Perhaps Sassoon's preoccupation with civilian complacency strikes too close to home:



"You love us when we're heroes,        home on leave...

You believe

That chivalry redeems the war's        disgrace."



Owen is quoted more regularly, but often his poetry is co-opted for spurious jingoistic effect. Rarely do you encounter the last section of "Dulce et Decorum Est":



"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori."



That "old lie" being that it is sweet and proper to die for one's country. Though the First World War poets may never be bettered, I feel there is a need to write poetry based on the fact that people have forgotten what those poets tried to convey. Their message needs to be applied to Iraq and Afghanistan, lest we become too enamoured with such hazardous pursuits.

I've tried to achieve this in my poems, while suggesting nothing heroic. "Coward" recounts how it feels to be back among society afterwards; "They Don't Seem to Realise" focuses on your family's reaction to your behaviour; and "Stretcher Case" recalls the evacuation from our camp of a young boy who had had his foot blown off: "He just lays there, no tears/ Mouth closed, face set, awaiting/ The next step of his tragedy."

Admittedly, "The Last Supper" comes closest to the heroic, being an elegiac account of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, a bomb-disposal expert who worked for the Battle Group and was killed just before his tour ended. Ultimately, though, there is little I find heroic about his last moments, defusing a bomb: "All the way to where you could not turn back/ From the blinding hot blast demanding sacrifice/ Taking away the scruffy cheerful calm."

Despite the sorrows that persist, I believe that being in the military was about protecting what I loved. This is why I will always feel enormous pride at having served in the British Army even though, nowadays, I see children with their parents and suddenly feel like crying. This is both inconvenient and bewildering. I never saw a dead child in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I didn't see much, in fact, but things still stay with you – so I keep writing the poems.



James Jeffrey, a captain in The Queen's Royal Lancers, was attached to The Welsh Guards Battle Group in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick in 2009

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players