War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

eight years in

we are a country at war.

we are a country at war.

I have spent thousands of hours with them. young ones from the joy stick generation, the soft and coddled generation (as soft and coddled as their baby boomer parents). but this group is far from coddled. they are tested and weary. more weary than any of us safe at home in our soft beds at night can ever begin to imagine. a year of work up training. then deployment. some young ones on their 3rd tour. the bulk of their 20’s, their young years, swallowed by the world’s agony. drawn to it from a place of ideals (service/the protector), adventure (see the world, soldier), or pragmatism (job, pension, decent money, education), they have spent years away from any semblance of home, normalcy (relationships, hobbies, community). some have survived intact. others bear physical scars, or emotional, or spiritual. some will bear these their entire lives.

and maybe their grandfathers or great-grandfathers know how tired they are. they fought a war too. and maybe their grandmothers or great-grandmothers can imagine. they gave birth, raised children alone, the hum of fear playing quietly in the background of their daily lives for months and years on end. “who’s coming to the door, whose door, what’s that car doing in front of my house, the telephone, the telephone, a letter, a telegram”

Cpl.‘s girlfriend said to me recently, “I remember the summer of ’07, getting a coffee at Starbucks, hearing on the radio, soldiers dead. tried not to think about it. went back to work. that night I ran home. my legs shaking. unable to get the key in the lock. wanting to open the door but not wanting. to see if there was a message on the answering machine. is it him? is it him?” and I said to her, “this will be a long winter, I’ll wait it out with you.”

and MCpl. said matter-of-factly to me yesterday on the phone, “well if I lose a leg maybe I’ll retrain. learn how to fix things.”

the chalks leave regularly now. I’ve heard from my Padre friend briefly, “arrived, tired, a long lineup for the computers, more later.” 36 hrs. of flight. refuel somewhere. staging base somewhere. then KAF. helicopters. Hercs. thousands of soldiers from other NATO countries. heat. dust. the stink off the cesspools on the wind side of the airfield (a small city unto itself). for him, Padre, it’s begun. his long winter in the desert. much longer than 40 days and 40 nights.

I had a letter this morning from an anthropologist who spent several months with the Patricias, both in Canada and in Afghanistan. she’s probably the only civilian woman in the country who has spent more time in the back of a LAV, in leaguers, FOBs, on Ex, with the Patricias than I have. she knows how far one has to dig inside oneself to go the distance with these guys. she wished me luck and said something rather poignant to me, “I feel like I’m handing my boys over to you. [the ones she was with in ’06]” and the boys of ’06 speak highly of her to me.

I’ve written so many times of my hope for objectivity. however soon, Cpl. D, my “first” vet who shared so much with me, the two young ones from Delta Coy. who are so chalk and cheese and who make me smile with their eagerness to do their job well that they stay up all night talking about it even when they’re on leave, Cpl. the angel of the Quartermaster’s who took care of me at Wainwright, the young Lt. who shared her digs with me and gave me a makeover in a uber-girly moment, MCpl. who has made me laugh all summer long (the worst of my life) with his “bitter soldier” rants (I’ll miss the rants, I’ll miss him, terribly this winter)… and so many, many more. and of course I’ll worry for them. and I thank them.

I wrote at the beginning that I hoped to witness dispassionately. but how can one be dispassionate about people who have shared their humanity with me? the very best, the most fragile, the strongest, the weakest, the darkest, and the most honest, with me.

obviously I’ve failed at objectivity. forgive me.

6 Comments (Closed)

Douglas Hill

And thank you for “failing” to be objective; that’s what makes this whole thing so affective and engrossing.

Oct 07 2009 · 11:40


Humanity=subjectivity – unlike some, at least you admit to looking through the individual glasses you wear.

If a robot could do what you do, it would be doing it.

We look forward to your sharing what you see, hear and feel.

Oct 07 2009 · 13:11

Alex VanderWoude

Remember, these youngsters are the good guys, and theocrats who murder girls for going to school are the bad guys. What is there to be “objective” about?

On the one hand you have road and well builders, protectors, teachers who try to show illiterate peasants (not a slam!) how to build a better life for their children. On the other hand you have tyrants who demand abject obedience and punish any back-talk with death. What is there to “compromise” about?

But I fear we civvies don’t have the moral courage to follow through; the jokers we elect certainly don’t. And so it will likely end with a whimper. We will declare victory and go home, except (as always) for those who walked the walk and then had a bad day. But just maybe a seed or two will sprout in that dry ground. Here as well as there.

Oct 13 2009 · 21:49


Alex, when I write of being objective, I’m writing of how I see the soldiers. I always remember last year at Shilo, the 2IC saying to me, “be neither friend nor enemy.” And I’ve tried very hard to be just that and have utterly failed in that one can’t spend a year with people in very difficult circumstances – physically, mentally, emotionally challenging – without becoming close to a few.
As for this war, I’ve stayed away from politics. I try not to read too much about the political, just as I cannot/will not debate. This too is purposeful.
For one, art that is political has a “sell-by” date often. It becomes an artifact rather than something living, which is what art should be, alive.
I don’t want to be either a cheerleader or a gloomster. My job is to witness what it means to be a Canadian fighting an Afghan war in the early 21st century.
One of the most difficult challenges for soldiers is to feel as if they are being used or that their very real sacrifice of a personal life goes unappreciated. Still, the soldier goes where the country asks her/him, does the job most of us could never do.
Thanks for your comments, they make one think.

Oct 14 2009 · 12:11

Alex VanderWoude

You have chosen a difficult path. I, for one, am grateful that you are doing it. I hope to learn from your experiences. Despite your closeness to the troops with whom you rattle around in LAVs, you are not truly one of them, but a civilian like me. Furthermore, as a poet you may be able to transmit your experiences in a way that bypasses the dry filters of prose. Not that I’m dissing hard news, such as what Michael Yon does, but you’ll note his best pieces are poetic in places.

Oct 14 2009 · 21:18


I didn’t choose this path, it chose me, all I was looking for was the correct colour of the dust in Afghanistan for my Elegy… the rest is, well, history.
and you are absolutely correct in that I’m not one of them, could never be one of them, and don’t pretend to begin to understand the life…

finally, your choice of words “difficult path” ring very, very true.

Oct 14 2009 · 22:12

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