In 1968, on today’s date, January 27, the Marines in the trenches at Khe Sanh were beginning to realize that what began on January 20-21, 1968, would turn into a period of horror and death and destruction which would become seared into the memories and psyches of all those who survived.
The 19th Century German philosopher and poet, Friedrich Nietzsche said: We have art in order not to die of the truth.
The truth of what happened at Khe Sanh often seems like a dose of reality so heinous that it is hard to swallow. We want to reject it as fantasy, as false memory, as fiction. But what happened there is truth with a bitter bouquet.
Down inside our minds, we try to figure a way to deal with that nasty truth and so, as Nietzsche probably would suggest, we often turn the truth into art. Over the last 2700 years and more, warriors have been memorializing their war experiences with poetry, which is certainly art.
Somewhere around the Eighth Century, BC, the Greek warrior poet, Archilochus wrote: “I long for a fight with you, just as a thirsty man longs for drink.”*
And in the intervening centuries, warriors have tried to reduce to poetry the profound impacts of combat through imagery be it sight, sound, smell, or the way the mist of a morning before battle gathers on the skin.
In the last one hundred years or so, war poets have been strong voices in articulating what they have witnessed as man has attacked and massacred his fellow man. A list of 20th and 21st Century war poets might include Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen from World War I, János Pilinszky and Randall Jarrell from World War II, Rolando Hinojosa and William Childress from the Korean War, Yusef Komunyakaa and Bruce Weigl from Vietnam, and Brian Turner and Jason Shelton from the wars in the middle east.
Although these poets have gained some fame, the efforts of trying to convert our wartime experiences into something we can look at on a page is a pretty common phenomena.
Fear, horror and pain; what we’ve witnessed and endured in war sometimes acts as a muse and invites us, the warriors, to create, even those of us who aren’t professional poets.
In today’s rendition of the blog, we turn to one of our own, Lieutenant Colonel Ken Pipes, USMC Retired, who served as the company commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines during the siege. Skipper Pipes is also featured in the documentary, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR.
Skipper Pipes’ poem is written in classic form, rhyme and meter, and is published here with his permission. Please respect his copyright.
Tribute and Tribulation
Khe Sanh Remembered
To the men who scaled their mountains
and Seized that far flung plateau,
To the men who held the arena
Against the best the enemy could throw.
Who walked the jungle covered valleys
And waded the leach laden streams;
Who moved through the green shrouded alleys,
Till their muscles cramped and screamed.
To those who fell wounded and bleeding,
Yet arose to fight on ’til the end.
To those who fell wounded and bleeding,
Never to rise up again.
To our comrades who carried the rifle;
Who fired both cannon and gun.
To those who supplied and fought with us
We knew that they’d never run.
To the pilots who flew the fast movers,
And herded choppers all over the sky.
Who calmly watched the green tracers
As they went arching and howling by.
To Gentleman Jim, our commander,
And Jaques, Claire, Morris and Chief.
To Snake, Mike, Korkow and Rash,
And other heroes we respect and keep.
To Stubbe, our brave navy chaplain,
Who interceded for us as our link.
And to DeMaggd, our battalion surgeon,
Whose skilled hand drew us back from the brink.
To Blanchfield, and our navy corpsmen,
The finest and most courageous of all;
Who daily and nightly fought to reach us,
Refusing to succumb to the law.
So now as we move far from the valley,
And the years march away to the fore,
We and our families remember,
All those who made it happen; and more.
© Ken Pipes
Oorah for the Skipper! Ooorah! for poetry. Ooorah! for art.
If you have further interest in war poetry, you can find examples here from those mentioned earlier: Siegfried Sassoon contemplates a letter home to a mother here: Wilfred Owen muses on a gas attack here: ; János Pilinszky ponders prisoners of war here:
Randall Jarrell writes about the men who crew bombers here: Rolando Hinojosa contemplates friendly fire here: William Childress remembers the Korean War here: Yusef Komunyakaa at The Wall here: Bruce Weigl muses about the world between war and home here: Brian Turner on the bullet here: and Jason Shelton on Iraq here.
*From William Harris, Prof. Emeritus Classics, Middlebury College. (http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/Archilochus.pdf).
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