The tiny body, closely wrapped, lies dreaming in the dark.
Her dreams bewitched with fantasies, prolific though obscure.
Her measured breathing, barely heard, reflects the sounds of peace;
If only I could find such rest amid what I endure.
I touch her face and feel its warmth and offer up a prayer
And hope to God that, in her life, she’ll not endure such days;
That this small child will never know the burdens that I bear;
The unseen scars of wounds within no surgeon can erase.
For in those northern villages, when I was dressed in green,
I witnessed scenes no man should see nor ever have to tell,
Where friends with whom I’d laughed and sung lay dying on the ground;
I held them as their lifeblood seeped beneath the shot and shell.
Yet there were some who didn’t die, whose battles never end;
They are the limbless, lame and blind who struggle every day,
Their hearts are brave, their spirits strong but bodies never mend
When shrapnel frags and “jumping jacks” have blown soft flesh away.
And never was a body made to withstand flame or fuel
As “Willy Peter” burns itself through to the marrow’s bone
But one wound stands apart, I think, with nothing quite as cruel:
The damage that the napalmdoes – a class all on its own.
The cindered flesh, the charcoal scabs that cover every pore
Make strong men blanch and stomachs heave, just witnessing the sight.
The helpless screams, the broken lives, the tears of tragedy
Among the nightmares, cries and screams that punctuate my night.
Like some sadistic movie scene, it shatters my repose
Replaying in my head, provoking nervousness and fear
For I still bear the brand of pain a soldier only knows
Not made by bullet, bayonet or sharpened panji spear.
And if at times I drink too much to numb the nagging grief,
I drink a toast to warriors whose sacrifice I mark.
Be understanding if you see me weeping “without cause”.
The cause is there; it never leaves me, ‘spite surrounding dark.
My nation nowexpects of me to “soldier on” despite
The months of wand’ring free-fire zones, of padi fields of rice.
Our mission – to search and destroy these strangers’ homes and lives
To “pacify,” our leaders said, this tropic paradise.
But far too often, all we did was to lay waste the land,
As village after village fell beneath the Zippo flame.
No wonder that the wrinkled faces showed the hate they held,
Despising our self-righteousness and wondering why we came.
And here we are, back here once more, in families and homes,
Some teachers, tellers, bus drivers, mechanics, nurses, too.
No outward sign of what we were, or what we did or saw,
As if our past could be ignored, our problems small and few.
Our own wives, even, cannot see the restless force within
That brings back dreams of those we loved but who were swept away,
Whose body bags were dusted off, their youth and vigour spent
Whose shattered limbs and battered hearts lie in the earth’s decay.
Can anything be worth the price paid by these gallant men?
Can nations ever understand the cost of what they ask?
When fathers, brothers, sons and friends are snatched from life itself,
Do they dare lift the shroud of death to see beneath the mask?
And so I sit and wait ‘till dawn and hope this busy day
Will finally anaesthetise the guilt and grief and loss.
“Here’s peace,” you say, and mean it too; I know you mean the best.
But pain persists – and always will – where soldiers bear their cross.
By RA Lee
Dust Off – term for helicopter evacuation to medical care.
Jumping jacks – anti-personnel mine that is thrown out of the ground to about waist high before exploding.
Napalm – an adhesive incendiary gel, dropped in low-level bombing to spread along linear concentrations of troops.
Panji – bamboo spears used in booby traps and pits, often tainted with animal manure or rotten meat.
Willy Peter – white phosphorus grenade, an incendiary explosive that bores into flesh.