Review: Afghanistan Confessions, by Victor Enns

Victor Enns, Afghanistan Confessions (Regina, SK: Hagios Press, 2014). Paperback, 176 pages, $17.95.

This book contains poems about Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2002 and ending in 2014, Canada’s military mission to that country was controversial and dangerous. Victor Enns examines this war from the perspective of the soldier—four fictional soldiers, in fact—on the ground and in gritty detail. The book is divided up into sections representing the voice of each soldier, with the exception of the last section, which is named after a soldier’s wife. There’s “Albert,” “Jimmy,” “Sergeant Willis,” and “Jolene.” Each section poetically explores the notion of warfare primarily from the perspective of the male, drawing from the classical tradition in contemporary verse form. Take for example, the opening poem to the book, titled “disembarking Hercules”:

I’ve read Homer, I loved the Illiad.

To give glory, to get glory; that’s why I’m here

What little forgiveness God brings to me—

I sing.

So begins the poet-soldier in a voice that seeks both glory and absolution.

Warfaring at ground level is visceral. It’s about killing—“ My job is to kill the enemy. Not people” (“I love my job”); maiming—”My friend’s legs lost” (“people get ready”); and inevitably also about sex—“all I’ve got is a hard on” (“prayer”)—and defecation—“I stand for a piss, the sand on my foreskin” (“ironman / many rivers to cross”). The poems don’t often sing so much as state facts in voices raw, bald, bawdy, and brash. There are a lot of rock-and-roll references, as well as the use of jargon-like acronyms particular to the military, like “FOB” (forward operating base) and “IED” (improvised explosive device), as well as the typical derogatory terms for the enemy—‘‘Talib boys,” “Haji raghead.

However, the overall tone of the book is not celebratory; war is grim, and veterans of it are damaged. This is made patently clear in the Afterword written by Neil Maclean. A soldier and a veteran of the Bosnian conflict as well as of Afghanistan, Maclean was asked by Enns to advise him on the book’s poems. While revelling in the adrenaline rush combat gives him, Maclean is also aware that he has, in his own words, “dehumanized people. I had zero compassion left for any of them—men, women, or children. I held them all responsible for the death of my friends.” For whatever high-minded reasons or low-minded—‘I was bored’ (“conquistador”)—one goes to war, especially a war in another country—suddenly, killing becomes all about a base desire for personal revenge.

But how, truly, does one overcome this desire? It is “religion” that struggles with this question, and “religion,” although referred to in this book of poems, is more implicit in the work than explicit. This is perfectly fine for contemporary poetry, but perhaps not so much for actual warfaring.

It is from “religion” that we learn that life is sacred, that killing is a sin, that it is God who avenges, that it is important to forgive one’s enemies or turn the other cheek. Although this admittedly Christian set of beliefs is limited—there are many other aspects to the faith, of course—“religion” in the context of war cannot be proffered up as an excuse to explain away the motivations of human beings. Religion in fact speaks deeply to these motivations. “I’m not a religious man,” Neil Maclean says. Oh, but you are, I’d like to think, you’re as religious as the Taliban whose desire for revenge is every bit as human as yours.

My commentary here, however, has over stepped the boundary of this review. Enns has done a remarkable job of investigating the heart and mind of the average Canadian soldier in Afghanistan. The poetry is visceral, fresh, and provocative, and moreover, an important record of the voices of those who fought, died, and/or survived Canada’s gruelling twelve-year deployment in that country’s war.

 

Sally Ito lives and writes in Winnipeg. Her most recent book of poetry, Alert to Glory, was published in 2011 by Turnstone Press.