Thursday, July 06, 2006

Faerie Fight Song?

Reading Terry Teachout today, I was caught at the end by his quoting of the song from Midsummer Night's Dream:

Over hill, over dale,
Through bush, through briar,
Over park, over pale,
Through blood, through fire,I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone:
Our queen and all her elves come here anon.


My memory quickly went, not the magical setting of the woods outside Athens, but more to the environs of my days in the Army, and the tune of the Army Fight Song.

There are several versions of the song one will hear while in the Army, not including the hilarious, (and sometimes filthy,) parodies that are sometimes executed with great, almost freakish, skill by the more lyrically talented enlisted men.

The official and incredibly banal corporate jingle that is the current Army Song is not as memorable, as evocative or as fun as its predecessor, The Field Artillery Song, (or as it is more well known, The Caisson Song.)

The Caisson Song, written in 1908 by Lieutenant Edmund L. Gruber, an officer stationed in the Phillipines, evokes the first line of Shakespeare's poem above, and then it descends into the workmanlike details of the Artillery's craft:

Over hill, over dale
As we hit the dusty trail,
And the Caissons go rolling along.
In and out, hear them shout,
Counter march and right about,
And the Caissons go rolling along


It intrigues with with its physicality and self deprecation, and then the lyrics rise to celebratory refrain:

Then it's hi! hi! hee!
In the field artillery,
Shout out your
numbers loud and strong,
For where e'er you go,
You will always know
That the Caissons go rolling along.

This celebratory and rumbling spirit was noticed by John Philips Sousa, who adapted it into a bona fide hit during World War One. But he faced a little pickle when the original composer, Edmund Gruber, showed up looking for royalties for the song Sousa was led to believe was a product of the Civil War. A good history of the song is here.

Perhaps I am put in this mood after reading a great piece in Rolling Stone this month about what it is like in Iraq. I have friends who have been to Iraq, and their observations seem to confirm the validity of the piece, but on a more literary level, it struck a visceral chord with me.

The military reporting during our current conflict rarely transcends to evoke the actual feelings of the troops on the ground, (despite all the worry about embedded reporters bonding with the troops too much,) but Matt Taibbi seems to have nailed it in his piece, "Fort Apache, Iraq." From my Army experience, I read this as if Matt, through another set of circumstances, could actually be some of the grunts about whom he writes. He captures the just the right self-deprecation, loyalty, and fear. For me, this passage is the most evocative of the general Army experience, combat or no:

Not far from the vicious, chaotic ghetto known as Sadr City, Rustimayah is the smelliest, foulest, most vermin-infested base in the whole American military archipelago. A converted Republican Guard compound, the smallish FOB is sandwiched between a trash-burning facility and a sewage-treatment plant, and when you breathe the air here, it feels like drinking a dog-shit milkshake.

Unlike the gleaming, futuristic prefab trailer camp at Liberty, which with its extensive creature comforts and vast white uniformity recalled a Holiday Inn version of Auschwitz, Rustimayah is just a jumble of old converted Iraqi buildings, filled to the cracks with crud and shit and larvae. An old bookshelf in one of the soldiers' dorms here discharged thousands of tiny fruit flies every time I tried to pull a book out; another time, I exited a latrine and stepped in what I thought was black topsoil, only to have the "soil" explode into a cloud of tiny tsetse flies. Even the half-assed attempts to make the place cheery -- like the Internet cafe-store-hangout called "Baghdaddy's!" not far from the company headquarters -- just made this stinky, edge-of-the-city outpost feel that much sadder.

Anybody who has served an overseas assignment, will instantly recognize the stark contrasts painted by his depictions of the different living quarters. In my own experience, stationed in Korea, there was a decidedly wide gulf between the quality of living at Yongsan, and say Camp Casey and its satellites. These weird, socio-economic divides, into which we were all placed by pretty much chance, were a fountainhead to a stream of feeling that an only be explained as a combination of jealousy, stoicism, comradery, envy, and bonding.

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival, probably decades hence, of our first genuine literary talent from the Iraq/Afganistan front. I have stopped reading the first dispatches such as the atrocious Love My Rifle More than You and the super anectdotal, though occasionally humorous, The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell in hopes that some cream will eventually rise.

In the theatre we still seem to be reliant on Docudrama to represent the truth of the fighting experience of this conflict. But Docudrama, though rooted in facts and first-person, is perhaps tethered too much to ideologies and struggles too much against all these to ascend. Maybe that will change soon. Dark comedies will emerge, romances will emerge, tragedies will emerge. Through the suffering, a masterpiece will be forged, something trying to make sense, through words, what may not be able to be expressed in words.

For now, I think I will reread parts of this Rolling Stone Article, where Taibbi describes a stoic squad leader, Hennes, this way:

At work Hennes had the mildly pissed-off, perpetually put-upon look of a man who has been asked to run a McDonald's in an insane asylum.


And the Army goes rolling along!

1 comment:

Ashvattaman said...

I haven't read many military blogs, but it seems the war lit that survives from WWI through WWII were fictionalized amalgamations, rather than diary accounts. I suspect that not enough stuff happens to one person, attempting to tell it like it is, to sustain a large body of lit. So, once these guys start writing fiction, and using hindsight to give the narrative focus, maybe you might see the "power" normally associated with strong literary works.