The correlation between military combat and the writing of poetry has a long and historic tradition. There are many suspected reasons for this: war unfailingly touches the hearts of everyone involved in it and raises life’s deeper questions about death, justice and the nature of humanity. It is also about incorporating the ‘unchanging aspect’ of the primitive fight into a literary tradition, according to former Army Captain Patrick Bury, of the Royal Irish Regiment.
Bury, 31, was at Hull University last week to discuss his book Callsign Hades (2011), an account of his time fighting the Taliban in Helmand Province, Afghanistan over a period of four years. The presentation, which lasted around an hour, featured anecdotes about his regiment in combat in Sangin (a Taliban stronghold), his personal admiration of the war poets gone by, and the eternal relationship between politics and prose.
The tragedy of the First World War is imprinted in the minds of all British schoolchildren through the storytelling of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, and for Bury at least, it seems to have had a lasting impact. I asked whether the mythology of living up to these literary giants was what spurred him to begin his project: ‘It was definitely something I decided to do after I went in. I’m not the biggest fan of war poetry but I felt a need to record the events I was witnessing in some way’.
Bury accordingly touched on how he sometimes felt as though he was signing up for the ‘old lie’, an idea immortalised in Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est (1920), which deals with justice amidst the fighting and the heart-breaking reality of conflict. Further scepticism was allowed for when discussing the ‘corrosion of combat at a moral level, leading to the realisation that young men were sacrificed for the policies of old men’. Bury used this sweeping maxim to bring the issue up to date, making important points regarding the severe lack of equipment and numbers of soldiers in the Afghanistan War.
In contrasting again the wars of old with our modern clash between western ideals and the theocratic terrorists of the middle-east, I asked Bury whether he felt a combative distinction between ‘localised’ wars like the Great War and our current ideological battle: ‘I don’t really think there’s much difference – except for the lives of those back at home’. Bury is clearly not too interested in getting into a political debate regarding war, for he wants to channel the unchanging nature of conflict and incorporate this into creating ‘self-identifying’ poetry for soldiers.
After a discussion about Bury’s childhood, it seems obvious that his early ambition to be in the military shines through as being the deciding factor for engaging in the war, way before any political or literary ambition. This very ‘masculine’ desire permeated the young Patrick Bury growing up during The Troubles in Ireland (with a couple of ‘hippies’ for parents), as did the relatively ‘simple’, masculine poetry of war, following the template of poets like Alan Seeger and Wilfred Owen.
This macho drive, it seems was far-reaching across the army. At one bizarre point in the presentation, Bury played a YouTube video of the AC/DC song ‘Hells Bells’, claiming that he and his comrades in the regiment would play the song loudly before combat, to get them pumped up for the fight. This recalls perhaps one of the worst clichés about the US and British Army, encapsulated in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Apocalypse Now (which Bury briefly mentioned), in the scene where the helicopters blare out music whilst blasting a Vietnamese village with gunfire. Perhaps, in light of the earlier discussion, ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath would have been more appropriate considering the lyrics: ‘politicians hide themselves away, they only started the war, why should they go out to fight, they leave that role to the poor’.
At moments like this, and when Bury tries to fuse together cross-generational war poets by using generalisations, the presentation can feel more like an amateur high school assignment than a university guest lecture. But first and foremost, Patrick Bury is an ex-soldier with a clear and valuable insight into what is a relatively normal soldier’s life in the army and the traditional relationship between this experience and literature. And I have learned about the unbridled motivation behind Bury’s and probably countless other soldiers passion for warfare, an impending feeling of duty, summed up best by Alan Seeger himself: ‘I have a rendezvous with death’.