My heart leaps
up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Mar 26, 1802
It is interesting that the most popular and most anthologized poem to come out of World War II was written by a gentleman whose main occupation was a radio announcer for the BBC. This was Henry Reed's occupation for a good portion of his life. The radio format was where he considered his talents strongest and where his voiced reached the world.
Reed was born in 1914 and attended the University of Birmingham on a full scholarship. He graduated with an honors degree in classical Greek and Roman, and modern literature. Afterwards, he attended Oxford and received a master's degree in literature with his thesis on Thomas Hardy. Reed was then drafted into the military and trained as an infantry soldier. However, he never saw combat because he was transferred into a British intelligence group where he was a cryptologist, deciphering encoded messages. It was during this time he wrote the three-poem series "Lessons of War." Later, these poems were included in a larger book of verse called A Map of Verona. This book, published after the war and republished in 1971, was the only book of poetry that he ever wrote. His remaining time was spent at the BBC Drama Features bureau. He wrote plays for the radio, acted as a commentator and narrator of these plays. Reed produced over fifty BBC plays that were eventually published as several volumes. Reed died in 1986.
The purpose and scope of this paper is to analyze Reed's poem " Judging Distances, " the second of the three poems that compose the larger tripartite of "Lessons of War." However, before this analysis begins, we think it is important to discuss the three poems in their unity and the main thematic of them as a whole. " Naming of Parts ," is the first and most famous of the three poems comprising "Lessons of War." The second is "Judging Distances," and the third is "Unarmed Combat."
The overarching theme of the three poems is the idea of the different realities of military and civilian life. The tone of the protagonist voice of each poem changes from that of a young man, in the first poem, entering the military life and learning the 'parts;' to a soldier, in the second poem, attempting to use this new reality he has been taught; and finally, in the third poem, a man who is no longer a soldier but still is decisively caught in the "dead ground" between the two realities of military life and civilian life. At a deeper level, these two realities, in essence, represent parallel modes of indoctrination that members of society receive through the course of life. As children, we are new, fresh, young, and naive about the 'true' relations of public society. We have not learned the 'right' ways of behaving and acting--what is appropriate and what is not. This beginning socialization parallels the indoctrination that the narrator receives in "Naming of Parts." "Judging Distances" represents a soldier who has learned the rigid vocabulary and the reality of military life, but who is now striving for a middle ground between military and civilian 'reality.' Like the adolescent, he walks the line between childhood and adulthood, struggling to keep his mind in one or the other realm. "Unarmed Combat" replaces the adolescent with a man who has left military reality, but is still struggling to detach himself from his past military indoctrination in order to return to civilian life. But this too seems to the soldier to be a war, or yet another social indoctrination. Thus we see that the only true soul is that of the youth who has yet to be ÏindoctrinatedÓ into any sort of reality, be it military or public. The child, or green soldier, of the first poem becomes the socialized adult soldier where the "Child" is no longer the "father of the man" (Wordsworth).
This idea of indoctrination and socialization runs to the core of the poem(s) and remains an underlying force, especially in "Judging Distances." This is evident in the voice of the narrator throughout the poem. The poem has two very distinct voices that "dialogue" with each other. The first is the higher voice of authority, the sergeant, who directs the soldiers on "the knack of judging distances." The second voice, which answers the first, is of the private who determines distances and is caught in a struggle between realities. The sergeant is a fully indoctrinated member of military reality, while the younger soldier is a confused, partially indoctrinated member of both social and military realities. The second narratorÌs aversion to military-speak is comparable to the adolescent's rebellion against the use of adult language into which he is slowly becoming indoctrinated. These two voices clearly represent floundering between 'real' civilian life and 'real' military existence. Both aim to indoctrinate and both do so in a very deliberate manner.
The first voice is of a drill sergeant explaining to the private the proper way of judging how to find, explain, and destroy a particular target. He tells the private that "maps are of time, not place, so far as the army / Happens to be concerned" (emphasis added), showing that the soldier must relinquish his former method of regarding his perception. The sergeant is telling him, in effect, that the soldier must submit to the 'mind control' of the military if he is to be a successful soldier, and ultimately, if he is to stay alive. He makes no effort to tell the soldier why the judging of distances is to be reported in this manner; he merely passes the distinction off saying: "the reason being, / Is one which need not delay us." Right away we can see that the military mindset is one which need not and should not be questioned. The soldier must take his commands without being bothered to think for himself.
The second voice of the poem, that of the soldier himself, enters in the fourth stanza. As the new voice gives a beautiful description of a sunset, we no longer hear the tone of the military preoccupation--a description deemed unnecessary by the military voice from the previous stanzas. The reader can see the struggle of the second voice to report on the landscape in the manner that the military hegemony wishes him to, and his desire to tell things the way he, as an individual, really sees them. He attempts to tell his superior officer what it is that he sees, but by taking the perspective of his fellow soldier, the one who is "at the end, asleep," he cannot help but rhapsodize about how the fields appear to be framed by "the sun and shadows bestow[ing] / Vestments of purple and gold." He goes on to say that the "dwellings are like a mirage in the heat," and under "the swaying elms" a man and a woman "[l]ie gently together." But he catches himself and returns to the military-speak that the sergeant would expect him to report in. The military voice then reports on "what appear to be humans [who] / Appear to be loving" beneath "some poplars." Not only is the "swaying elm" transformed into "some poplars" (trees included in the military list of 'acceptable' tree types), but also the lovers, who "appear" to be humans, now only "appear to be loving." We can refer to stanza three, where the military voice has clarified that, when reporting, things only appear to be, as animals only "appear to be animals." When in war, one must never explicitly label an object because that object may not be what it appears to be: "Don't call the bleeders sheep." This dichotomy between the military voice and the descriptive voice of the soldier 'plays' with one another throughout the poem, with the military voice overwhelming the poetic, individual, illuminating voice of the young soldier.
The rigid structure of military-speak, or its 'ideology,' is very powerful throughout the poem. It resonates both through the first strict voice of the sergeant and unconsciously in the voice of the young soldier. The military informs the younger, more impressionable soldier of the 'proper' way of explaining landscape. Objects show no importance in and of themselves, but are only important when reporting to another where the target or enemy may be: "The way that you say it/ Is very important." In war-time, the report on landscape must be precise, but not descriptive, and given efficiently. The language one uses in the military complex is limited within this specific structure. Soldiers are taught the categories in which to describe things. These categories only concern what is relevant to the mapping of landscape. In a sense, one's perceptions are reduced and limited to these defining categories. For example, contrary to what one might believe or perceive, "[t]here are three kinds of tree, three only..." because these are the only categories relevant to the military of what is considered significant information. One must not say what a thing is, one must be efficient to the point of merely reporting what a thing looks like, that is, what may or may not be a potential target. Once one becomes a soldier in battle, what one individualistically perceives or deduces from his observations no longer matters.
The administrative structure of the military necessitates a description in the 'right' language only, "but at least you know how to report on a landscape" (emphasis added). By reporting, one is not asked to make judgments, theorize, or generalize; one merely reports details that are governed by a predetermined set of standards (standard operating procedure). All 'things,' including the soldiers themselves, are reduced to mere objects. Their language is reduced to limited categories of description. They are taught not to be sensitive to the multitude of details they may perceive, but only those limiting details that "report on a landscape." The soldier struggles in 'limbo' between his reality during the war and the reality of his peace time existence within society. The soldier's extensive ideological transformation has kept him "about one year and a half" away from the realities of everyday life, of beauty, and of peace. The "dead ground" between the two voices--that of the commanding officer and that of the private--is ingrained within the private, and it is one that he will never be able to reconcile.
Thus military-speak has the ingrained idea that the lower soldiers are indoctrinated to merely observe and respond with the 'right' mundane language to the higher officers. It is left to the superiors to decide the courses of action and theory. This holds true in the civilian world as well, but in a much more implicit and socially accepted manner. A child only observes and then reports to the parents who decide the actions and movements of the child. As the child grows older and begins to decide his own actions more autonomously, he has already been indoctrinated within a certain value system that influences his actions and thoughts, much like the military. The privateÌs inner dialogue within these dual realities illustrates a rebellion against this indoctrination and his attempts to re-humanize himself in the midst of the human insanity of war.
This objectification, the changing of inert qualities to a necessary use-value for the ideology of the military, is structured within the language and discourse of the military complex. The military is not concerned with what these 'objects' may be doing ("appear to be lovin"). In fact, the receiver (the higher commanding officer) is not even suprised by the obviously displaced lovers lying peacefully in the middle of a war zone. Their actions of love are reduced to their relation to the actual events of the battlefield and their strategic or tactical importance to the commander. The statement is "moderately satisfactory only" not because of this strange battleground anomaly, but because it lacks the specific objectification of information required in a report, namely, "in what direction are they and how far away."
Probably the greatest symbol of civilian life to a soldier is the romantic relationship between a man and woman. The lovers are recognized by the private for what they are or would be outside of war. It would matter to the speaker, if it were not war-time, that the lovers lie under "swaying" elm trees (note that elms are not one of the three trees mentioned earlier in the poem). The details of the lovers being male or female and laying "gently together" would matter to the speaker in the world outside of war. While he fights in the war, the lovers should only be seen as "what appear to be humans" and "[a]ppear to be loving" "under some poplars." It is of no consequence in war what kind of trees the lovers lay under, neither is it of consequence who they are and what they are doing. The only thing that matters in war is staying alert to one's surroundings to the point where it helps one detect the enemy. The reifing nature of war is paramount to understanding the detached, obtuse, and cruel nature of military conflict.
The realization and conception of time in "Judging Distances" is very relevant to the entire structure of the poem thematically, and decidedly changes how the poem reads. A Heideggerean reading of the concept of time is apt here because of the parallels in the differentiationÌs of time throughout. First we must understand the poem as being told by two distinct voices, as has been mentioned, that resonate in different spheres of Being ( Dasein ), or "being-in-the-world." The narrator, seemingly lost within the confines and structures of meaning of the military world, is trying desperately to concentrate his being-in-the-world to his daily task--judging distances. In this view, the concept of time in the structured, disciplined world of the military is at odds with Heidegger's theories. For the narrator, time is now a thing, a reified or thingified objective, that determines the boundary between life or death, or whether a battle is won or lost. Time is based upon the twenty-four hour clock which designates the beginnings and endings of actions or movements. Thus time is inextricably linked with the idea of action in the world. The narrator "report[s] on a landscape," which is necessary for the determination of field movements. These movements represent action in the world within the timeframe of time. But these actions seem to delineate a telos of action where the Heideggerean concept of time leaves it open from within and from without, essentially infinite. The soldiers project themselves through their movements so that we understand them by the time used up to fulfill certain commands. Their conception of the "now" really is "now" for the soldiers because of the importance of precision and swift response on the battlefield. They are given orders in the "now" and they proceed to carry out the orders within the idea of the Heideggerean "now." The narrator does not yet understand this concept of time because he is still living in a world of the year before or the previous, "on that former occasion," where he was more or less oblivious to an existence that would become the "then," or his action of judging distances on the battlefield. He is lost within the daydream world of a non-military Dasein, which hinders his actions on the field. The voice takes a turn towards an informal, prosaic, descriptive time and place. This is in contrast, as mentioned above, to the military concept of description.
According to the military time scale, one measures time on a battlefield by associating it to an object. Thus a tree five hundred yards in front of the observer becomes the axis, or center, of the imaginary clock. Everything else is related to the tree axis. A barn that is three hundred yards to the right of the tree is now an object at three o'clock. This particular (tree) is transformed into a designation of time, of place on a scale that moves forward, teleologically. The narrator is confounded by how a particular, specific thing-in-the-world, has permutated into a thing-in-the-world with no characteristics or designation beyond its use-time-value. Thus the "now" of the barn is a "now" that is not moving and is stationary and oblivious to the external movements that are being judged by its place in the world. This can also be used to describe the group of sheep safely grazing in the field off in the distance ("at five o'clock in the central sector is a dozen/ Of what appear to be animals;"). For the narrator, "the maps are of time, not place, so far as the army/ Happens to be concerned." This accords a reification of the lifeworld according to the simultaneous reification of time onto battlefield. "[T]he reason being,/ Is one which need not delay us...Things only seem to be things." Time is placed at a standstill because of the stationary "on that former occasion," relevant to the movements and actions of the military men and machines.
In this particular formation, the multi-dimensionality of time is taken away and is then reified to a new point of reference that is common and public in nature. The narrator cannot seem to grasp this because it is beyond his normal being-in-the-world. His relation is one that strives to hearken back to "that former occasion" while the military conception is a stationary "now" that designates objectification to any possible "then" that might be possible. Distances are things and they are time. Time is objective and has specific ends, while the narrator is lost within the former and dreaming of a future that seems to be all too far away ("then" unrealized).
As mentioned above, the indoctrination of the soldier into military life is very similar to one's indoctrination or socialization into society. Just as a soldier must put aside conflicting views of what is 'rational' or 'right,' the maturing child must also adapt to the whims of the controllers of ideas and power, and abandon his individuality for the sake of 'fitting in' to what society sees as his role. To adolescents, details--how the "Japonica/Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens" or how "blossoms/ Are fragile and motionless..." (Reed, ÏNaming,Ó 4-5, 16-17)--which as a child may have been important, are now incidental because they are details which are usually not valued by the adult world, a world governed by use-value and objectification. In war, the intrinsic details of everyday objects are unimportant because noticing them does not aid in keeping one's senses alert for enemy presence. The poem shows, metaphorically, how war and society both subliminally and overtly, condition and reorganize concepts and actions that are seen as fit for the systematics of the situation, or what is appropriate or not for a certain time or place.
In the end, "Judging Distances" can be read
and interpreted on a multitude of levels which is wholly for the reader.
But in reading and interpreting, it is necessary to understand the history
and time-frame that brings up the underlying assumptions any interpretation
can render. Just as in adolescence, where the half-child/ half-adult
struggles against his socialization by the adult world, so the soldier struggles
against the indoctrination by the military complex. In totality, "
Lessons of War" reveals an internal struggle of a poet striving to maintain
sanity, individuality, and humanity against the depersonalization and reification
of the mindless process of army training. Reed seems to be trying to
combat the boredom and monotonous routine of military life in contrast with
his love of the spontaneous Dionysian in him. He uses intelligence,
wit, irony, philosophical inquiry, and a sense of balance to persevere what
might have been his death experience.
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