• Review: Randy Brown’s ‘Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire’

    January 9, 2016

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    One of the unique things surrounding America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the extraordinary number of books written by servicemen and women.

    Unlike in previous wars, the best telling of the soldiers’ stories has come from the soldiers themselves, and not from traditional journalists. Many of these books add to our understanding of people at war, while a few are just macho battle stories.

    Some seek to reach into a war’s soul.

    Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire is one from the latter category. Randy Brown, who blogs as “Charlie Sherpa,” is a 20-year Army veteran and the author. FOB Haiku (a FOB is a Forward Operating Base in mil-speak), via a series of short poems, takes the reader from boot camp through Afghanistan, to homecoming.

    While Brown’s book-length work is the only one available now that demands we understand the Afghan War through poetry, the use of verse to express things often otherwise unsayable about war has a long history. From Homer’s Iliad through Walt Whitman’s plaintive descriptions of the American Civil War, the collision of something beautiful with something terrible has been an important part of war literature.

    Brown’s writing is a worthy addition. For example, saying grace over a prepackaged meal (MRE), Brown is funny, but with an edge:

    Forgive us our trespasses, for we have trespassed a lot today — kinda goes with the territory, and the job. And deliver us from evil, particularly that which we have done unto others. See also: “trespasses,” above.

    Warning a new trooper too anxious to get into the fight:

    War is often more boring than not. Then, it is scalding. Do not covet action.

    Brown wistfully recalls his days as a National Guardsman, when training was laughed off as “summer camp.” Headed to Afghanistan post-military retirement as a reporter, Brown has to buy his own body armor online, noting it is part of a land of no refunds and no returns, as true for Afghanistan as it is for Internet commerce. He remembers his grandfather’s musket over the fireplace mantle as a proud symbol, and wonders if he could do the same with that armor. Should he make it home, of course.

    A Vietnamese cab driver enroute to the airport asks too many questions about Afghanistan, leaving a hole in Brown, the irony — a Vietnamese asking about another American war — noted. In that same airport, Brown observes well-traveled suits confuse boots with heroes and buy us sandwiches, knowing they do not understand the shallowness of such a gesture, Brown bitter and generous in forgiving at the same time.

    Speaking of other wars, or perhaps of all wars, Brown reaches for more epic tones:

    Let all diffuse, dissolve and disappear in time. Because we are not dust, but water – moving in spaces between nations. We are not ashes, but waves.

    But the strongest writing here is in the final section, Homecoming. Brown remembers the blessed smell of earth at his farm, experiences shock at the fried-food excesses of a county fair, and expresses a soldier’s sense of wonder reuniting with his family. He is frustrated with the difficulty of re-establishing relationships with his children, begging a too-young daughter to cling to a turn looking at the night sky with him, finally saying to her:

    Wars and presidents will come and go. So, too, will parents and children and other first loves. All will be eclipsed in memory, leaving you. Remember this.

    We are the stories we tell ourselves, Brown writes near the end of Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. These poems are the stories he brought home to tell us.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • Bruce said...


      Not EXACTLY Kipling, but poignant.

      01/9/16 10:59 AM | Comment Link

    • Michael Murry said...


      I didn’t see any examples of Haiku in the quoted material, but I can supply a few that I wrote nine years ago. I think it would apply today about as much as it did back then. Different maniac president in the White House, but otherwise, same old same old …

      “Written on the occasion of President George W. Bush finally making the trip to Vietnam on November 17, 2006, decades after a better American woman, Jane Fonda, made the trip in his place. Three-and-a-half years into his own Vietnam-style debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan — disasters that he would bequeath to his successor two years later — Dubya the Dimwit proved to the world that what he didn’t learn about America in Vietnam he wouldn’t learn about America in the Middle East, either.

      Hanoi Haiku

      In Hanoi at last
      Red-carpet in return for
      Our carpet-bombing

      The words no one heard,
      Due so many years after:
      “We apologize”

      Deputy Dubya
      Sheriff Cheney’s Barney Fife
      Lost in Mayberry

      Gullible Goofy
      The boy who cried Wolfowitz
      Far too many times

      Emerald City
      Naked ruler’s brand new clothes
      Viewed through glasses green

      Mission Accomplished!
      A cakewalk in its last throes
      Now a glacier race

      Four Years an “instant”
      Nothing happens right away
      What did you expect?

      Broken-egg omelets
      George Orwell’s Catastrophic

      Shop till the troops drop
      Buy a plane ticket or two
      Your part in the “war”

      Rob the future now
      They will never break our will
      Those grandkids of ours

      Lecture the victors
      About their First and Second
      Indochina Wars

      Where did we get him?
      How come we can’t do better?
      We look so stupid”

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

      01/11/16 10:43 PM | Comment Link

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