'Operation Homecoming': The Writings of War
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We return now to our series War and Literature, hearing from writers who've made conflict their subject.
Today, a poem from the book, "Operation Homecoming." That's a project you might have heard of. It's sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. It collects writings from those who've been to Iraq or Afghanistan and the families back home. The poem is called "The Cat," written by Ryan Alexander.
He served in the U.S. Marine Corps, left just before 9/11, then volunteered to go to Iraq as a contractor with the Army Striker Brigade Combat Team. The collection was edited by Andrew Carroll, and both of them joined us.
Welcome to both of you.
Mr. ANDREW CARROLL (Editor, "Operation Homecoming"): Thank you very much. Good to be here.
Mr. RYAN ALEXANDER (Writer, "The Cat"; Army Stryker Brigade Combat Team): Thank you. Nice to be here.
MONTAGNE: Andrew Carroll, Ryan Alexander came to you through a poem that he'd written and submitted.
Mr. CARROLL: I never expected, what, like Ryan wrote or any of these troops to submit something. You have this very stoic culture in the Armed Forces, where they're not encouraged to, and there isn't a lot of expressing oneself. You do what you're told, essentially, and there aren't a lot of opportunities to say, well, here's how I feel about that.
MONTAGNE: Ryan Alexander, does that feel right, the stoic part?
Mr. ALEXANDER: I don't know if I am, but I know that the Marine Corps in general, like, when I talk to my buddies, I don't tell them that I'm a published poet now. That's not something that's going to impress them.
Mr. CARROLL: And just to put this in context: When I first read Ryan's poem, I literally gasped, because there's a very strong ending to it, and the imagery throughout's very powerful. And coincidentally, at the same time that I read it, I was talking with Kurt Vonnegut, who very kindly shared with me for another project I run that preserves war letters, a letter that never had been published before. He had sent this home in 1945 after he was liberated as a POW and he'd survive the firebombing of Dresden.
And in this just brief excerpt, he says:
(Reading) "On about February 14th, the Americans came over, followed by the RAF, and their combined labors killed 250,000 people in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresden, possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me. When General Patton took Leipzig, we were evacuated on foot to Helendorf. There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day, the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes, P-39s, strafed and bombed us, killing 14. But not me."
MONTAGNE: That letter from a young Kurt Vonnegut was written when he was still overseas. It took him a couple of decades before he was able to complete the novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five" that came out of those simple words on that page that you've just been reading us. Is there a need to get a distance in order to turn something into fiction?
Mr. CARROLL: I think for so many veterans - and I've gotten to talk to troops going back to World War II and to Korea and Vietnam and so forth - it takes them years, decades, even to go back and look at their old letters and to confront what they've been through, because the memories are so painful for some of them. But I think that they realize the cathartic value of getting these emotions out, putting them on paper, sharing them with others. And that was really what encouraged so many troops to share these materials.
MONTAGNE: Well, this brings us to Ryan Alexander and your poem. There could hardly be anything more matter of fact than being a rival of a stray cat. Give us a picture of where you were at that moment that you wrote this and, I mean, what was going on all around you?
Mr. ALEXANDER: It was the summer of 2004, and I was in Mosul, Iraq, which is a northern province.
MONTAGNE: And I gather living in kind of makeshift barracks.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah, we were in a concrete building, but my quarters were made out of a couple of two-by-fours, and it was about six-by-ten cell.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ALEXANDER: At the time, we were receiving somewhere around the range of 30 mortar rounds a day. It seemed like wherever I went, I somehow attracted these mortars. So the thought of my own mortality was pretty heavy up my mind. And at that time also, this cat adopted me.
MONTAGNE: On this Fourth of July, why don't you recite "The Cat"?
Mr. ALEXANDER: "The Cat."
(Reading) "She came to me skittish and wild, the way you're meant to be, surrounded by cruelty. I did not blame her. I would do the same. A pregnant cat, a happy distraction, some sort of normal thing, calico and innocent. The kittens in her belly said, feed me, and I did. She crept with careful eye, body held low to the dirt, snagged a bite and carried it just far enough away. She liked the MREs, the beef stew, the chicken breast, the barbecued pork, but she did not like the canned sardines. I do not blame her. I would do the same.
She came around again and again, finally deciding that I was no threat, that this big man wasn't so bad. I was afraid to touch her, as the docs have warned us, Iraqi animals were carriers of flesh-eating disease. I donned a plastic glove and was the first to pet this wild creature who may be the one true heart and mind that America had won over. After a while, I forgot the glove and enjoyed the tactile softness of short fur, flesh-eating bacteria be damned. Her belly swelled for weeks, and she disappeared for some days until her kittens were safely birthed in the shallow of the rusted desk in the ruins that lined the road behind us.
She came around again, slim with afterbirth still matted to her hind legs. She would return, but not quite as often. She came to eat and for attention, but there was nursing to be done. One day, she crept up with a kitten in her mouth. She dropped it at my foot and stared up at me. She expected something, but there was nothing I could do. The young black and white kitten was dead. Its eyes not yet opened. It looked like some shriveled old, wise thing, completely still, mouth puckered, small body curled and limp. She let me take the baby without a fight. She knew, but seemed unaffected. She had fetched me a gift, a lesson, among the worried nights, shot nerves from poorly aimed mortar rounds. Everything dies - the evil, the innocent, her baby and me.
I thought I should say a prayer and bury this poor little thing, but I did for it what will be done for me. I laid it in a burned can amongst the ash and said I'm sorry."
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for reading that.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: And Andrew Carroll, thank you for joining us.
Mr. CARROLL: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Andrew Carroll edited "Operation: Homecoming," a collection of writings about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the poem, "The Cat" by Ryan Alexander, which you could also read at our Web site.
Tomorrow, our series War and Literature continues with a novelist from Somalia who says he's trying to keep his warring country alive by writing about it.
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