A Detroit Poet in the War Zone

June 12th, 2012

"My Afghanistan and The Long Memory of Vietnam: A Detroit Poet in the War Zone"

by M. L. Liebler

A couple of days after
The news reached the States,
His mother’s heart broke
Never to mend itself.
With his last breaths,
He took his family and friends
Hostage into the darkness
Of the world’s sin.

There’s no turning back
The clocks. They cannot be
Adjusted to read the present
Time, when the future has died, alone
Somewhere, in another place.

And the newspapers will write
About it and the TV will
Talk about it, but no one
Will ever tell this story
The way it really happened.
The way it was supposed
To have happened in a town,
In a life somewhere, unknown.

This early Vietnam era poem of mine entitled “Decoration Day” is exactly where my Afghanistan story begins. I was a 12 year old boy in 1965, a Detroit News carrier growing up in a middle class neighborhood in St. Clair Shores when word spread up and down our street that the neighbor boy three doors down had been killed in action in a place that I never heard of before: Vietnam. This was the beginning of my life long struggle to understand Vietnam and the immediate destruction that war can cause for American families, for neighborhoods and for a nation like mine. I studied Vietnam from that point on. Like Norman Mailer I often asked the question “why are (were) we in Vietnam?” Many people in America are now, in the 21st century, keep asking “why are we in Afghanistan?” Many people in Afghanistan, according to recent poll, never heard of 9/11, so they have very little information as to what all the foreign troops are doing in their country. I sense, however, that many are grateful to be rid of the Taliban’s and Russia’s control. It has taken me 43 years to figure out The Vietnam War question, so I don’t propose to totally understand the Afghanistan War in a short ten day visit, but I have, indeed, learned a great deal about war, destruction, but I learned a great deal more about life and hope. I was asked to come to Afghanistan by the U.S. State Department just a couple of days before Thanksgiving of this past year. One evening I received a call out of the blue from the person in charge of The US State Department’s Cultural Affairs. He told me that a Cultural Affairs Officer in Afghanistan had requested me. He asked if I would take the assignment. I have done cultural and educational work for the State Department several times before in Israel during wartime, in the often dangerous West Bank and through post-Soviet Russia, but I did not have a complete understanding of the seriousness of a war zone and the immediate danger of insurgents until I landed in Kabul at the beginning of May.


My first introduction to the people of Afghanistan was through a women’s workshop set up in an undisclosed location on a backstreet in Kabul. There I met several members of the growing network of The Afghan Women’s Writers Project (AWWP) founded by American writer and journalist Masha Hamilton in 2009 in Kabul. Women arrived in secret to the workshop to write poetry and essays dealing with their humiliating, and sometimes violent, realities as women in Afghan culture; a culture which views women as, at best, second class citizens. I was amazed at the positive energy, high spirits, dedication and extreme creativity of these young women (most between 19-29). They were in love with literature and writing as I have rarely seen anywhere else, including my own classroom in Detroit; they saw poetry as their liberation and their saving grace. They savored every written and spoken word in English. They seemed very happy to work with an American poet in real time and in person. Many writers around the world, and several Metro Detroit poets like our own Suzanne Scarfone who works for Inside Out in Detroit, serve as online mentors to these courageous women, but they rarely, if ever, meet these poets from other countries, let alone America, in person. This visit was a real honor for me. After they asked me several questions about writing, about Detroit and about my sense of what was happening in Afghanistan, I engaged them in a Native American writing exercise. I set the stage by explaining a little about how Native American culture, unlike western culture, sees life as a circle or one big continuum. I told them that Native Americans in our culture in the U.S. see their lives as no more nor no less important than the earth itself, the animals, the plants, etc. They seemed very keen on this concept. I then played traditional Native American flute music, and I asked them to “free write” their feelings and thoughts as I laced a couple of Chinese, Japanese and Native American short poems into the background to immolate the one circle theory. With this queues, they were off and writing as if every word could change the world, and for them , it actually can and does. After the writing session, we went around the Afghan living room sharing our poems while seated upon traditional pillows on the floor with plenty of tea, I was amazed at the great poems they had come up with from the exercise. Many of their pieces dealt with the struggles of being women in a male dominated and oppressive society. They wanted their liberation and freedom, and they believed with their whole hearts that poetry was going to give it to them. One of the poems that came out of the workshop written by a high school student (who actually has received a scholarship to attend a Catholic school in Fort Wayne, Indiana (who knew?) wrote:

When I am trying to live
Nobody lets me live happily.
I am a person with a lot of sorrow and sadness,
But I am trying to laugh, but nobody
Should know I am crying inside.

In my three hours with these young women, I learned a lot about their culture and even more about our how our culture in America is viewed from the outside looking in. They told me that the women’s struggle in Afghanistan was about 100 years behind what happened in American around the turn of the 19th century with our women’s Suffrage Movement. They told me that they realized that they would have to give their own blood to see this transition in Afghan culture, and they were happy to give blood or their lives for women of the next generation. I couldn’t believe the bravery and honesty I was hearing from these young women. I was both moved and shocked. I, also, learned that poetry was more important to them than even most poet in America think. I was reminded of the great lines from William Carlos Williams final poem:

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what
is found there.

These women have truly gotten the news from poems, and they know that poetry does make life meaningful, and it serves as a great tool of empowerment towards societal change. Again and again, I discovered at every stop I made from Kabul to Jalalabad to dangerous Kandahar in the south that these folks were in love with the written word, and it was very important to them and to their culture. I witnessed hope and life and faith in the eyes and in their written and spoken words from the many high school students to young adults to college professors to school teachers, and, of course, to the poets I met along the way. They all wanted to rebuild their country, their lives and to live in peace. They told me that they were tired of all of the recent wars with Russia, The Taliban, the War Lords over the past several decades, and they feel war has seriously drained their country both physically and spiritually. The infrastructure is very weak in Afghanistan, but the people have a strong will to survive and rise again. Some of the people I meet told me there was a time in the middle of the last century when Kabul was a beautiful city to visit for vacation. It is very hard to see that now through the thick dust, the high level of pollution, the crumbling streets and buildings which often lack electricity and running water. But, I do truly sense their hunger and desire to live in peace. They seemed to have learned many years ago that “war is not the answer.” My sense is that the average Afghan from North to South is okay with the Americans and NATO being there to help preserve their safety while training their own police and troops to protect themselves from any number of insurgents, but it is also apparent, they are getting anxious for the troops to leave before all of the goodwill and good deeds turn sour and intrusive. People want their freedom on their own terms, and not on what other countries think that freedom, or democracy, is or should be. Since I have returned, many Detroiters have asked me if Afghanistan is savable and has it been worth it? I am not an expert on foreign affairs and I don’t play one on MSNBC; however, I am a poet, and a poet sees and hears with his or her heart and soul, and my heart tells me the wonderful people of this country, like human beings everywhere, are worthy of our support. They want what we all want—a real chance to live in peace and freedom. I have spent most of my life carrying the burden of Vietnam in my heart, so coming to accept war is not in the fabric of my being. I wasn’t drafted and I didn’t serve, but my Afghanistan experience has given me a chance to see war up close and personal. Unlike many soldiers, I made a choice to put myself in harm’s way, and I survived this time because as Vietnam war poet and close friend W.D. Ehrhart wrote “In war-mostly nothing happens…, but one day…”. Many Americans and Afghans have served, many have died and many are injured for life, I get that. I have very often during my life gone back to the Gospel for my wisdom: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” I now better understand these words much more now than I did back in 1965. My anger has been replaced with understanding and my life with grace. While war and all its destructions leaves major holes in real people’s lives, I now, more than ever, understand and respect our soldiers (and the Afghan people’s) willingness to lay down their lives for their friends and their country. While I can never justify war as a Christian, as a Catholic Worker and as a lifelong antiwar pacifist, American soldiers and the people of Afghanistan have opened a significant door to my new understanding, and they have my full respect. Still, I will always stand with the mothers on both sides of any war as I wrote in my poem “Decoration Day” because ultimately the reality that hits home is still the hardest to take:

Here where
You grew up where
You dreamed, not where
You died. Not where
They took you,
Laid you out,
Neatly uniformed,
Placed you in the funeral
Home of the Far East.
The whole thing planned,
Planned to the smallest detail,
Except for your mother’s broken heart.

My heart still breaks for what Vietnam did to us as a nation and to our people, and the reality of what Afghanistan will become for the next generation troubles me greatly. I know that Vietnam for me and for many of my generation was like something inside of us that had been broken and it doesn’t seem like we can ever fix it. However, and on the other hand, life is what it is, and as Marvin Gaye said “Everything is everything.” I have recently learned to have hope in the face of adversity from my many new younger and older people friends that I met from the streets of Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar. I am grateful to all those men and women who are willing to lay down their lives for our freedom. While we can never bring the dead back, we can honor them for all they have done for others in America and, yes, in Afghanistan. So in the end, this is what I really learned in my visit to Afghanistan and from my long memories of Vietnam. Honor the memories of all soldiers. Contemplate their contributions and their lives, for they are our true and loyal friends who laid down their lives for us. Peace be with us all.

M.L. Liebler's audio essay was edited & mixed by WDET's Rob St. Mary