Lies the War Machine Told Me: Komunyakaa’s Vietnam Poems

by Michael S. Collins, PhD


The Vietnam War poems of Yusef Komunyakaa were born in the shadow of lies under which the war was sheltered: lies that grew down from Washington, D.C. into the brains of soldiers. According to Daniel Ellsberg, who for a time helped shape military strategy but turned against the war and leaked a massive secret study of its unreported expansions, “the system that I had been working for … [was] a system that lies automatically at every level from bottom to top — from sergeant to commander in chief. … I had in my safe … seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents … over twenty-three years … ” (289). Those thousands of pages documented a whole zoology of lies, including especially the most intimate and potent of them all: self-deceptions, which year after year prevented Ellsberg and his superiors from seeing that the war was unwinnable and that the increasing numbers of people protesting against it were right.

In 1971 Ellsberg finally leaked the pages, now known as the Pentagon Papers, in an effort to add weight to the protests by widening what war critics called the “credibility gap”: the distance between what the U.S. government said about the war, what the protestors increasingly knew and, most important, what soldiers came to suffer in the form of cognitive dissonance, PTSD, and worse.[1]

The lies of war are at the center of Komunyakaa’s poem “Chair Gallows” (Pleasure Dome 47) about the singer-songwriter and anti-war activist Phil Ochs. Gil Troy of the Daily Beast reports that “Ochs — like many others — crashed from the heights of the 1960s into lows of cynicism and nihilism [reflected in his lyrics, such as] ‘I am the masculine American man, I kill therefore I am.’ ” In 1976, “buffeted by bipolar episodes … [Ochs] made a noose with a belt … stood on a chair … and kicked the chair away” (Troy). Lines in “Chair Gallows” record the moment when Komunyakaa reads the news:

                                                      I hope this is just another lie,
just another typo in a newspaper headline.

                                    But I know war criminals
live longer than men lost between railroad tracks

                                    & crossroad blues, with twelve strings
two days out of hock.

Komunyakaa gestures to the shelter, under which the war and the whole American political era that supported it existed, with his hope that “this is just another lie.” But he also acknowledges what the shelter enables: the survival in power of “war criminals / [who] live longer than [relentless truth seekers like Ochs].” Sheltering under their own lies, the war criminals presumably do not undertake the dangerous work of looking into the abyss of self-knowledge, whose dangers Komunyakaa represents with a mirror metaphor in the last two lines of “Chair Gallows”: “I’ve seen in women’s eyes / men who swallow themselves in mirrors.”

His consciousness, in particular, revolves around a question that would have been drilled into him during basic training: “What’s the spirit of the bayonet, soldier?” The answer he would have been taught is “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

The protagonist in Komunyakaa’s “Torsion” (The Emperor of Water Clocks 57-58) comes close to swallowing himself in the mirror of reflection on his participation in the war. His consciousness, in particular, revolves around a question that would have been drilled into him during basic training: “What’s the spirit of the bayonet, soldier?” The answer he would have been taught is “Kill! Kill! Kill!” As military historian Richard Kohn explains, 20th-century bayonet training was “designed to … mitigate or eradicate the reluctance of human beings to kill each other” (Mulrine).

The soldier in “Torsion,” striving to separate his true self from the bayonet’s spirit, reflects ruefully that he

                        had been tapered, honed, & polished in AIT 
& then pointed toward grid coordinates on a ragged map,
His feelings cauterized.

What points him and draws the grid that guides him is the web of war decisions and lies reaching back to the White House. He comes to feel that not just his decision making but his very self has been compromised by his training. This emerges when he describes his role in a battle where he witnesses a likely war crime as defined by the Geneva Conventions[2]:

                                                            After medevac choppers
Flew out the badly wounded & the body bags,
Three men in his squad became two tigers at sunset
& walked through the village. They kicked a pagoda
Till it turned into the crumbly dust of cinnabar,
& then torched thatched roofs.

Although U.S. forces torched some villages as a matter of policy, such villages were supposed to have been cleared of civilians in order to make the settlement part of a “free-fire zone” inhabited only by enemy combatants. But in “Torsion,” the three soldiers seem to be motivated mainly by rage that causes them to forget the wallet cards troops were supposed to be given upon arrival in Vietnam — cards that advised them to show understanding and generosity toward Vietnamese civilians.[3]

The speaker in “Torsion” receives a medal for his role in winning the battle. But for him the medal is a “scarab / in a pharaoh’s brain.” The pharaoh here is not the soldier but probably the American president at the head of the “Lying Machine” (Ellsberg’s term) that keeps the war going. The actions that earned the medal — actions the soldier did not feel fully in control of — are in a sense the actions of the spirit of the bayonet, which, via the web of decisions and lies descending from the American president, connects the pharaoh’s brain to the soldier’s hands.

In particular, the spirit of the bayonet so tightly bonds the soldier to an M60 machine gun that “his body became part of the metal. … No, he couldn’t stop / firing as he rode the M60 machine gun to a primal grunt / before he buckled & spewed vomit over the barrel.” The spirit of the bayonet, in other words, functions like an automatic nervous system that makes the firing of the gun a reflex action. (One sign of true political power is its ability to take over — or, here, replace — a nervous system.) The soldier’s natural nervous system makes its statement only after the firing has finished, when he vomits.

What all this means is that the spirit of the bayonet effectively divides the soldier from the self that the military honors: The protagonist recalls that

                     The battalion saluted but he wished to forget his hands,
& the thought of metal made him stand up straight.
He shipped back to the world only to remember blood
on the grass, men dancing on a lit string of bullets,
Women and children wailing among the flame trees,
& he wished he hadn’t been trained so damn well. )

The self that vomits wants to reclaim the entire soldier, but the training that allowed the spirit of the bayonet to travel through him and out the muzzle of the M60 prevents full self-possession. The self that vomited is the self that believes in and wants to live the commandment thou shall not kill, which the soldier invokes at the end of the poem.

Ironically, even those who ran the Lying Machine that took over nervous systems like the soldier’s were somewhat lost to themselves and their own better angels. Lyndon Johnson, the president who did most to expand the war, is said to have done so (deceiving the public all the while) partly out of fear of being attacked and gored from his political right so severely that he would lose the authority he needed to wage his epic and noble war on poverty and inequality in the United States.

The loss of credibility that finally destroyed his presidency and set the stage for actions like Ellsberg’s can be traced to a scarab of lies, misinterpretations, and self-deceptions that crawled through not only his but also his predecessors’, his successors’, and most of their aides’ brains. The pharaoh’s brain in “Torsion,” then, is a collective brain: the brain of the leadership of a whole society. As an incarnation of the scarab crawling through that brain, the medal the soldier in “Torsion” earns, therefore, pins the whole muddled, lie-riddled justification for the war to his chest. The protagonist of “Torsion” never fully finds a way out of this muddle. But both his story and the stories told in related Komunyakaa poems suggest that the only way out is to expand the mind’s bandwidth beyond the limits imposed upon it by incubi like the spirit of the bayonet.

One sees how this might begin to happen in Komunyakaa’s poem “Prisoners” (Pleasure Dome 214-215), where the protagonist has to fight an urge to bow to Vietnamese captives who, he realizes, cannot be broken by any torture: “When they start talking / with ancestors … you know,” he tells himself, “you’ll have to kill them / to get an answer.” In the last two lines, he mocks the war’s most infamous example of self-deceptive might — the assertion, made by an American after the brutal 1968 bombing the Vietnamese city of Ben Tre, that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”[4]

The actions that earned the medal — actions the soldier did not feel fully in control of — are in a sense the actions of the spirit of the bayonet, which, via the web of decisions and lies descending from the American president, connects the pharaoh’s brain to the soldier’s hands.

The prose poem “A Summer Night in Hanoi” (Komunyakaa, Pleasure Dome 399-400) goes in the other direction, celebrating the life-affirming commonalities between the poet’s African American peasant culture and Vietnamese peasant culture. Even as a columnist and editor for a military newspaper where, by definition, he could not deviate too far from the official U.S. line on Vietnam during his 1969 tour, Komunyakaa tried to educate his readers on the need to respect Vietnamese religions and Vietnamese people, and to act in such a way that members of the Viet Cong might defect to the South Vietnamese side without fear of becoming mistreated prisoners of war. But, obviously, even if he knew confirmable details about them at the time, he was not in a position to publish condemnations of the sometimes grotesque mistreatment or murder of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prisoners who fell into the hands of South Vietnamese forces or vindictive American troops (mistreatment and murder of the sort he writes about in such poems as “Prisoners,” and “Phantasmagoria”. In “Re-creating the Scene,” the Komunyakaa-like speaker’s report of a gang rape does lead to an, alas, abortive trial).

In “A Summer Night in Hanoi,” he takes the step of expressing open admiration for Ho Chi Minh. The occasion of the poem is the watching of a film about Ho during a 1990 Hanoi conference that brought together U.S. and Vietnamese writer-veterans. As the poem begins, the version of Komunyakaa who is speaking says, “When the movie house lights click off … I hear Billie’s whispered lament. [The movie] Ho Chi Minh the Man rolls across the skin of five lynched black men.” Here the sufferings of the young Ho Chi Minh and his country under the vicious brutality of French colonialism call to Komunyakaa’s mind the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” as sung by Billie Holiday.

The fact that, in the 1920s, Ho Chi Minh himself wrote an essay condemning the American habit of lynching African Americans confirms another aspect of the parallel Komunyakaa senses between the Black experience and the Vietnamese experience. True, knowledge of African American suffering was used for psychological warfare purposes by Ho’s broadcasters during the war.[5] Nevertheless, watching the movie, Komunyakaa finds a common denominator between himself and Ho, even as he, Komunyakaa, experiences the discomfort of being surrounded by people on whom his country had rained down destruction. As he puts it in “A Summer Night in Hanoi”: “I’m not myself here, craving a mask of silk elusive as [Ho’s] four aliases.” In Hanoi, Komunyakaa “didn’t feel safe” at first, he told the Kenyon Review: He was mindful of “what had been done to the Vietnamese people. … I felt that if it had happened to me, I’d be very angry. So I was very affected by how forgiving the typical Vietnamese happens to be towards Americans” (Baer 75).

Komunyakaa goes on to meditate on the reason for all those aliases—Ho’s activities as a revolutionary plotting against occupying powers had actually led him to create 20 false identities. This was during World War II, when France’s Vichy government had allowed Japan to occupy Vietnam and Ho was organizing guerilla bands against both. He traveled to China in 1942 to seek help in this mission from Chiang Kai-shek and was arrested on suspicion that “anyone carrying so many false documents must be a Japanese agent,” according to Ho biographer William J. Duiker.

In “A Summer Night in Hanoi,” as Komunyakaa tells it, “On his way to Chung-king to talk with Chang K’ai-shek about fighting the Japanese … he’s arrested and jailed for fourteen months. Sitting here in the prison of my skin, I feel his words grow through my fingertips till I see his southern skies and old friends where mountains are clouds.”

The words from Ho that Komunyakaa feels in his fingertips are probably those of poems Ho wrote in Chinese while incarcerated. The phrase “the prison of my skin” splices the conditions of the segregated South in which Komunyakaa passed his childhood to those faced by Ho as someone caught (long before what Americans call the Vietnam War) in the French and then Japanese domination of Vietnam. “Although they have tightly bound my arms and legs,” Ho writes in his poem “On the Road” (Prison Diary 34),

                        All over the mountains I hear the song of birds,
and the forest is filled with the perfume of spring-flowers.
Who can prevent me from freely enjoying these,
which take from the long journey a little of its loneliness?

Here Ho quarries out the spark of agency from his double imprisonment the Chinese jail and in the global coils of colonialism. Writing by choice in Chinese and in a traditional Chinese poetic form, Ho cannily chooses a medium for his agency that is congenial to his jailers and intended to at once make the case for his innocence and show his sophistication and worthiness of being freed. This example of quarrying a spark of pure agency out of the despair of imprisonment no doubt strikes a strong chord with Komunyakaa, who through poetry and prose has quarried a pure spark of agency out of confining stereotypes faced by a Black man born in the segregated South.

Komunyakaa has described his life as “a healing process from two places” (Hedges 157) —Louisiana and Vietnam. Never dehumanizing and healing are intimately connected in his work. A key part of both is the refusal to tell the lies (like the ones that justify colonialism and racial segregation) that short-circuit identification and what philosopher Jürgen Habermas has called communication intended to reach understanding: “I never used the word ‘gook’ or ‘dink’ in Vietnam,” Komunyakaa stressed in 2004. “… There is a certain kind of dehumanization that takes place to create an enemy, to call up the passion to kill this person” (Hedges 157). Furthermore, “I myself came from a peasant society. … So I saw the Vietnamese as familiar peasants” (Baer 73), he said in 1998.

This sense of an overlap in Black and Vietnamese life experience had been expressed by Ho decades earlier, not only in his anti-lynching essay, but also an anti-Ku Klux Klan essay published in the 1920s.[6] In such acts of identification by Ho and Komunyakaa, the bandwidth needed for empathy is not expanded (a tall order, given the current limits of human brainpower[7]) but cleansed for a moment of the lies, misrepresentations, self-deceptions, and fallacies[8] that always and forever come to clog it. These lies, misrepresentations, self-deceptions and fallacies are perpetrated sometimes by the spirit of the bayonet, sometimes (as we know so well in the Trump era) by the spirit of chauvinism, sometimes by sheer intellectual exhaustion: They are perpetrated even by the “objective” analyses and calculations that are created to save us from our limitations but that, when relied upon too heavily in either war or peace, deliver us to our limits as surely as the soldier in “Torsion” is delivered over to the “grid coordinates” where the only truth to hold onto is his M60.

[1] One regularly encounters such soldiers in Komunyakaa’s works.
[2] More than one article in the Southern Cross, the military newspaper Komunyakaa worked for in Vietnam, reminded American soldiers about their obligations and rights under the Geneva Conventions. Of course, using body count as a measure of success, as the military brass did during the war, tended to undermine that sort of Geneva conditioning.
[3] For more on free fire zones and the cards, see Gutman and Rieff’s Crimes of War (1999).
[4] See Pringle’s 2004 article in the New York Times. For someone of Ochs’ ilk, this statement epitomizes the whole “logic” of America’s intervention in Vietnam. For South Vietnamese, like those who fled to the United States after the U.S. pulled out, however, the real nightmare was the Communist forces America battled.
[5] Writing in 1969 under his birth name (James Brown) and, probably not coincidentally, at a time when he had risen to the editorship of Southern Cross, Komunyakaa warned fellow soldiers that “racial disharmony … can greatly hinder military missions” (Brown 2). The fruits of disharmony are dramatized in Komunyakaa’s poems such as “One-Legged Stool,” where allegations of racism among his fellow soldiers is part of the apparatus built by his Vietnamese captors to break a Black POW. For more on the psychological warfare practiced by the North Vietnamese and their allies, see Collins 137-138 and Salas 70-77.
[6] See Ho’s “Lynching” and “The Ku Klux Klan” in On Revolution.
[7] A good proxy for the “bandwidth” or “power” of a mind is working memory. As Cowan explains, “working memory and its limits [are] a key part of the human condition. …We need working memory in language comprehension, to retain earlier parts of a spoken message until it can be integrated with the later parts … in reasoning, to retain the premises while working with them; and in most other types of cognitive tasks. … Because working memory is limited, there is sometimes important work that fails to get done”(Cowan 1-2).

[8] The most self-deceptive and destructive misapprehension of the war may be the “McNamara Fallacy,” named in mockery of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s devotion to statistical analyses of the situation in Indochina: One wag summarized the fallacy as “Measure what can easily be measured” and presume that what “cannot easily be measured does not exist.” In his later years, McNamara confessed that he and others had been infected by delusions of omniscience.


Works Cited

Baer, William. “Still Negotiating with the Images: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Hanshaw, pp. 70-83.

Brown, James. “The Army Attitude and Racial Discrimination.” Southern Cross, vol. 2, no. 32, 7 November 1969, p. 2.

Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review, vol. 18, no. 2/vol. 19, no. 1, 1993, pp. 126-150.

Cowan, Nelson. Working Memory Capacity: Essays in Cognitive Psychology. Psychology Press, 2005.

Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. Hachette Books, 2001.

Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of the Pentagon Papers. Penguin, 2002.

Gutman, Roy, and David Rieff. Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know. W. W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Hedges, Chris. “A Poet of Suffering, Endurance and Healing.” Hanshaw, pp. 156-158.

Ho Chi Minh. The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh, translated by Aileen Parker. Bantam Books, 1971.

—. On Revolution, edited by Bernard B. Fall, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1967.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Pleasure Dome, Wesleyan UP, 2001.

—. The Emperor of Water Clocks. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Mulrine, Anna. “One Less Skill for Soldiers to Master at Boot Camp: Bayonet Training.” The Christian Science Monitor, 28 September 2010.

Pringle, James. “Meanwhile: The Quiet Town Where the Vietnam War Began.” New York   Times, 23 March 2004.

Salas, Angela. Flashback Through the Heart: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa. Rosemont Publishing and Printing Company, 2004.

Troy, Gil. “The Singing Journalist Who Left Too Soon.” Daily Beast, 3 April 2016.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


Dr. Michael S. Collins is the author of an intellectual biography, Understanding Etheridge Knight, a book of poems, The Traveling Queen, and many uncollected essays and poems. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Oxford American, Callaloo, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Modern Philology and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book of poems and a book on Yusef Komunyakaa.


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