Skip to content

Cordwood: War, Poetry, Reality

As the presidential election approaches, I want to remind readers about the realities of war. But first, some quotes from 2003.

“Tommy Franks and the coalition forces have demonstrated the old axiom that boldness on the battlefield produces swift and relatively bloodless victory. The three-week swing through Iraq has utterly shattered skeptics’ complaints.”

(Fox News Channel’s Tony Snow, 4/13/03)

“The only people who think this wasn’t a victory are Upper Westside liberals, and a few people here in Washington.”

(Charles Krauthammer, Inside Washington, WUSA-TV, 4/19/03)

“We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple. We’re not like the Brits.”

(MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 5/1/03)

“We had controversial wars that divided the country. This war united the country and brought the military back.”

(Newsweek’s Howard Fineman–MSNBC, 5/7/03)

REALITY is an unpublished piece of short fiction I wrote in 1987 after years of listening to the stories of my students who are Vietnam vets.

Re[a]lity (re al e te), n., pl.-ties 1 actual existence; true state of affairs: I doubted the reality of what he had seen; I thought he must have dreamed it. SIN: actuality. 2 a real thing; actual fact: Slaughter and destruction are terrible realities of war.

Thorndike Barnhart, World Book Dictionary, 1967 Edition

The Army pathologist pulled off the white plastic sheet and threw it in the corner. The boy was Vietnamese, approximately six years old. The apparent cause of death was cardiac arrest due to shock and hypovolemia; secondary to a severed left arm. There were bruises on the neck, face, and upper right arm and severe contusions and abrasions on the shins.

It was all so damn obvious. Any half trained medic could do this job. He wondered why his superiors wasted his time and theirs. Working a war was the most boring thing imaginable.


The Vietcong soldier had difficulty holding the screaming child. This last one seemed to know what was going to happen, and he fought like a demon. The soldier now knew what his instructor had meant when he said that maintaining mental discipline was the ultimate test of will. Over and over he reminded himself that stern reprisals against portions of the civilian population that collaborated with the enemy where essential to victory, and his ability to act in these situations was the ultimate proof of his patriotism.

He managed to get the child under control by the time he reached the courtyard, but was only partially successful in keeping his vomit from soiling the uniform of the man with the axe.


The propaganda officer was one of the first Americans to return to the village. The little arms were piled in the center of the courtyard where he had photographed the medical team vaccinating the village children the day before. The brutality of the act paralyzed him, routed him to the ground. He we sure he was dreaming. It was in comprehensible. It could not be real.

When he finally set up to photograph the severed limbs, he noticed that they were all left arms with fresh vaccination marks. The Vietcong message was clear. The propaganda officer was an educated man, and he had always assumed that propaganda was an exercise in self-deception; that the enemy was more or less like himself. But he now knew that the gook bastards were subhuman. That was the reality. To prove it beyond any doubt, he had the body of an unclaimed child shipped back to Saigon for an official autopsy. He wanted every American to see the bodies of the children and the pile of little arms.


The father knew enough to try to hide his son when the Vietcong entered the village. When they found the boy, the father fought them with all his desperate strength, but they beat him senseless with their rifle butts, tied his hands and feet, and tethered into a tree in front of his hooch.

He could not remember when he began screaming or when he knocked out his teeth on the gray, jagged rock in front of him. He was not conscious when his son, the last surviving member of his family, died shortly after his left arm was hacked off. When they left, the soldiers dragged the father into the forest and kept him in a bamboo cage for a week before they strangled him. When the Vietcong returned, they threw his body into the village well.


The boy was numb with terror when the soldier pulled him from his hiding place under the sleeping mat. He did not struggle until his father fought with the soldiers. After that he tried desperately to get away and cried out for his dead mother, but the soldier tightened his grip on his neck and arms and crushed his lips with a hand that was as hard as stone.

Panic had shut down the sensory centers of his brain, and endomorphine had made him almost impervious to pain by the time the soldier carried him into the courtyard. He did not see or hear the other soldiers, or feel much more than a hard punch to his upper arm when it happened. The soldier released him, and he stumbled off spurting an impossible amount of blood. He took eleven steps before he fell.


Ralph Jacobs, the author of CORDWOOD, A COLLECTION OF KOREAN WAR POEMS, is a treasured friend and a Harvard educated medical doctor. He served in Dog Medical Company, First Marine Division, in the Korean War.

“We clambered over the ship’s side on rope ladders and chugged on a landing barge into Inchon. With another medical company we set up the major collecting and clearing hospital at the Korean Kimpo Air Field, just captured, to treat the casualties from the assault on Seoul. . . I served in the Marines from July 1950, through June 1951. . . I hope the poems will offer a personal lens for you to see and feel my experiences in Korea. Many of the events, situations, and dilemmas in these poems mirror what others have seen and felt in other wars.”

Ralph Jacobs, from his Introduction

April, 2004


Screaming news—600–heavy casualties

from the Marines, the Army, ROK* troops.

Everything is coming our way—right now.

Evaluating the wounded in Receiving:

I order shock therapy stat.

I order others to the holding tent—

belly surgery, chest surgery, many for major debridement,*

Pressing corpsmen to quick-step and IV and IM meds,

surgical preps, IV plasma and blood.

Snarling suddenly—too low a blood supply.

Commanding by phone–more blood by copter.

Scrubbing up to insert chest tubes in the short of breath.

Sheathing hot water bottles around frozen blood units.

Surveying surgery—all teams with shiny retractors bent over:

wide-open bellies, wide open-chests,

large shrapnel wounds being debrided—

then lavaged, lavaged, lavaged.

Supervising corpsmen casting arms, legs,

dressing face wounds—

dressing genitals, abdomens, thighs.

Wolfing a Tootsie Roll for supper.

Lifting stretchers, flipping sutures, giving open drop

ether anesthesia throughout the night.

Devouring a Spam sandwich at midnight.

Overcast dawn, bitter 20 degrees below, light snow falling.

A wall of cordwood:

Two piles, each four frozen bodies high,

line our path to the mess tent.

*Republic of Korea

**removal of dead tissue and foreign material

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.