I Never Saw Him Drowning: Great-Uncle Charlie and the Great War
by Philip Metres
*Leaning over my desk in January 1991, news coverage of the Gulf War droning in the background, I read for the first time the opening lines of Wilfred Owen’s“Dulce et Decorum Est”: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,/we cursed through sludge.” I felt transported, imagining the weight these young soldiers bore in the strange hellscapes of the front. I was a junior at Holy Cross College. All semester, my English professor, Mike True, guided our class through “The Nonviolent Tradition in Literature,” while on television, military leaders touted missile-eye images of “smart bombs” and “surgical strikes.” It was terribly surreal to encounter such polar views of war, knowing that each was only a partial picture of what American poet Walt Whitman once called the “Real War,” the one that would never “get in the books.” Yet Owen’s garish images and his fierce rhetorical conclusion confirmed something that I felt deep in my gut— war was an ugly thing, destroying bodies and haunting minds. On the other side of the world, even though the news coverage would not show it, people were dying under our bombs; it would take poets and artists to slip beneath the media’s redactions and censoring to imagine the horror.
Even then, I found myself drawn most not to the lurid language and angry retort of “Dulce” but to its dreamlike center when the soldiers find themselves attacked by chemical gas, and one man fails to adjust his mask in time:
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
In contrast to much of the poem, the language here is starkly plain and subtly recursive, filled with internal rhyme and assonance. Words flicker and return: green and green, drowning and drowning, and the piling on of gerunds creates the effect of a flashback, of a past imposing itself on—even devouring—the present. Each night, the speaker drowns in the memory of his comrade’s drowning. In World War I, after Owen’s dear friend was killed in a bomb attack, the poet suffered from acute mental distress and wound up at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917 for treatment. They called it “shell shock” then, what we might diagnose now as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Though some treatments included electric shock therapy, Owen’s doctor recommended writing.
It was no surprise that I linked that Owen’s depiction of the Great War to the Gulf War; my father is a veteran and my mother a pacifist. After joining the Navy through the ROTC program in college, my father served during the Vietnam War, an advisor on a Vietnamese patrol gunboat who survived Tet. Upon return home, he’d teach counterinsurgency and later produced a dissertation on the emotional impact of on families of soldiers who were prisoners of war or missing in action (POW/MIA), and later became a clinical psychotherapist.
In recent years, it has been his great passion to work with veterans making the long emotional return from all of our wars, but back then, when I was young, he may have been making the long return himself. I want to say that he still carried the war with him, but it’s probably more accurate to say that I didn’t know where the war ended and my father began. A deeply loving and powerful man, he was nonetheless prone to suddenly foul moods that would descend upon our whole house, causing us to scurry around for whatever mask might protect us. Was this the war, I wondered, or something else? I never could be sure.
My mother abhorred violence—both real and represented—and forbade guns (real and play) in the house. She was chagrined when my father pointed outside one day, where I had picked up a stick in our yard and pretended to shoot my friend with it. Part of her pacifism grew out of a story that she’d been carrying for years, one that goes all the way back to the First World War.
Her mother, Grandma Sheila, was just six years old when her big brother Charlie, age twenty-two, went off to fight in the Great War. It was 1917, the same year that Owen was convalescing at Craiglockhart. My grandmother must have looked up to him, literally and figuratively, as he stood in the doorway in his trim wool uniform and its gleaming bronze buttons, saying his goodbyes.
About a year later, when the war was supposed to be ending, her parents sat her down and gave her the news. Charlie would not be coming home. He had died in the war. It must have shaken her to the core. How could this strong and beautiful man be gone? She would always look up to him, and imagine him in heaven, looking down at her, protecting her.
Fifty years later, precisely the same year that my father was in Vietnam, Sheila opened a curious letter from the Veterans Administration. It was a notice that her brother Charlie had recently passed away in a VA hospital.
I imagine her falling into a chair, rereading the letter. Her brother had been alive and she had not known. She must have been beside herself with grief because everyone had pretended he was dead. Since her parents had passed away, she could never ask them why. Why had they hidden the truth? Had anyone from the family gone to visit him? If so, why was she robbed of the chance to do that same?
The reasons have been lost to the great silence of time.
T.S. Eliot once wrote: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” We don’t like to hear that war undoes so many, but if we don’t listen to what its military and civilian veterans tell us, we risk repeating the same mistakes.
Because we never know whether the family stories we’re told are true, I decided to do my own research and combed through an ancestry database to find out what I could about Uncle Charlie. I found his registration card for World War I and census records from 1920 and 1930, in which he was listed, in careful cursive, as “patient” in two different hospitals.
There were many, many names alongside Charlie’s, men who had disappeared from their pre-war lives. How many Charlies were pronounced dead before their time, silenced out of family shame, confusion or despair?
Great-Uncle Charlie is one of the many reasons that I’ve devoted a good deal of my life work—my poetry, essays, and scholarship, not to mention my teaching—to resisting the glamour of war and promoting peacebuilding and conflict transformation. From Sand Opera to my translations of poets from enemy countries, from my book on poets and the peace movement to my courses on Israel-Palestine and Northern Ireland, I’ve tried to find ways of understanding the geography of violence and pointing out the paths of peace, justice, and reconciliation.
This is all I know about Charlie Fitzpatrick, my great-uncle. According to his military registration card, he was 5-foot-7 and slender. His eyes were blue and his hair was brown. Prior to his service, he’d worked at Western Union. He’d tried to claim exemption from the draft because he had nasal trouble, though its cause is not listed. He must have had trouble breathing, a physical weakness I may have inherited. I suddenly cast back to Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and the images of a man drowning, sputtering in the green sea of a chemical attack. After fifty years in a Veterans Administration hospital, Charlie died in 1967, just as images of my father’s war had begun to flood the nightly news.
In 2015, Philip Metres published the following poem about his uncle and father:
In the First World Peace, Uncle Charley found his mind
outside a country asylum, wound home to meet the sister
who always knew he’d survived. Uncle Dom always spoke
of the Second World Peace, how he once gave away
a Purple Heart, which never reminded him of anything.
And the marchers marched backward, never showing
their backs, unlocked and unloaded every rifle they carried,
breaking ranks in every direction. And the smoke and ash
turned back into bone-clothed skin. In Saigon, my father saw fireworks,
wondered when peace would end. If only we trimmed
our peace budget, the President says, we might have something
to spend on the latest bionic technology, to erase the scars
of peace, since men keep sprouting limbs, and their shrapnel-free
faces have a symmetry you only see in times like these.
Philip Metres is the author of ten books, including The Sound of Listening (essays, 2018), Sand Opera (poems, 2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (translations, 2015), Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront (scholarship 2007), among others. His work has garnered a Lannan fellowship, two NEAs, six Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Hunt Prize, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Watson Fellowship, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University.http://www.philipmetres.com
*For another perspective on Wilfred Owen, WWI, and the Gulf War, see Seth Brady Tucker's post here