War, Childhood, and Peace

by Sheila Desmond

With My Bare Hands

You ask me how I fared in that war
When I was only four
If you care enough to ask as much
I’ll dare relive hell to tell you how I fought . . .

You ask me how I could have fought
Against war when I was only four . . .
With my bare hands . . .
Using unconventional weapons, will and voice
I had no trouble making that choice

I raised my hands, I raised my fists
I screamed and screamed, defiance in my cry
Impotent though I was, against that terror from the sky . . .

The noise, the sounds, aggression unbound
Were meant to shatter my ears, and only the
Presence of love in my parents, helped
To allay some fears . . .

Clutching a bone in my teeth
So they wouldn’t chatter, shell-shock scattered thoughts
Unwound . . . what if I bit off my own tongue with fright
Horrifying sight; language no longer mattered . . .
Earth-quaking sound shook and shook my world around.

And peace . . .
Was something vaguely remembered
A time in my heart, before war,
This war I hadn’t even helped to start

I ran
Lost in a stampeding crowd, panic at hysteria pitch
All running for cover to a ditch where a man could stand
Knee deep in mosquito-infested stagnant water
But for a child, it seemed like a grave where you could
Be buried alive, chin high, yet my steps did not falter
What a state! Knowing scorpions and snakes lay in wait
Down there in the place they called a shelter . . .

I stumbled, bent doubled, my head to the ground
Inhuman groans and wails rent the air; not fair, not fair
Don’t slow down, don’t stare . . . hurry, hurry . . .
Smell, smell the stench of burning human skin and hair
Stepping on bloody debris here and there
Avoiding bayonets between the living and the dead
Teary from smoke, weary with repetition,
Unable to reach my destination, a trench dug in soil
A four year old had to toil with pain, confusion, sorrow
What if there is no tomorrow?

Should I care?
After all, nothing remains of my same-age friend next door
Except a gaping hole . . . right there in what used to be her
Living room floor . . .

Don’t turn the page . . .
For shame . . .

Wherever you look, wherever you go, you’ll find more
Of the same; tapeworms inside and lice outside
No doctors with injections, no medicine, food, anesthesia
Transfusion . . . no television, satellite connection, you
Couldn’t even sit home safely switching stations and
Marvel at live coverage, at such fine documentation, or,
Bored and blasé, consider it passé, until you find
Yourself in a similar situation . . .

Watch out

You’re heading in the very same direction . . .

I couldn’t stop running, disease was rampant,
Bowels, adamant . . . . Fear stronger than diarrhea . . .

No pride anymore

No civilization

Shitting as I ran, running as I shit, if I survive
If , if, if . . .
I have to speak and say my bit . . .
This thing called WAR . . .
We must STOP it . . .

Unintended Consequences

The atrocities of war
Were all around us . . .
Bloody body parts strewn,
Scattered all over the fields and forests
Grownups wandered around
Searching for their loved ones,
Muttering to themselves
Shell-shocked . . .
We were starved,
Scarecrow thin, with head lice
And body lice and tapeworms
In our bellies
But we cheered when the Allies bombed us
Cheered, even though
We, the innocents, the children,
The civilian population
Might die, together with the enemies
Lurking in these same fields and forests
Bayonets ready to cause more grief . . .
We didn’t care if we died
All we wanted was to get rid
Of those who had caused all this misery
We wanted them gone, gone, gone
From our beautiful, peaceful land . . .
So yes, Allied forces,
Keep the bombs coming,
We want you here, we need you here
Welcome, welcome, welcome!
Deliverance . . .

With My Bare Hands is the very beginning of the war, memories of the first bombing of Rangoon, in December 1941, I believe, and the subsequent, unrelenting bombings . . . Unintended Consequences is the recollection after a war-weary two or three years later, when the war started to shift slightly toward the Allies, when they also started bombing again, everywhere in the country. That may explain some things, but then, of course, as an adult, “We must stop it!” is my cry . . . —SD
Also by Sheila Desmond:
Beat the Drums, Send Smoke Signals
It Just Doesn’t Matter Anymore, or Does It?

  1. As a child in the bombing of London in World War Two, I recognise this fear so fully evoked in your powerful poem, Sheila. War must be stopped ~ we can agree on that.


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