from A CONVERSATION WITH BRIAN TURNER
FOX: What were some highlights of your military career?
TURNER: Um…well, there’s funny things, and there are difficult things, but…highlights. One thing is very difficult to explain but was very fun. I just don’t know if I can describe it as fun as it was, make it as exciting as it was. We were training in Fort Louis, Washington, and it was force on force. We have blanks, we’re not shooting real bullets at each other, and there’s about 3,000 soldiers in the woods all around. Helicopters flying over. It’s in a large area of the base, it’s a big base, and so I know there are troops off in the distance, as when I was seven and I thought about the war from a distance, where people are. You can hear parts of little battles off in the distance, some skirmishes, that kind of thing. I know there’s a city, a fake mock city, that we’re working our way down to. It’ll take three or four hours; we’ll probably hit it by dawn. We’re one of the main assault forces. It’s raining because it’s Fort Lewis and it’s near Seattle. With the night vision goggles, and there’s a lot of ambient light in there anyway, the trees looked amazing. There was just a beauty to the trees in the rain in the predawn darkness. And I could see a long line of soldiers in front of me and whenever I turned around I could see the same long line behind me, hundreds of us just sort of slowly spaced out, fifteen feet apart, walking towards this city we’re going to attack.
And then there was a first sergeant up ahead on the side of the—there was a dirt road we were on, and then there was a slope to our left that pitched dramatically down to where the city was down below, hundreds and hundreds of feet. It’s not a cliff but it’s this bank, and because of the rain it’s very muddy and slippery, which is exactly what I found, because so many people had gone before me—the first sergeant would say, he would point to people to go, this was the path that you had to take, and because so many had done it, they’d worn basically a mudslide into the ground. So as soon as you walked off the edge where you were and went down the slope, then, within ten feet, you couldn’t continue to walk, you had to basically lean back on your backside and just put your feet up in the air and hold your weapon up high and then slide down this mountainside. And it seemed to go forever. I was enjoying it but then it kept going and it was like, wow, this is even more fun than I thought it would be. So I had about 15 seconds of just childish joy.
So that’s one of the highlights. Other highlights were getting promoted from a soldier to a sergeant, that was a highlight, because there’s a thing they do where they put your rank on your shoulder and collar, and they’re not supposed to do this, though most soldiers wouldn’t want to get promoted the way you’re supposed to. Basically what they do is, the metal insignia has two—it’s like an earring kind of thing that has two posts with points and there’s a little metal clasp backing on them which you take off and you just put them in and then the person who comes up to promote you takes two fists and just slams them into your chest to basically scar you with your rank. And then there’s a line of people that come up to do the same thing and you’re supposed to not fall back. They’ll come up and hit you really hard and it’s this rite of passage. That was a highlight. I know it’s odd, but it was a highlight, because there’s a certain pride in becoming part of that group.
FOX: How was the experience of being a sergeant?
TURNER: It was good and bad. Mostly because I was good and bad. I was okay as a sergeant, I wasn’t great. I did my best, but there were guys around me I saw and thought “Wow, that guy’s really good at being a sergeant.” We had one in our squad that was my colleague. He had great natural instincts and he could react very quickly so I just learned to pay attention to what he was doing and try to follow suit.
FOX: Were you afraid of getting killed?
TURNER: Yeah, pretty much every day. Or maimed or something. And I was also afraid that one of my guys would be. Because my whole goal wasn’t about freedom or democracy or anything, my actual stated goal in my mind—I don’t think I ever told them this—was to bring them back home safe in body and mind as much as possible. I was able to do the first, I’m not sure about the second.
FOX: That’s one of the later costs of war, people who fought and come back maimed or mentally disturbed.
TURNER: But if they don’t come back with some baggage, they’re probably sociopaths to begin with. I mean, to go to war and come back normal…I don’t know, there’s some kind of psychic disconnect; that just doesn’t make sense.
FOX: It seems to me that with rare exception there must be a war going on in this world all the time. Why do we do that?
TURNER: I don’t know. I heard some story, and I forget who this story was by, but that he calculated in recorded history that there were 29 years of recorded peace. I dispute that—I doubt there’s been a complete year of peace. We are a tribe, and we seem to send one part of the tribe off—the warrior class—once every generation. And then other times, because it’s a big business here in America, and we have our hands in so many pockets around the world, but in a large-scale way, it seems like once in every generation we have to send them off. Maybe I’m going too far off course, but it just seems like it’s connected for me in a commercial way—business. You can look at our budget and see how much is involved with the Pentagon, and know that in order to stay healthy in terms of budget we have to continually feed that. You can’t just have a car sitting in the garage for 40 years and never drive it; that’s what the car is for, to be driven. And then psychologically it goes back to what we first started talking about, that when I was a little seven-year-old kid, in order to be part of the tribe that I knew and that I revered—my grandfather, my uncles, my dad—I would have to do something like them; I would have to go off to a difficult place and come back, to have that rite of passage, to be part of the tribe. I think it’s some deep psychological thing that’s really hard to articulate or even to recognize but I think that’s in there. Because on the surface, when people ask me, “Why’d you join the army?” I’ll say, “Oh, to help pay back my college loans; my wife and I were recently married so we needed a house and stuff,” and all these practical things are true, but there are other jobs I could’ve got. I didn’t have to join the army; there was a deeper reason for doing that.
FOX: In that experience, what did you learn in terms of your poetry?
TURNER: Well, I didn’t expect to write poems while I was there. So I wrote here and a little bit while I was there, but the poems I’d written before were very—the ones before were more musical and longer lines, very lush music. I was concentrating on the music, and whatever subject I had in front of me I would impose the musical line that I wanted or that I was trying to learn how to write on top of it. So I might be writing about labor, I might be writing about love, or history, and then you’d see a similar line with each. And then when I went to Iraq I didn’t expect to write poems because it goes back to the fear—I was afraid of getting killed or wounded, so I was thinking more about that. But I did have notebooks I took with me, just college-ruled, 70-, 100-page notebooks, and I was writing diary entries, and then eventually—I think very quickly; I have to go back and look at my diaries, maybe 30 days in, 3 weeks, a month, I started writing poems. And now—and I think this gets to the heart of your question—if I look at those poems, what I see are poems that are very different, even in the lineation of the line itself and the way they look at the subject. It’s as if the subject is speaking more on the page rather than the author superimposing music over the subject. So I was learning to listen more to where I was rather than just using where I was as a vehicle to get to something else that I want to get to.
—from Rattle #35 Summer 2011