What We Do To Clean Up War

I would like to write specifically about Brian Turner’s poem “Homemade Napalm”.

I love this poem: it invokes so many images of culture and the culture built around war.

Turner writes: “We followed a recipe from The Poor Man’s/ James Bond– my father mixing gasoline with bone meal and Ivory soap, teaching me/ to shave a bar of soap with the flattened edge/ of the blade” (40)

This line struck me because it shows how war is imbedded in our culture. When we’re not thinking about being at war, we’re watching television shows that show explosions and gun-fire. What does it mean for a culture to focus on violence permanently? Is that they way that our minds function or are we told to think that way? We always hear the argument about M rated video games shouldn’t be allowed, and yet game after game is produced. Perhaps that is the way that war is programmed into us. If we see these kind of things all the time, we become desensitized to them. And maybe that’s what the people in charge want. They want us to load up every time there’s any kind of threat (whether real or made up) on the American identity. They don’t want us to ask question: they want the violence that they have been teaching us.

It is so easy to use images that we see everyday in war mongering. Images become symbols- the flag at times, for example, has become greater than what it means to be an American. It’s all about symbolism. TERROR (that $100 word that was repeated until we no longer knew what it meant, just what we were supposed to do about it. That was, remove it! Remove it! Remove it! It didn’t matter if there was actual TERROR or not, so long as we believed it. And man, so many of us did. But who wouldn’t?) is that Middle Eastern-looking man trying to board the plane to take his kids to Disney World.

The image of soap in this poem is so interesting. The image we see of soap consists of a white, clean, shiny bath or shower that we scrub every few weeks so it stays that nice white color. That’s were we find soap. Not when making a bomb. Because soap is too pure for that. Soap is what we clean ourselves with.

But not here. Here, soap is what is used to make a chemical that bloodies things up. But we can’t see that. We’re still thinking about that bar of soap on its pedestal. Just like the word TERROR. And PATRIOTISM.

This poem shows how these feelings have been passed down to us from generation to generation. In the poem: “He drank coffee,/ saying nothing of my grandfather,/ the Marine, Guadacanal, the flamethrower/carried on his back. He didn’t need to” (40). Also, “My grandfather/ took shots of Kentucky bourbon. My father/ downed a twelve-pack each night” (40).

Each generation, then, is experiencing the same kind of violence. By holding it in (and you couldn’t ask a soldier to not bear what he or she has seen-that would be MADNESS), each generation is taught that it’s ok. It’s the right thing to do, go to war. You never say what you’re feeling. You never give a hint that you’re in any way messed up inside. As Turner points out, “to be a man is to carry things inside/ no one would ever understand” (40).

The thing is, no one can ever understand unless it is told. When grandfather’s don’t talk about the hell they’ve been through, then the father will do the same thing because “It’s what dad did!”, and then along comes son and he doesn’t know any better so he’s off at war too.

Everyone is creating their own homemade bombs, but all they see is the bar of soap. They think they’re cleaning up.


Turner, Brian. Phantom Noise. Maine: Alice James Books 2010. Print.


One thought on “What We Do To Clean Up War

  1. Two things–first of all I love that you brought up the concept of desensitization. It is completely true that we are desensitized to things such as war and violence and death in this country. I actually explored this topic in a paper I wrote last semester on “Slaughterhouse 5”. Billy Pilgrim, the main character, suffers from PTSD which causes him to become desensitized to the horrors happening around him. His favorite phrase is “so it goes” which takes something that should normally be traumatic or awful and makes it appear to be normalized. The lack-of-disgust and desensitization which is shown in this character’s reaction to horrific occurrences parallels nicely with the way American’s treat violence and war. We are desensitized by video games (which you mentioned), movies, and just life itself. The sheer apathy we have towards these subjects is very, very sad indeed.

    Second I wanted to say that I love the comments you have on soap in your post and about how it usually acts as a means to cleanse and purify, but in this poem, it is an agent of destruction. I guess I didn’t think about the binary opposition being presented in this piece. It makes it even more disturbing than I originally found it to be. Thank you for pointing it out!

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