One for Memorial Day: The War in the Air

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Photo of a bomber squadron over Europe taken by my grandfather from his turret, WWII.

The War in the Air
BY HOWARD NEMEROV

For a saving grace, we didn’t see our dead,
Who rarely bothered coming home to die
But simply stayed away out there
In the clean war, the war in the air.

Seldom the ghosts come back bearing their tales
Of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea,
But stayed up there in the relative wind,
Shades fading in the mind,

Who had no graves but only epitaphs
Where never so many spoke for never so few:
Per ardua, said the partisans of Mars,
Per aspera, to the stars.

That was the good war, the war we won
As if there was no death, for goodness’s sake.
With the help of the losers we left out there
In the air, in the empty air.

I actually haven’t used this poem in a class–at least yet. I happened to find it last night while poking around on the Poetry Out Loud website for a poem to share on Memorial Day in the same way that I wrote about George Bilgere’s “At The Vietnam Memorial”  last year. But this is definitely one to consider for the future, especially as I continue to plumb the depths of human nature and man’s tendency to war with man during the course of sophomore English.

Yeah, I know that it’s not exactly a positive topic to discuss in literature, but then again, not all literature that has a connection to the real world is puppy dogs and rainbows either (which will be the topic for another post on another day).   This poem is succinct and reminds me (and consequently, could be used to remind students) that poets very often choose their words carefully. And Nemerov seems to be taking a shot (no pun intended) at doing what Lt. John McCrea does in “In Flanders Fields”: striking a balance between the gung-ho patriotism of Edgar Guest and the bitter condemnation of Wilfred Owen. There is respect in this poem but also the gravity of death and loss; it’s a moment of reflection that doesn’t feel the need to wrap itself in the flag in order to give itself a sense of importance.

And to be honest, I like that. Nemerov’s lack of posturing seems genuine, and allows for a true moment of reflection as we take today to reflect upon what we have lost as a result of war.

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