On another occasion, we get sent out
To tackle looters raiding a bank.
And one of them legs it up the road.
Probably armed, possibly not.
Well myself and somebody else and somebody else
Are all of the same mind,
So all three of us open fire
Three of a kind all letting fly, and I swear
I see every round as it rips through his life –
I see broad daylight on the other side.
So, we’ve hit this looter a dozen times
And he’s there on the ground, sort of inside out,
Pain itself, the image of agony.
One of my mates goes by
And tosses his guts back into his body.
Then he’s carted off in the back of a lorry.
End of story, except not really.
His blood-shadow stays on the street, and out on patrol
I walk right over it week after week.
Then I’m home on leave. But I blink
And he burst again through the doors of the bank.
Sleep, and he’s probably armed, possibly not.
Dream, and he’s torn apart by a dozen rounds.
And the drink and the drugs won’t flush him out –
What a poem this is!
It hits you where it hurts right from the off and ends in the same way. It is powerful, poignant, dramatic and vicious in places and for me, is one of Armitage’s more graphic poems from the anthology of poems he now has under his belt.
He probably meant this from one person’s point of view, having been abroad, presumably with the armed forces and having served a tour somewhere and then returned home with the resultant PTSD or Combat Stress. But it is possible to put this person anywhere in the world when it comes to the British soldier.
As I read, I place this man’s home here in the UK, but the tour of duty in Northern Ireland, for some reason. Maybe it is my age. It does not matter a jot if I am wrong, for that is my reading of this poem. It could easily be downtown Mosul, in Iraq. But the feeling I get is that the man has gone on a tour of duty, seen things we would not wish our worst enemy to see and then had to return home, where he sees these things at every turn.
I have been a soldier. I have handled an old SLR rifle, of the 7.62mm full metal jacket variety and I have shot one too, but never in anger. The nearest I got to anger was when confronted by a thug and I made a movement to use the butt end on his head or in his gut. It deterred him from moving forward any further. So when I read this poem, it evokes certain memories in me, ones I would sooner not rise to the surface of normalcy, if you like.
The poem begins with the words, “on another occasion,” which suggest any other occasion that might be normal to us all but it also means that under normal circumstances, the soldiers would be sent out to patrol an area of land in a certain manner and at a certain time of the day. But this time they get “sent out to tackle looters raiding a bank.” I think this is why it makes me think of Northern Ireland when the so called “Troubles” were a daily part of life in Belfast and the likes. If you do not know this term, then you need to hit Google rapidly and find out, because if it is meant to represent that time and that place, then you need the information at hand.
One of the bank robbers “legs it up the road, probably armed, possibly not.” That is such a great use of language, or opposites in life. “Legs it” is an vernacular term for running away from something or someone. “Up the road” is something a Yorkshireman would add, as would most English people. But the juxtaposition of “probably” and “possibly” is very clever from the poet on this occasion, because we are forced to see what the man sees as the other man or men run away.
He refers to himself and the others in terms of “myself” and “somebody else,” preferring not to give any names. It all sounds like an account of an event in the life of a soldier and reminds me of when we write Free Verse, which this is not, in the sense that if you just write this out like a story, it would still do the same thing. Try to read it like that and see what I mean.
This is what you would get.
On another occasion, we get sent out to tackle looters raiding a bank and one of them legs it up the road, probably armed, possibly not. Well myself and somebody else and somebody else are all of the same mind, so all three of us open fire; three of a kind all letting fly, and I swear I see every round as it rips through his life. I see broad daylight on the other side. So, we’ve hit this looter a dozen times and he’s there on the ground, sort of inside out, pain itself, the image of agony. One of my mates goes by and tosses his guts back into his body. Then he’s carted off in the back of a lorry.
End of story, except not really. His blood-shadow stays on the street, and out on patrol I walk right over it week after week. Then I’m home on leave. But I blink and he burst again through the doors of the bank. Sleep, and he’s probably armed, possibly not. Dream, and he’s torn apart by a dozen rounds and the drink and the drugs won’t flush him out.
There are three soldiers who all “open fire,” which again, is a term for beginning to shoot at the men fleeing for their lives but the fact that these soldiers are shooting means they are either under orders to do so, or that they are acting illegally. These soldiers know what they are aiming at is another man and they know that if the bullet hits them, they will undoubtedly die. That much is a fact of life for a soldier on deployment. So, “three of a kind,” are all doing the same thing, the thing they are trained to do and firing on what they see as the enemy. But then we see an opinion being shared as the soldier stresses the fact that each bullet “rips through his life” so that he can see “broad daylight through the holes he is making in this man’s body. This is a grim business. He knows he has hit the looter several times and even uses hyperbole to claim it was “a dozen times,” by all three, resulting in the fleeing man now being on the ground, “sort of inside out.” Did they hit him that many times? I suspect not, unless using a semi automatic rifle or hand gun. The SA80 that the Army uses may have that ability. I am not too sure. It will be a semi-automatic at least, if not fully automatic.
By this, he also means that his body, ripped open by the bullets, now resembles something you might think to see at a butcher’s shop. Minced beef, or any other meat. He can see the “pain itself, the image of agony” as he calls it. The metaphor is not lost on the reader either as one of his friends walks by the man and “tosses his guts back into his body” in preparation for the now deceased body being carted off to the morgue or the crematorium. Someone will have to claim the body for burial.
So far then, this has been a remembrance of a grim event that took place on a regular basis in the life of a soldier, presumably, for me anyway, on deployment in Northern Ireland. But now he shows us that the body is “carted off in the back of a lorry.” That is again, a northern English use of language, a use of words that may not be typically Standard English, so we have to assume these are dialectal words used in the context of the Yorkshire dialect. With Armitage being from Marsden in West Yorkshire, his style of speaking does show itself in all his poems like this.
The soldier tells us this is “end of story” but we know otherwise, for we suspect something else is coming. This is an Armitage poem. He would not just leave it there, for that is too simple when there is so much more chance to add to the brutality of civil unrest that these soldiers are patrolling. The words that follow, of “except not really,” back this up as well and we begin to see that Armitage is taking us on a journey of understanding here as he shows us how the “blood-shadow stays on the street” each time they walk over that area again. It must be horrible to have to shoot someone, but equally brutal to have to go out on patrol again and again, knowing that this is the place where you did this to this man. There is little wonder soldiers suffer from PTSD when you read these words and these words are just fiction. Reality will be far worser than this, I can assure you.
Being on deployment is not an easy action to take. Being shot at is scary. I can testify to that as well. It scared me to bits, I can tell you, when I had it done to me. But the reality of all this is borne out in your training, for you are taught how to cope with situations like this. What you are not taught is how to deal with them when you have returned home. You might walk past the place week in and week out, but then, when you are at home, it is all very different.
I can remember a former student of mine who joined up, went to Iraq and then came home. It was the beginning of November when he returned home. November 5th came round and the fireworks were being set off everywhere. When one rather loud bang happened, he put his hands behind his neck, took to the floor and shouted, “Take cover!” He thought he was back in Iraq, where some of his friends had died. He could not get over the horror of all he saw. The same is true here too, in this poem, for we see as we read, that he is “home on leave” and he blinks as if to take stock of where he is and the reality of it.
As he blinks, certain things begin to happen. He sees again, the man come bursting “again through the doors of the bank.” When he is asleep, he sees that the man is “probably armed, possibly not,” still uncertain if there is a firearm there in the scene and the scene is running through his mind minute after minute. It simply will not go away. Even in his dreams, he sees the man “torn apart by a dozen rounds.” (Have a read of Dulce Et Decorum Est and see something similar in that poem as well). Now that is an horrific thing to have to continually see day after day, in your waking thoughts and in your deepest dreams. That is true PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a thing that happens to most soldiers and others, who undergo something truly horrific to their sensibilities.
The truth of the matter, for this soldier, is that in all his dreams and waking thought, what remains as the truth is the idea that any amount of “drink” and “drugs” will not separate the ghost of the man from his heart or mind. It simply will not flush him away as a memory. He is stuck with this image in his mind and heart, until he gets therapy, which is why Armitage ends the poem with the dash “-” because he is making the point that life does continue and that life must go on. How we deal with that life after such events as this, is the stuff of therapy sessions.
This then, is one truly remarkable poem. How a man, or woman, can take so few words and show so much about the horror of warfare, the problems of PTSD, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, the pain and the suffering of being a soldier and the anguish that they must face from day to day, is quite remarkable.
Bravo, Mr. Armitage.