The War Hero and His Poem

By | 29 September 2014

Photo by Kent MacCarter

On the weekend after Tony Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister, announced that the Australian Defence Force would be assisting the US forces in attacking ISIS, the war hero Ben Roberts-Smith was featured in the magazine section of The Weekend Australian. The journalist detailed the process of painter Michael Zavros’s making a portrait of Roberts-Smith for entry in the nation’s most famous art award, the Archibald Prize.

There was a quality of déjà vu about this – Ben Roberts-Smith, a muscular, Anglo-Australian warrior, Australia’s most decorated soldier, came to national prominence when he was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, which took place at the same time that Australia’s withdrawal from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was announced. There was widespread opinion then that Australia had made a mistake by joining the Americans in the ‘War Against Terror’, and that the withdrawal could be seen as a defeat.

It would not take a cynic to see that on both occasions Ben Roberts-Smith, an ANZAC archetype, has been conjured up to reassure the public, by all his image evokes, that Australian political decisions are not largely dependant for their direction on US policy. But what struck me was not this fairly typical manifestation of public/national image-management, but that deep in the article it mentioned that Ben Roberts-Smith was in Brisbane to read a poem.

To help raise the profile of Mates 4 Mates, a not-for-profit organisation that assists soldiers and their families to recover from the traumas of conflict, and to promote the British-sponsored Invictus Games, a kind of Paralympics for physically rehabilitated Commonwealth soldiers, Roberts-Smith was recording a poem I know well: William Ernest Henley’s 1875 ‘Invictus’.

It is a poem I once wrote an essay about, focussing on the role it played in the film of the same title by Clint Eastwood, a film that took South Africa’s campaign to win the Rugby World Cup in 1995 as metaphor for the nation’s psychological recovery following the dismantling of Apartheid. Several years ago, I presented a draft of the essay at the Poetry and Revolution conference at Birkbeck College in London under the title ‘Invictus and the Negotiated Revolution’, with the ironic subtitle ‘Or Clint Eastwood’s idea of the lyric poem’.

At that time, the effects of the post-GFC budget-cuts were being very strongly felt in the education sector in the UK – in fact the London Riots had taken place shortly before – and there was a lot of talk about revolution among the poets. So much talk, in fact, that I found it almost debilitating, and, probably, more so because my understanding of the politics of language, influenced by my experiences over the years in several countries – South Africa, Indonesia and Egypt – is in being conscious of language’s everyday power. Certainly, the kind of political articulation that the poets were hoping for in London suggested to me nothing but their own powerlessness.

Better, I thought, to look at a Clint Eastwood movie that claims that Nelson Mandela not only loved the Victorian era poem ‘Invictus’, allegedly reading and memorising it regularly in his prison cell on Robben Island, and that he gave it to Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team, to help motivate him and his team so that – yes, this is Clint Eastwood’s version – they would defeat the All Blacks and unite multiracial, post-Apartheid South Africa for the future.

In my research for the paper I discovered that Timothy McVeigh, the notorious Oklahoma City Bomber, was also fond of this poem and that he presented it in lieu of a final statement after he was sentenced to death. A Google search revealed that there was a brief flourishing of amateur literatury criticism in the media at that time, many provincial college professors and journalists claiming that McVeigh had misread the poem, and on YouTube I found, among countless individuals reading the poem, many it seems for school assignments, the disturbing image of a Slavic man, his face heavily painted in camouflage, reciting the poem from memory.

That image, in my recollection, is more disturbing now, knowing of the conflict unfolding in the Ukraine, and especially because he gave the impression that immediately after his recitation he would be going off to fight.

On the site of Mates 4 Mates, Ben Roberts-Smith can be found reciting the poem, a poem that up until the last two decades or so was taught widely in British schools and, I imagine, until the 1960s throughout the British Empire. To such an extent that in correspondence Michael Schmidt, the editor of British poetry magazine PN Review, wrote to me, as he rejected the essay, that he strongly disagreed with my observation that ‘Invictus’ was an obscure 19th Century poem.

In Roberts-Smith’s voice the poem is just as it is in the mouth of Morgan Freeman/Mandela, and as it is on the page that passed from the hand of the condemned McVeigh to his legal representative. Whether it was McVeigh, his lawyer or the judge who read aloud those words to the court, I don’t know.

What impresses me in every circumstance in which the poem is read is how impersonal it is, how it unmakes the personal subjectivity I appreciate in the poetic. Clint Eastwood’s Mandela was right – ‘Invictus’ is motivational writing, like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

In listening to the Australian war hero read ‘Invictus’ I can hear again that it is simultaneously a poem about conflict and about suffering, that it is a poem that asserts the individual even while it is, like much lyricism in popular culture, nearly completely impersonal. In the sense that it is depersonalised, it is, to me at least, not a poem: it’s an anthem. While I am sympathetic to the goals and care of Mates 4 Mates and, with reservations to the military action against ISIS, Roberts-Smith’s performance elides what I appreciate in the politics of the poetic: the discovery of another’s inner life, their loves and doubts, the vulnerabilities and hopes, another’s – in a word – sensibility. Watching him robotically reading that poem on my computer screen, I worry that he, like so many of us, is trapped in a mediatised, politicised image.

I wish that, instead, he had chosen to read us a real, intimate, 21st Century poem.

Postscript: On the long weekend – the Queen’s Birthday in Western Australia – before this short essay was to appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Perth’s Sunday Times had part of a statement by Ben Roberts-Smith on Australia’s decision to assist in the fight against the IS. On its front page: ‘… they probably don’t deserve to share the Earth with the rest of humanity.’ (It should be remembered that Roberts-Smith is from Perth, and this statement was made on a visit to the city. Perth, too, is the main base for the SAS due to its shorter flying time to much of the world.) The absolute violence implied by this statement is startling. It demonstrates the way in which Roberts-Smith, now an MBA student and motivational-speaker on the corporate lecture circuit, is a figure who articulates, even embodies, government policy. Seen in light of my short essay, his ‘using’ the poem ‘Invictus’, I hope I can prompt some skepticism about his sort of conjunction of language, nationality and today’s imperial violence, and, let’s not forget, the consequences of having a war hero read a poem.

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