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The Power of Poetry - Cruelty or Humanity

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Cruelty or Humanity

We belong to the human race, but does that necessarily mean that must show humanity in every moment of our lives? Yusef Komunyakaa discusses themes related to a common humanity during times of war in his compilation of poems: "Dien Cai Dau". Komunyakaa shows the struggles and sorrow that American and Vietnamese combatants faced during the Vietnam War. This work has 43 poems, which present themes related to the human behavior in the cruel context of a guerrilla war. Although the poems present a wide variety of theme; "Camouflaging the Chimera", "Tunnels", "Fragging", and "Tu Do Street share common ideas that can be analyzed in order to create a new view of a common humanity throughout the book. Both Alvin Auber and Kevin Stein write about the theme of common humanity depicted by Komunyakaa in "Dien Cai Dau". Their approaches to this topic are different and these provide an opportunity to expand the understanding of this theme in the book. In the same way, Randall Jarrell depicts the harm caused to an individual by the cruelty of war in his poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner". The harshness and cruelty of the Vietnamese guerrilla war affected the combatants and leads them to act in a dehumanized manner individually and collectively. But the fear of death linked the combatants of different races and nationalities together and led them to attain a common humanity in the harsh context. Therefore, the human being is an entity that behaves in a dehumanized manner when he has to face extreme situations.

The images that we see from war help to illustrate the combatants' and innocents' suffering during conflict times; but they do not show the psychological harm caused to the people directly and indirectly involved in the conflict. Komunyakaa shows this in his first poem in "Dien Cai Dau": "Camouflaging the Chimera". A clear sign of fear is portrayed by the soldiers in this poem. They try to camouflage themselves: "We painted our faces & rifles with mud from a riverbank, blades of grass hung from the pockets of our tiger suits" (3). They are trying to protect themselves and by camouflaging they are metaphorically hiding their fears to carry on with the fight. This shows the beginning of their struggle against the harmful effects of the war on their humanity. Another clear example of the harm caused to the American soldiers is presented by Komunyakaa in his poem "Fragging": "We won't be wasting a real man"(16). Five soldiers are deciding who is going to throw the grenade to kill a lieutenant. Killing a person is a crime everywhere in the world; no reason is strong enough to take someone's life. In addition, it requires a lot of guts and a dehumanized action. This means that one has to lose some of his humanity in order to be able to kill someone. Furthermore, we can understand from this poem that the American soldiers are struggling with their dehumanized ideas: "Slipping a finger into the metal ring, he's married to his devil..."(16) This quotation shows that the speaker in this poem is trying to say that he understands that killing the lieutenant is an evil action. This shows that the speaker has not lost his humanization totally; but he does not complain about the action either. On one hand, we see that war harmed the combatants psychologically and they act as a group with new dehumanized ideas.

On the other hand, Randall Jarrell depicts the same theme in his poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" from an individual point of view. This five-line poem is brief but carries a powerful message behind it. There is a clear war element, which relates it directly to the theme of cruelty and dehumanization in war times. The speaker in this poem is drafted to go to war for the United "States"(551). Then he is in a ball turret in the belly of a war-airplane and he is in shock. The fourth line implies that he suddenly realizes that he is in great danger and we can imply that he foreshadows his inevitable destiny.



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