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On "Crash Report"

John Marsh

What makes Thomas McGrath’s "Crash Report" so immediately intriguing is the decidedly anti-populist—for this famously populist poet—last stanza. McGrath challenges his readers to "examine a case on record," to make sense of the apparent contradiction between calling two grossly unequal deaths—one "real" (going "down over Paramashiru"), the other "phony" (the result of "joy-riding"—equally heroic. By way of solving the dilemma, the poem accuses and condemns those readers who would possibly value such distinctions in the first place but for whom (just as for the dead soldiers) such distinctions finally signify nothing:

But for you, Gentle Reader, it doesn’t matter a damn.
To you, real or phony, they’re all the same.
And in the dead men’s summers where they’ll never feel the sun
It’s of no importance. Everyone dies for your sins. (25-28)

McGrath borrows the language of crucifixion—Christ died for our sins—to make a pointed critique of any death ("real or phony...[is] of no importance") that results from war. Except that these military crucifixions offer no redemption. Indeed, McGrath ascribes no higher motive—to save the Jews from the Nazis, to defend Democracy from Fascism—to these soldiers’ deaths (or to those who so casually send their young men to die) than the desire to create heroes, to have the comfort of martyrs. Further, McGrath’s appropriation of the cliched Victorian address, "Gentle Reader," also ironically names our sin as violence, our willingness (indeed, our satisfaction) in sacrificing young men to war. In short, not a poem we would expect to come out of the closing, idealistic days of World War II, nor a poem we would expect from a poet whose political and poetic sympathies lie with the people.

Perhaps because of these disappointed expectations, McGrath’s vision reads even more bleakly than that other famously skeptical World War II poem, Robinson Jeffers’ "Fantasy," whose speaker imagines the day of peace betrayed by "new men plot[ting] a new war." Except that in "Fantasy" Jeffers at least offers the populist belief that scheming men, and not the people dancing in the street, plot the new wars. In "Crash Report," the people may not directly plot wars, but they nevertheless earn psychological wages from the creation of national heroes and myths—without which war could not proceed. The one-dimensional patriotism McGrath targets in "Crash Report" also compels people to suppress any but the propagandistic and heroic myths they willingly consume in the public sphere. The deaths by "joy-riding" and the deaths "over Paramashiru" are all "equal," or made to be, "In the book of Hearst’s recording angel" (19-20).

"Yet not for us," the speaker argues of these distinctions between heroic and non-heroic deaths,

                        We can recognize heroes
Before they are dead or fogged in with medals.
For heroes the hearse must be called for a reason.
It is not by accident their lives are given. (21-24)

What would otherwise read as a tautology in the final couplet—deaths happen for a reason because no death happens by accident—reads, at another level, as an attack upon the word "accident," which, like the medals, tends to fog in (a wonderful image) other nagging, uncomfortable truths. For the soldiers, all deaths, whether by whisky and nurses or by enemy gun-fire, must by definition qualify as heroic. Even those seemingly non-heroic deaths (the result of "the wages of sin, etc.") would not have occurred if soldiers had not surrendered themselves to the patriotic fantasies of the general population. The readers of newspapers must take responsibility for all deaths—the heroic ones and the drunken, debauched ones. To do otherwise is to substitute propaganda for humanity, to engage in a public washing of bloodied hands—an all too easy abrogation of responsibility McGrath’s "Crash Report" will not allow to pass without comment.

The poem’s cynicism, then, with its refusal to distinguish between worthy and unworthy deaths and its refusal to speak the idealistic aims of World War II, may well express the resentment of soldiers against war itself, since war necessarily subordinates soldiers to the exigencies of the nation-state. At a very basic level, a society at war uses young men, who may or may not understand the exchange they participate in. If so, "Crash Report," anticipates Randall Jarrel’s "The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner," whose speaker laments at the outset that "From my mother’s sleep, I fell into the State" (1)—a state which, "When I died, washed me out of the turret with a hose." A state, in other words, that in its rush to accomplish nationalist (or, to be optimistic, humanitarian) ends, treats men as means, not ends. Except, to return to the earlier discussion, the state in McGrath’s "Crash Report," is not—as in Jeffers—composed of scheming men, but instead composed of "Gentle Readers." The ordinary men and women who revel in the creation of heroes and who smooth over unpleasant details—the "heroes in handcuffs, out of War by Accident" (9). If acquiescent and blinkered patriotism is a sin, then soldiers do indeed die for our sins.

Read as a whole, "Crash Report" offers a decidedly cynical account of World War II, the only supposedly "good" war of the Twentieth Century, and the Greatest Generation that conducted it at home and abroad. However much we might like to preserve the belief that World War II proceeded from higher motives than unthinking patriotic warmongering and the fetishism of heroes, though, we nevertheless should not dismiss critiques of McGrath’s kind as programmatic and naive pacifism. For if World War II somehow qualifies as just—even though tainted by incalculable injustices (Hiroshima and Nagasaki)—the two great military engagements that would follow World War II (Vietnam and Iraq), and the many other smaller engagements in United States’ military history in the Twentieth Century, were decidedly unjust. Yet each—just and unjust alike—could rely upon the same patriotic surrender of the will (Nixon’s "silent majority") that World War II received. It is this unthinking, static patriotism that McGrath’s "Crash Report" finally condemns. The stopped clock of unthinking patriotism may be right twice a day (World War II and perhaps Kosovo)—but it is wrong (the Philippines, Puerto Rico, World War I, Iran, Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq) many, many more times than it is right. McGrath reminds us of this checkered history of unchecked patriotism, and the numerous victims—young men, America’s or its "enemies"—of such a record.

Copyright 2001 by John Marsh

Christopher Simeone

In his analysis of Thomas McGrath’s “Crash Report,” John Marsh calls the poem a “decidedly anti-populist” and “decidedly cynical account of World War II.” Puzzlingly contradicting his track record of populist and socialist politics, McGrath, Marsh suggests, criticizes the “unthinking patriotism” of the masses even when the war effort itself might be morally justified for fighting fascism and stopping the Holocaust. Yet while surely infused with bitterness towards the imagined readership that so easily renders the war dead as “heroes,” McGrath’s poem does not condemn “the people.” Rather, “Crash Report” attempts to carve out a space for the genuine appreciation of heroes while directing its criticism against an industry of news production and news consumption—an industry that sentimentally flattens the sacrifices of enlisted men—perpetuated by profiteering suppliers and savagely naïve genteel readers. Populism, in fact, has everything to do with the poem’s politics.

The poetic voice hails us as meta-commentary on the one of many typical stories we might encounter in the newspapers of the early 1940s. Posing as crash report, it turns against the very assumptions and violences committed by the genre. This newspaper critic wishes immediately to assay our character by posing his (and I presume a male gender because of his probable identity as a soldier in the 1940s) central question in the first stanza:

If perhaps you read in the paper somewhere
How Captain—or maybe Private—so and so—
Had been killed in Africa or India or even
The Aleutians—well, would you think him a hero?

In the idiom of brash, unrefined frankness, the speaker interrogates our alliances—are we, as readers of yet another crash report, a “Gentle Reader” for whom the real circumstances of such deaths “don’t matter a damn” (25), or are we more appropriately grouped with the “us” and “we” of the sixth stanza? “We can recognize heroes” the speaker contends, “Before they are dead or fogged in with medals” (21-22). The poem details a stark contrast between the two potential factions in its audience, a division that ultimately hinges on our material relationship to the war dead. The poem’s structuring pronouns—“us” and “you”—do not easily map onto speaker and reader, respectively. Instead, “Crash Report,” unlike the uncritically written and passively consumed news stories it excoriates, demands that we make our understanding of dead soldiers into a political commitment. Are you a Gentle Reader, or are you with us?

As a socialist populist poem, “Crash Report” structures these differing alliances according to class lines. The Gentle Reader is not only, as John Marsh suggests, the ironic title for the perpetrator of violent crimes against soldiers. The Gentle Reader is also the “genteel reader” who, in keeping with the 19th century tradition, might read the day’s news of death and suffering alongside the society page, works of literature, and other witty refinements. Situated in such a textual and cultural collage, the typical crash report for the Gentle Readers of the 1940s abstracts and evacuates all wartime deaths, hollowing as it hallows them. Whether the dead are passionate fighters or careless joy-riders (as outlined in the fourth stanza), whether they are “real or phony” (26), the gentle reader unthinkingly absorbs them as mere narrative, a textual surface amongst other textual surfaces—“they’re all the same” (26). Punning off the similar sounds of “Hearst” and “hearse,” McGrath distinguishes the adherents of the profiteering newspaper magnate from those who witness the meaningful death of combatants. “For heroes the hearse must be called for a reason. It is not by accident their lives are given” (24). Unlike “Hearst’s recording angel” which sees all wartime expenditure of life as “equal” (19-20), the men who report and record the real circumstances of death—the Christian Front mug from Yorkville, the abundance of whisky and nurses, the actual battleground where the soldier died—retain an authentic understanding of personal sacrifice and comradeship under traumatic duress. Death is marked by purpose. It is indeed not by accident that these men die. Against the mass media consuming Gentle Readers, the speaker differentiates a group of commonplace witnesses—the people—who can still authentically ascribe meaning to those lost in the tragedies of war. We should be thinking about class, after all, when we are considering which men were actually compelled to serve overseas and which men were able to stay home and read crash reports in the morning paper. In response to Marsh, it bears remembering that “the people” were largely shipped off to war, while the industry leaders and profiteers who remained at home would more plausibly comprise the paper’s audience of Gentle Readers.

The poem’s final lines, then, do not indict mere patriotism. “Everyone dies for your sins” means that every loss of life contributes to the bourgeois sense of sacred self importance that Christ’s sacrifice also helps to buoy. The abstracted myth of the hero ultimately rewards the one who sentimentally consumes that death as narrative—the hero dies always to preserve the status quo, and never to revolutionize the social order. The sins ironically condemned in the poem’s closing lines are the sins of a capitalist social order that uniformly valorizes its human expenditures and offers them for shallow, unthreatening consumption.

Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Simeone

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