Ho Thien was a Vietnamese-born American dissident, activist, and poet. His poem, ‘The Green Beret’ deals with the theme of military brutality. The main characters of the poems have no name, except the mercenary on whose order the main action of the story counts on. The unnamed boy of this poem hides the truth to protect his community. But he failed to protect his father. If readers go deeper into the poem, they will find how the poet reveals the true nature of the mercenaries. They are unmerciful and others’ lives don’t matter to them. What matters is their goal. To achieve it they can do anything.
This poem is about an unnamed boy of twelve years old. He lived in Vietnam though there is no direct reference to any country of the names of the characters. Some soldiers headed by Green Beret, the commander, held the boy and his father captive to know some details about the hiding place of some people. They were hiding somewhere and the soldiers thought the boy knew where they were. When the boy was interrogated, he remained silent. His silence could save his people, but not his father. He was killed. On this tragic note, the poem ends.
You can read the full poem here.
This poem consists of 45 lines and it is divided into two stanzas. The first stanza describes the plot of the poem and the latter portion deals with the effect of the main event. Structurally, this piece does not resemble a specific form. Even there is not any rhyme scheme. It is in free verse. Besides, this poem has a tale-like format. It is written in a conversational scheme and reveals the nature of characters by showing rather than the telling method. Ho Thien shows the mental workings of the characters from an omniscient point-of-view.
The most important literary device of this poem is enjambment. Thien connects the lines using this device for maintaining the flow. There is a repetition of the phrase, “I do not know” which creates an ironic effect. In the “eyes of a hurt animal,” readers can find a metaphor. It depicts the animalistic nature of Green Beret for whom innocent lives don’t matter at all.
In the phrase, “the forest’s green wall,” the poet uses metonymy. There is a personification in the line, “In the last instant the silver hand shattered…” The line, “And sky and trees and soldiers stood” contains a polysyndeton. In this line, “soldiers stood” contains an alliteration.
Readers can find a simile in the line, “As children do when their father dies.” It also contains bitter sarcasm. In the penultimate section, the poet uses a symbol of tigers for depicting the mercenaries.
He was twelve years old
And I do not know his name
He commanded, and the father was taken away
Behind the forest’s green wall.
‘The Green Beret’ begins in a story-like format. The omniscient narrator of this piece presents the story of a boy of twelve years old. The mercenaries took him and his father to interrogate. The speaker doesn’t know both of their names. In this way, Thien keeps the story open-ended. There are no specific characters. As the same incident might have happened not only with the boy, but it also took place with others living in Vietnam. In the last line of this section, the poet refers to the place the incident took place. It happened one morning at a place named High Plateau.
The commander named Green Beret looked down on the frail boy. His eyes reflected the looks of a “hurt animal.” He was agitated as he had something to know from the boy. Beret thought only a grave threat could make the boy speak. Therefore, he ordered the soldiers to take his father away behind the “forest’s green wall.”
‘Right kid tell us where they are,
Tell us where or your father – dead.’
In the last instant the silver hand shattered the
Sky and the forest of trees.
From this section, the interrogation of Beret starts. He threatened the boy by saying if he refused to tell where others were, his father would be dead. Hearing this, his eyes filled with horror and became brighter. Still, he said nothing.
Beret became angry. He gave a minute to give him an answer, otherwise, they would kill his father. Thrusting his wristwatch against his eyes, he jerked the boy. Then the death-count started. Only ten seconds were given. In the last instant, shattering the sky and trees, Beret gave the order. Here, Ho Thien uses a device called anticipation to heighten the dramatic tension.
‘Kill the old guy,’ roared Green Beret
And shots hammered out
Behind the forest’s green wall
We killed the old guy for nothing,’
So they all went away,
Green Beret and his mercenaries.
The order came, like a roaring toll of death. “Kill the old guy,” said Green Beret in a strict and horrendous tone. A series of gunshots hammered out behind the trees. Everything became silent in an instant. The soldiers stood in silence. But, the boy, having lost his only straw to grip at hard times, cried out in piercing agony.
Beret was also silent and with his stone-like vision observed the lamentation of the boy. He did not care about the boy. All he wanted was an answer.
The boy cried out like other “children do when their father dies.” It is important to mention here that the quoted section contains irony.
One of the soldiers remarked they might have killed the wrong person. The old man knew nothing and they had killed him for “nothing.” Therefore, they went away leaving the innocent victims of their misconception.
And the boy knew everything.
He knew everything about them, the caves,
Across the High Plateau.
In this second part of this poem, the speaker makes it clear why the boy was silent. He knew everything about them. The caves, trails, hiding places, and names were known to him. But he could not betray them. Though he was a mere child, he knew the difference between right and wrong. But, knowing so could not help him. He lost his father.
The boy broke down into tears. Somehow his “frail tears” protected the secret. His self-control was far stronger than any wall of steel. Whereas, Green Beret and his mercenaries were like hungry tigers. To them, only an answer mattered. They passed everywhere across the High Plateau to find another victim to torture and squeeze out information about them who were hiding there.
Ho Thien, also known as Nguyen Chi Thien was a Vietnamese poet and activist. He spent 27 years in prison. During imprisonment, he wrote several poems that made their way to the West. Huynh Sanh Thong of Yale University translated his poetry into English. The context of this poem in the discussion is set in the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, it was known as the Resistance War Against America. Thien depicts how the Vietnamese were treated by the American soldiers in the text. Besides, it seems that “Green Beret” represents the special military forces of America who were deployed during the war.
The following poems are similar to the themes present in Ho Thien’s ‘The Green Beret’.
- Facing It by Yusef Komunyakaa – This poem speaks on a person’s reaction after seeing the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. Explore more Yusef Komunyakaa poetry.
- What Were They Like? By Denise Levertov – It’s one of Levertov’s popular poems. This poem presents several questions regarding the Vietnam War. Discover more Denise Levertov poems.
- Homework by Allen Ginsberg – This poem contains an ironic reference to the Vietnam War and its consequences. Explore more poems of Allen Ginsberg.
- But You Didn’t by Merrill Glass – This poem contains an implied reference to the war and how the speaker’s lover died in Vietnam. Read more of Merrill Glass’s poetry.