In the last hundred years alone, Britain has seen two large-scale world wars, conflicts in Korea and Iraq, smaller-scale conflicts in Africa, and problems in the Middle East and Asia, and it has only been two years since they have taken their flag down in Afghanistan, thus meaning that their troops are no longer engaged in any particular war. That being said, the current state of affairs in Europe hint that a large-scale war may not be too far away – but that is beside the point.
War has ruled British politics for so long that it is hardly surprising that it has fleshed out into other areas as well. Since 1914, poets, artists and writers have been trying to document, explain, and to illustrate the war experience for the commoners at home, and for the soldiers who have lived through it; trying to make sure that, in the case of horrific wars such as the First World War, such a conflict is never repeated. Countless attempts have been made to throw light on the idea of loyalty, fealty, and the needlessly bloody sacrifices that soldiers make for queen and country. That being kept in mind, the fact that there are still wars raging today – or, in the case of England, were raging until quite recently – means that there is no shortage of material for poets to draw upon, and that is the subject of Simon Armitage’s Remains.
Remains is part of a collection of poems call ‘The Not Dead’, which was originally a television documentary bearing the same name, and focused on the testimonies of ex-soldiers who had served in several conflicts. Armitage was reportedly so inspired by the programme that he wrote the collection of war poetry in almost-dedication to them. His introduction goes a bit deeper into the meaning and the idea behind the poems – that regardless of how much time has passed, it is ‘no great healer’ when it comes to soldiers who have been scarred by conflicts of any kind, who cannot even think back on the memories without being left shaking and crying over the thought of it. Today, veterans of any nation have the highest rate of suicide among the general populace, and a high number of them suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety – and although society has moved on quite far from the days where soldiers were deemed cowardly if they suffered from what was then known as ‘shellshock’, Armitage’s point, the idea behind his writing, was to show a scrap of what those soldiers had lived and suffered through to ordinary people.
It is worth pointing out that, unlike other war poets, Simon Armitage has never himself been to war, and wrote, in his introduction, that the poems are solely the composition of other people’s experiences, and that it is ‘the closest I’ve ever come to writing “real” war poetry, and as close as I ever want to get’.
Remains, which you can read in full here, takes place during the Iraq war, and starts in the form of an anecdote, as though the speaker has been talking about his war experiences for quite a while, and has only just gotten to this story. In the poem, the unnamed speaker is sent out to take care of some looters, who are robbing a bank; he, and two other soldiers open fire, and end up killing the looter. This event lives on in his head, until he is eventually sent home – where he still sees the looter in his mind, still sees him coming out to get him, still sees him whatever he does, whenever he’s idle, and no matter what drink, what medication he takes, the man cannot get the image of the dying looter out of his head.
It is an acerbic and moving poem about the traumas of war; not those that are written about civilians, innocents who have no blood on their hands, but about the soldiers who are sent to fight a war that they are, usually, only a cog in; that they are, usually, completely helpless to stop.
The colloquial opening to Remains puts one in mind of poems such as Wilfred Owen’s ‘A Terre’, where the narrator – having lived through the war – is speaking to an unknown third-party, usually an acquaintance or a psychiatrist of some standing; in it, the speaker says ‘on another occasiona, we get sent out’, which implies that he has been talking about this for quite some time – this is not the first or the last story that he has mentioned to the unknown third-party. The use of the colloquialism has a dual effect: one, it shows, through the use of ‘on another occasion’, how often the soldier has had to deal with things like this; secondly, it helps to soften the reader’s approach to the soldier. It is perhaps easy to believe that the soldier – armed and dangerous – would be in a position of strength, as they are usually better equipped and with superior instincts, however the phrasing of it doesn’t seem like bragging or fondness; it is, instead, almost dull and tired. ‘On another occasion’, says the speaker, implying that there have been others before this, and there is a certain weariness to the image that comes up: the soldier, exhausted , having seen more than his share of dead bodies, going along his way.
This is a very human poem. It is, perhaps, far closer to Wilfred Owen, in tone, than it is to other war poets, such as Rupert Brook, because, like Wilfred Owen, Armitage doesn’t believe that there is glory or honour in war, doesn’t believe that the soldiers who are fighting fight because they believe the ideals that were dangled in front of them; so much of war poetry is about the exploitation of the innocent, and that includes the exploitation of soldiers who are scarcely much older themselves; soldiers who find no other way out but to join the army.
The use of slang can be, perhaps, taken as an indication of the speaker’s age; the Iraq War is an affair that has been raging on for quite some years, but even at their oldest, one would hardly call the soldiers old men, and somehow the use of the phrase ‘legs it up the road’ implies that he is quite young, probably inexperienced, not yet used to the things that he’s doing with his life. This is again further strengthened by the phrase that follows after, ‘probably armed, possibly not’, where the reader gets a little bit of insight into the soldier’s thinking – and, in doing so, we can infer a few things from it, namely that he is perhaps not used to war still, that this could be his first or second term, and that, previously, he has seen very little action. There is a certain innocence to the way that he guesses the state of the robber, not quite shunning the idea that he might have been armed, or he might have not been, but putting it out there, opening himself up to a certain doubt. Also, his doubt itself might be seen as an indication of his age – one could assume that an older, and thus more experienced, soldier could have been able to tell if the man was armed or not, or would perhaps not even have noted it, as he has been so indoctrined into seeing enemies as enemies, and civilians as civilians, in accordance to the actions that they are found performing.
At this stage, the poem is very simplistic – there is no rhyme scheme to speak of, but that helps with the flow and the theme of the poem, and the fragmentation of the phrases allows the reader to feel as though he himself is part of the conservation, or is the third-party that the soldier is speaking to; it grants the reader a privileged position on the poem’s terms. It pulls the reader in and makes them a part of the happening, rather than keeping them to one side, and making them experience the poem from a removed point of view.
Hazy memories as a result of a traumatic event is a quite commonly reported side-effect, and here, the speaker cannot remember who was with him at the time; the faces of the soldiers that he has no doubt spent so much of his time with are blurred out of memory, completely gone, insignificant in the large scheme of things, and so he says ‘myself and somebody else and somebody else’; the phrasing makes it sound like they are three separate-but-similar entities, somehow joined together by war, three minds that are linked together purely based on training and instinct. In fact, the speaker himself notes this when he says ‘are all of the same mind’. Notice the limitation that is placed on him and on the others; they are not meant to be people. They are meant to be guns, cogs, things to shoot and to survive; they are not meant to be people with functioning minds, with functioning personalities, and it is another thing that is brought to light by the phrase ‘are all of the same mind’. It is as though they have ceased to become humans, and manage only because they are machines, where every action has a response, and that particular response was to kill the man who was directly in front of them.
‘So all three of us open fire’. The simplicity of the statement is almost brutal, when given the context of the poem; ‘all three of us open fire’ again show how the soldiers have ceased to be functioning human beings, but have somehow devolved into a multiheaded entity, a creature that only reacts, rather than acts; again, he makes note of this in ‘three of a kind all letting fly’; this casual referencing to the soldiers’ muted personalities is the second, understated horror to this piece. They have been so reduced, and yet through the very same poem, there are flashes of pain and an almost animalistic confusion.
and I swear /I see every round as it rips through his life/I see broad daylight on the other side.
The above phrase undoes what the previous couple of lines have done; it humanizes the soldier. It is such a confused, lamented action; not how he focuses on every individual round, on how he alone seems to understand the shaking importance of the action, on how he realizes, suddenly, that this man’s life is forefeit because of what he did. It’s heartbreaking, knowing that he was only doing what he was trained to do, and resulting in this.
There is almost an elegance to the phrasing itself, almost a beauty to it; ‘I see broad daylight on the other side’ seems to imply a kind of peace, though we know that is probably not the case.
The poem then moves onto the effects of these actions: ‘so we’ve hit this looter a dozen times/ and he’s there on the ground, sort of inside out’ – once more, note how the colloquial tone of the poem helps to give us an idea of the speaker. Once more, note how young he sounds when he brings up these references to the way the looter is lying – ‘there on the ground, sort of inside out’. He sounds much younger, he sounds as though he’s trying to distance himself, but there is no such thing happening; despite his own words, he is almost very heavily entwined into this story, into this man’s life. He is horrified, though it is understated; remembers very clearly that they all shot him all at once, and tore him to pieces. This can be taken as the moment of his loss of innocence – at least for this poet, where the reader can assume that he is quite young, that he has, perhaps, never had such a hand in death before.
In this stanza, we see a second person, the eponymous ‘mate’ who ‘goes by / and tosses his guts back into his body’ – but before that, the impression that the soldier has of the man is ‘pain itself, the image of agony’, and the reference to it helps us to see how horrified he is; it has burned itself into his mind, the image of this man writhing in agony, almost dead but not quite; the image of this man torn to pieces by bullets, partially at his own hand; it is, again, a further loss of innocence, a destruction of the soldier’s own personality. He seems to be frozen to the spot, completely transfixed by the scene ahead of him – and then he notes one of his mates, who ‘goes by / and tosses his guts back into his body’. It’s another form of dehumanization, a way of making light of the situation, almost; the man who they’ve shot and killed is, for his mate, nothing more than a casualty of war, nothing more than a piece of garbage to be lumped together and thrown away.
For the narrator, it is not quite the same. He’s horrified, and frozen, and he cannot forget what he’s seen, the agony of the man who they’ve killed – for him, the looter has remained as a person, rather than been reduced to yet another casualty, and this helps us, again, to guess that he is perhaps quite young, that he has not seen much action, and that is his first attempt at seeing the effects of his part in warfare.
The third stanza moves away from the event – it has happened, and one would assume that would be the end of the poem, the end of the recollection, though it is not quite through. Note the reference to the man’s ‘blood-shadow’, an imprint of his existence, his soul, his life; note the fact that the soldier had to ‘walk right over it week after week’. Although the body has been carted off and thrown away, there is no real way to forget what has happened; the soldier is not allowed to forget what has happened, as the traces themselves are still there. The ‘blood-shadow’ is almost itself an omen, a realization that it – and he – won’t be forgotten, regardless of what the soldier does in the meantime, but at this stage of the poem, this is all supposition.
Then he states, ‘then I’m home on leave. But I blink–’
And the fact that the stanza breaks there gives the end of it a breathless anticipation, a pause as if the soldier is recalling his memories, putting them back together from the images that have remained with him for all this time; it is as though he needs the pause, to brace himself, to try to explain to the other person what is quite going on with him.
In the fourth stanza, the poem’s form – which has, until this point, been slow-paced and more or less regular – disintegrates into a mess of half-formed phrases, stream-of-consciousness writing, as the speaker recalls what he sees every time he blinks, which is this ‘he bursts again through the doors of the bank’.
He doesn’t get any peace from him; can’t forget him, even when he tries to, even when he’s asleep. There’s a certain desperation that takes hold of him in the short, clipped sentences; they read as though the soldier is trying to explain the nightmares to someone who couldn’t possibly understand, as though he has given up any hope of forgetting them, of forgetting him, of having dreamless nights again. There is, again, the reference to ‘probably armed, possibly not’, and by using the same words as he did in the actual stanza, it resonates; it makes the reader think back to the actual event, it shows how closely this has affected the soldier. He can’t forget that he might not have been armed, that they shot at someone who probably, possibly, couldn’t defend himself; he can’t forget that day. It’s inscribed into his mind, it’s burned into him, and the fact that he is repeating that particular phrase shows that is what is laying so heavily on his mind; they might have killed an unarmed man, and his conscience won’t let him forget that as easily.
‘Dream, and he’s torn apart by a dozen rounds’ is also telling – the soldier might believe, because he is saying this, that they used excessive force in attacking him at all; that they might have been able to get away with lightly injuring him rather than tearing him apart; one person could’ve fired, rather than three. This is what lives inside the soldier’s mind, that the excessive force could have been avoided, that the man could have been innocent.
In his desperation, his terror of remembering, the soldier turns to drink and to drugs – again, this only further strengthens the idea that he is quite young, and perhaps unused to the life of a soldier, though this is not to say that it is only young soldiers who turn to drinking or drugs in the throes of PTSD – but his immediate reaction is to try to dull the memories. It is also perhaps indicative of the casual way that soldiers are left to their own devices when it comes to their daily life; very few are given the appropriate level of attention and care needed to make sure that those who discharged their weapons do not have to live with the after-effects. Most of them are left to live with the memories that they have made, and most of them cannot handle the strain of it, and so turn, like this soldier, to trying to dull the edge of their recollections. Whether it works or not is uncertain, however by putting it in this poem – by specifically omitting the army as an overwhelming presence, and not showing it in any way, by not showing anyone else in the poem aside from the man who picked up the man’s guts and threw them back into his body, shows how lonely and isolated the soldier is, how desperately in need of help. There is nothing and no-one that can help him deal with this, that can help him look aft this event and try to fix it; instead, all he can do is try to medicate himself, try to forget, try to feel as though he can get through the day.
But, as we can infer from the poem, this is not working – he writes, ‘and the drink and the drug won’t flush them out’. It is ironic that he uses a military term to speak about his efforts in trying to dislodge the memory of the dead soldier. To ‘flush out’ means to bombard something or someone – enemy lines, most typically – in an attempt to get them to leave cover; it also, by being compared to the notions of drug and drink, hints at how much he must be imbibing; he is bombarding himself with substances in an attempt to chase his memories from his mind, and somehow that only strengthens the feeling of loneliness evident in the poem, that only makes it worse.
Notice, again, the pervasiveness of the enemy, the constant presence of him; even when he closes his eyes, he can see him, and one can take into account how often and how tiring it must be to live with it day in and day out, to know that whenever there is a pause, one will see monsters; that edge of desperation that was so prevalent in the earlier part of the poem deepens here, becomes sharper, as the reader fully starts to understand what the speaker’s life must be like.
Note, as well, the obsessively used military terms – ‘dug in’, this time, ‘dug in behind enemy lines’, which has a dual effect; one, it shows how the army has submersed his personality, how he has become so ordained to the life that he leads as soldier that, even when he’s home on leave, he finds it difficult to disconnect from the army; it shows the doggedness of army life, how it follows him even when he’s home, how he’s almost ceasing to communicate in regular civilian terms, and instead submitting army terminology; secondly, it shows how stubborn the memory of the killing is by making it sound almost like a thorn, a burr in his mind, heavy and determined. Whatever else he has done, it is this that keeps coming back to him: the enemy that he has killed, the man that could have possibly not been armed.
The description of the land is also quite telling – ‘distant, sun-stunned, sand-smothered’ gives it a dreamlike effect, and it is interesting to point out the use of the word ‘distant’, as that is probably one of the most telling; because it happened so far away, it seems as though the soldier believes that it shouldn’t effect him this much, as though he should’ve forgotten it by now; the hazy quality of the description works to throw a little bit of shadow over his recollection. It seems so fuzzy and indetermined that one could make the argument that it is standing in for a larger war, that the entire poem is a criticism of the British army’s involvement in Iraq, however that would expand the poem’s meaning to a generalist view, and take away Armitage’s main intent, which was to show the fact that soldiers have suffered for countless of years when they are pushed to fight in wars that they might not support, that they might not be fully in favour of but fight in due to other circumstances.
There is also the doubt in this stanza to take attention of – ‘left for dead’ implies that the man was not dead when he was thrown into the back of the lorry, and this, again, seems to haunt the narrator; the doubt over whether or not he was armed, whether or not he died quickly or suffered more, whether or not what he did was warranted or not; these give the poem weight, and make the reader question, as well, what could have been done differently. There was such a rash reaction to the enemy that, perhaps, one could argue that the soldier is right to be haunted by what he did; that what he did was a crime, however we have no way of stating this for sure. We only have his word for it, his recollection, and that recollection has been strained through drink and drug and time.
but near to the knuckle, here and now,
his bloody life in my bloody hands.
The end of the poem usually offers some respite, but not this one. Here, the narrator only reiterates what he has said in the previous stanzas: what he did in the desert haunts him to this day, and he believes that he is guilty (‘his bloody life in my bloody hands’), and that there is no way out of the situation that he has found himself in, where every time he closes his eyes, he sees the man he’s killed. Whether that is true or not is left up to the reader to decide, as the poem ends there, without resolution, being only a brief glimpse into the life of a haunted veteran.
At this point, it is probably prudent to point out the aptness of the title Remains. It works on two levels: the physical, where the remains could be the body of the butchered looter, that were hastily tossed back together, and then thrown onto the back of a lorry, to be taken away somewhere else; and on a much deeper, and perhaps more appropriate level, it can mean the dogged determination of the memories, the dregs of reminiscence that stick with the narrator despite his attempt to try to get on with his life, and forget the stain of that memory as much as he might try.
The titular documentary – The Not Dead – can be found on YouTube in its entirety, although originally it was published by Channel 4, and dealt with all manner of veterans, all of which had come back to their country and been more or less forgotten, not only by the people, but by the army they had served dutifully for years.